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SEC Expansion, Divisional Realignment, and Rivalries: Walking a Fine Line Between Growth and Tradition

As a fan of the lower-ranked of the two Southeastern Conference division champions, I read with interest C&F’s recent piece on the wisdom of the SEC’s divisional structure, in which he had this to say:

As a South Carolina fan, I despise Georgia, a hatred that is only surpassed by my disdain for Clemson because I respect Georgia more than I respect Clemson. Some of that is rooted in games that stretch back to the Gamecocks' ACC and independent days. But I also have no warm feelings for Tennessee, given a series of close games during the best Lou Holtz years that often ended any reasonable SEC East hopes before South Carolina played Florida, and close games afterward that often meant the difference between a bowl berth and another losing record.

I'm also not terribly fond of Florida, given a losing streak that stretched to almost 70 years at one point. Kentucky's constant chirping about finally beating South Carolina was grating until they did so, probably in the same way that South Carolina fans' "just wait 'til next year" talk probably got on the nerves of Georgia fans. Vanderbilt is annoying simply because Vanderbilt spoiled the 2007 and 2008 seasons before South Carolina finally ended the losing streak in 2009.

In other words, there's often a little bit more at stake emotionally when the Gamecocks play even a team like Kentucky than when they square off against Ole Miss. It's not the same thing. That doesn't mean I like Ole Miss, or want the Rebels to beat South Carolina. But my team doesn't play Ole Miss every year or jostle with them for position in the SEC East, so while it technically is the same in terms of the standings and the arc of a given year, it doesn't feel the same.

C&F makes a number of good points, the truth of which has been affirmed by poll results regarding the Georgia Bulldogs’ rivalry with the Tennessee Volunteers, in which 20 of the 41 series meetings have taken place since 1992. The introduction of divisional standing as an element of the rivalry also has added a new dimension to the Red and Black’s series with such long-established antagonists as the Florida Gators and the South Carolina Gamecocks. C&F’s thesis is fundamentally sound and supported by experience.

However, we should not overlook the extent to which the league’s structure tampers with tradition as much as it enhances it. C&F’s team may not play the Mississippi Rebels every year, but my team did, meeting Ole Miss annually from 1966 to 2002. Aside from the Alabama Crimson Tide, most of the Auburn Tigers’ important rivalries are with teams now in the Eastern Division, not with their Western Division coevals; heck, the Plainsmen have more history with such current ACC clubs as the Clemson Tigers and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets than they do with some of their now-perennial foes in the SEC West.

The development of new rivalries in the last two decades has done surprisingly little to dim the flames of hatred in more historic series. Ask a middle-aged Tennessee fan to name the Volunteers’ biggest rival, and he will tell you: “My son thinks it’s Florida, I think it’s Alabama, and my father thinks it’s Vanderbilt.” Ask me to name the Bulldogs’ biggest rival, and I will tell you: “My son thinks it’s Florida, I think it’s Auburn, and my father thinks it’s Georgia Tech.” The so-called “Third Saturday in October” and the so-called “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” are far more important historically, and remain far more important emotionally, than such series of convenience as the Georgia-Tennessee and Florida-LSU rivalries, which largely are products of the last round of conference expansion.

None of this is to say that I dispute C&F’s general thesis; I do not. However, it’s not as cut and dried as he makes it out to be, and that fact should not be forgotten. Progress (such as it is; I’m sold on the addition of the Texas A&M Aggies in principle, but I’m not yet convinced that the expansion from twelve to 14 teams was for the best in practice) needs to keep history in mind, in order to preserve that which it hopes to enhance. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, half a conference may be better than no league, but, if we cannot secure all our traditions, let us secure what we can. If we cannot, well, let’s not forget what became of the bloated Southern Conference from which the Southeastern Conference sprung, a recollection which carries us from the words of the third president of the United States to the words of the 16th, who might have warned us that a conference divided against itself cannot stand.

Go ‘Dawgs!