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SEC Scheduling in the Expansion Era: How to Preserve Permanent Conference Rivalries and Protect Perennial Non-Conference Rivalries

I’m very, very pleased that my school is a member of the Southeastern Conference. It is in no way obvious to me, however, that the interests of the SEC are so important relative to everything else that the other traditions of my school (and it is, after all, to UGA and not the SEC that I am tied by blood, books, and bourbon (and I just may have discovered my book title)), should be subordinate.

NCT (February 16, 2012)

Fans of the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers may not agree on much, but one belief we share in common, unanimously and wholeheartedly, is the conviction that the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry must be preserved as an annual affray. The two schools’ shared gridiron history traces back to Charles Herty’s and George Petrie’s time together as classmates at Johns Hopkins, and, since the mid-1890s, it has taken literally a world war (1917, 1918, 1943) or the death of a player from injuries sustained during a game (1897) to prevent the Bulldogs and the Plainsmen from meeting on the football field.

Unfortunately, what increasingly appears to have been an ill-considered expansion of the Southeastern Conference has forced the league to confront some hard choices, requiring us to discuss seriously which sacred traditions we are most willing to sacrifice. I believe there is much merit in vineyarddawg’s recent proposed solution to the SEC scheduling conundrum, but, because vineyarddawg’s common-sense fix appears entirely too reasonable to gain widespread traction, I feel the need to offer an even simpler solution, and to rebut the argument that a nine-game SEC slate is necessary.

Yes, I understand that nine-game schedules are in vogue these days, but the SEC typically is the trendsetter in such matters, so I am disinclined to jump off the Empire State Building just because the ACC jumped off the Empire State Building first. Besides, isn’t it rather telling that, after the Big Ten announced last summer that it would adopt a nine-game conference schedule, Jim Delany publicly backed away from that plan once the league agreed to a scheduling arrangement with the Pac-12?

The members of the Big Ten and the Pac-12 have few significant non-conference rivalries; indeed, when those two leagues expanded, the moves essentially ended such longstanding series as Colorado-Nebraska, Nebraska-Oklahoma, and Penn State-Pitt. Aside from a handful of teams that regularly play Notre Dame, no squad in either league has an annual out-of-conference showdown comparable to Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, or even Kentucky-Louisville. Little sacrifice was required for the Big Ten and the Pac-12 to add games to the conference slate . . . but, as soon as the Midwesterners agreed to take on their Rose Bowl compatriots from the Pacific Coast, they began backtracking from the nine-game league schedule, and rightly so.

The eight-game SEC schedule---which dates back only to 1992; SEC squads played six conference games as recently as 1987---already has extinguished as yearly showdowns such storied rivalries as Auburn-Georgia Tech, Florida-Miami, and Georgia-Clemson; the move to nine virtually would ensure that those dormant series were never revived, and it would place in peril the in-state rivalries of one-third of the SEC’s current twelve-member complement.

What, then, is my solution? Simple: Stick with eight conference games, play all six teams in your own division, play your permanent rival from the other division, and have one rotating opponent from the other division. But, wait! Doesn’t that mean it will take twelve years to cycle through the six rotating teams from the other side of the divide? Yes, it does. To be blunt, so what?

2012 will be the 80th football season in which teams take the field in Southeastern Conference competition; put differently, the first autumn of divisional play in the league was the 60th football season in which teams took the field in Southeastern Conference competition. The regularized scheduling rotation to which we are accustomed is very much a novel concept without long-term precedent in the history of the league; indeed, the original divisional structure established 20 years ago saw teams playing five division rivals, two permanent rivals from the other division (Auburn and Ole Miss were ours), and---yep, you guessed it---one rotating rival from the other division. The notion that having two rotating opponents from the opposite side of the line represents some sacrosanct and inviolable aspect of our conference heritage is, quite simply, indefensible abject nonsense.

Why is it a problem for Georgia to play, say, Arkansas twice in a twelve-year period? To whom but the most modern SEC football fans is the idea of playing every team in the conference with predetermined frequency in unusually short cycles anything even vaguely resembling the norm? Beginning in 1933, the first year of Southeastern Conference play, the Bulldogs faced the Mississippi Rebels three times in 22 years, the Alabama Crimson Tide two times in eight years, the LSU Tigers two times in ten years, the Tennessee Volunteers two times in 35 years, the Kentucky Wildcats zero times in six years, the Mississippi St. Bulldogs zero times in 17 years, and the Vanderbilt Commodores zero times in 19 years. Rare meetings with non-rival SEC foes represent the typical situation.

Scheduling trends change, for any number of reasons. Georgia and Alabama played every year except one from 1941 to 1965, but the annual border war was discontinued following the Saturday Evening Post scandal. The Bayou Bengals’ first trip to Sanford Stadium reportedly came about because Louisiana governor Huey Long threatened Coca-Cola counsel and Bulldog booster Harold Hirsch with a tax on Georgia-made soft drinks if the Red and Black’s schedule was not changed to accommodate the Tigers. SEC scheduling has never been a fixed constant.

Nevertheless, some stars have remained perennially and permanently affixed in the firmament, and there is no series of which this has been more true than the rivalry between Georgia and Auburn. The Bulldogs’ rivalry with the Tigers has been a more reliable aspect of every autumn than either Georgia’s rivalry with Georgia Tech or Auburn’s rivalry with Alabama, as both in-state series were interrupted for extended periods.

In short, if annual gridiron meetings between Georgia and Auburn are not a sacred SEC tradition, then there is no such thing as a sacred SEC tradition. If preserving that tradition requires the league to go back to doing things the way the SEC did them for the first 60 or more years of the conference’s existence, that’s fine with me, and it ought to be fine with anyone with an appreciation of SEC history. Anyone who says otherwise is acting like the stereotypical Florida fan, who thinks SEC football didn’t exist before the early 1990s. Those of us whose sense of tradition goes back to the early 1890s know better.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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