Southeastern Conference decision makers are challenged with the task of determining how the league will schedule its in-conference football games going forward. It’s an item that has drawn heated discussion among the top coaches in college football’s preeminent league.
At issue is whether the SEC should adopt a nine-game conference schedule or stick with the current model of eight games in a year. There are positives and negatives to both paths.
Last Tuesday, Nick Saban used his influential platform to argue the case for adding the ninth game. At the SEC spring meetings, Saban masterfully articulated why the league should adopt an extra game:
“There are people who want to keep their cross-division rivalries. I think every player should have the opportunity to play every school in his career. If you don’t play two rotating games on the other side, that doesn’t happen. I really don’t think we should become a conference of just two divisions, where you just play your division and never play anybody on the other side.
“Now, there’s going to be arguments that say, ‘Well, we have to play some rivalry team in our state that makes us have another tougher game.’ Well, we’re scheduled out until 2017 with tougher games already. We play Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan State twice. I would really like to see everybody, not just in our conference, but everybody in the country play at least 10 games from the five major conferences.”
That brings us to the issue of permanent cross divisional play. LSU head coach Les Miles has been very vocal about his desire to see such games eliminated. He would prefer that each team from both divisions play a rotating selection of schools from the opposing division. Miles’ team is tasked with playing Florida each year as a result of the permanent games, and I can see why he would like to shake things up.
As I have written, Miles has a point when it comes to the lack of balance in scheduling. But is the answer to eliminate the cross-divisional game? I say no; the league should just add the ninth conference game.
But to get a fuller sense of this particular issue, we need to look beyond LSU. The main reason permanent cross-divisional games are still being played today is to preserve rivalries like Alabama vs. Tennessee and Auburn vs. Georgia — arguably the two most storied rivalries in the SEC.
Lately, the Alabama/Tennessee series has not been much of a contest. Tennessee has seen the wrong end of some major deficits and is currently on a six-game losing streak to the Tide. Nevertheless, it is too easy to forget that at the turn of the last century, there were many Alabama fans who wondered if their team could beat Tennessee again (Alabama lost seven straight to the Vols from 1995 to 2001).
The point is that football is a cyclical game. Tennessee is the second winningest program in the league to Alabama. That fact is far more important than the latest ebb and flow of the game, which is clearly in Alabama’s favor.
Now let’s talk about Georgia/Auburn. This is a series that is going Georgia’s way right now, but how many national championships does Georgia have lately? Well, Auburn’s got one.
Further, as of last year, the series is tied at 54-54 with eight ties. Now that is what I call competitive. It truly is the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” with over 110 games played.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier suggests that Alabama and Tennessee continue to play every year but as non-conference foes on years when the two aren’t scheduled to play each other by the league. Presumably, he feels the same way about Auburn/Georgia.
While I welcome Spurrier’s input, I respectfully disagree. South Carolina doesn’t have a traditional rivalry with a team from the Western Division, so it is easy for Gamecock supporters to be ambivalent about that aspect of scheduling.
As a fan of southern football, I personally would be disappointed if these games were removed from the annual schedule. It doesn’t matter to me where each team is in the divisional standings; I will always tune in for Tide/Vols and Tigers/Dawgs. The SEC should not eliminate traditional rivalries like Alabama vs. Tennessee and Auburn vs. Georgia from the annual schedule.
At some point, the sport that has been boosted to prominence because of tradition will begin to see a decline if it is abandoned. College football is not the NFL. The uniqueness of the college game is what has made it so appealing.
I understand business, and I am fully aware that it is what college football has become. But there must be a point where the line is drawn. I think if the SEC eliminates the annual playing of some of its most historic rivalries, it is further evidence of the erosion of the unique and tradition-driven game of college football.