Jim Harris: SEC Football Schedules Will Never Achieve Equitability

Les Miles and his boss, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, would love to alleviate one annual obstacle on the Tigers’ SEC football schedule: the interdivisional matchup with Florida.

Since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1992 with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, LSU’s yearly opponent from the SEC East Division has been Florida. Before the league went to one standard interdivisional opponent instead of two and rotating one other team (5 in-division opponents, 3 from the other), the Tigers also had a yearly matchup with Kentucky, which Tiger fans loved every other year because it took them to Lexington at the same time Keeneland horse race track was running its fall meet. Many LSU fans haven’t met a wager, must less a good Kentucky bourbon, they wouldn’t try.

For Arkansas, the original East opponents every year were Tennessee and South Carolina. When the league adjusted the schedule to feature just one set opponent from the opposite division, Arkansas’ burgeoning rivalry with Tennessee went by the wayside while South Carolina remained.

Then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt wasn’t complaining about losing UT every year, nor should he have been. Between 1992 and 2002, Arkansas beat Tennessee twice.

Arkansas’ good fortune over the past decade is that the Hogs could never draw Florida, Georgia or Tennessee together in the same season. South Carolina assured that one of those three teams wasn’t a scheduling possibility, and the way Kentucky and Vanderbilt fell in the rotation, the Hogs wouldn’t see the Bulldogs and Gators both in the same season. And in 2002 or 2006, they still met just one of them,  in the SEC Championship Game.

If Arkansas faced the prospects of a Florida-Georgia-Tennessee gauntlet in the same season along with its West division opponents in the Hogs first 16 years in the league, longtime athletic director Frank Broyles would have been in the SEC commissioner’s ear on an hourly basis.

SEC Football Schedule

Click on the graphic for a full size version of the SEC Football Schedule for 2013


As it turns out, the Razorbacks’ best seasons in the SEC — the years of outright West Division titles in 1995 and 2006 — coincided with Vanderbilt on the schedule, in Nashville to boot, where the Commodores were equally beatable as away from home. Vandy happened back on the schedule in 2010 and 2011 when Bobby Petrino coached Arkansas to its best overall marks since joining the SEC.

Fans knew the 2005 season was headed for disaster when the Hogs didn’t beat Vanderbilt on their home turf. They did beat them in 1994 at home but that only meant Danny Ford and crew would avoid a 3-win season.

The gist here is, based on modern football history and now that the SEC has expanded to 14 teams, you’d rather have Vanderbilt, Kentucky or Missouri, with South Carolina barely above those programs, as your annual interdivision rival than you’d want Florida, Georgia or Tennessee showing up every year.

Now, Alabama wants Tennessee on its schedule, and the Crimson Tide would prefer playing the Vols to Arkansas on the traditional third weekend in October this season. Together these teams have combined for more titles than any other pairing in the league.

Auburn and Georgia have the oldest rivalry in the SEC and desire to remain interdivisional foes for their late-season matchup.

If they had their druthers, LSU officials would welcome Kentucky over Florida as an annual foe. Instead, Mississippi State gets the Wildcats — and that seems like a fair matchup.

Ole Miss gets what every SEC West team would want: Vanderbilt on the slate every year, though excitable head coach James Franklin has gone a long way to making Vandy a difficult out these days, as the Rebels have learned and as the Hogs  witnessed in 2011.

Arkansas will trade South Carolina — which the Hogs have mostly dominated for 20 years, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any SEC follower outside Arkansas who realizes that — for Missouri as its annual East foe. On its face, it seems a good trade for Arkansas relative to program strength, since Missouri’s recruiting territory is much smaller than South Carolina’s, but gives the bordering states a possibility of developing a rivalry that neither have now in the SEC.

The SEC figures an A&M-South Carolina annual matchup makes more sense in the foreseeable future.

But, outside of Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia, there are no other set-in-stone rivalries between West and East. Which brings us back to Miles, LSU’s vocal head coach who contended again this week in Destin, Fla., at the league’s spring meetings, that the SEC should do away with the annual interdivision games. It’s not your granddaddy’s SEC anymore, the contention is, nor will college football in 2014 be like any year preceding it when the national champion is determined by an actual playoff.

Certainly Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia are historic encounters, but as Miles points out, schedules aren’t equitable when LSU has to play Florida, which is rarely down, every year while Ole Miss plays Vandy.

But when can they ever be equitable with 14 teams filling eight-game schedules. Even a ninth conference game, which supposedly 13 coaches oppose, won’t answer the “fair scheduling” question. Of course 13 league games per team, the only perfect scenario, is out of the question.

Somebody will catch a break, just as Arkansas has in the years it had Vanderbilt on the schedule. Georgia advanced to the past two SEC Championship Games without having to play Arkansas, Alabama or LSU, while Florida and South Carolina had one or more of those teams on their schedule. A nine-game schedule with a revolving three-team slate of opposite division teams, and not-set rivalry games, might come closest to the equitable slate Miles and others seek. If the conference sticks with eight games, a revolving two-team format surely seems to offer more fairness than the current setup.

As for Arkansas, seeing Missouri every year seems like a better deal than seeing Florida in that spot. It’s probably a good time to shed South Carolina as the every-year opponent with the long-term building by Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier coming to fruition now.

But Nick Saban, of all the SEC coaches, has the right idea when he says that every player in the SEC should experience a game with every other SEC team during the player’s four years. The way it shakes out now, that can’t happen.

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