On Monday, January 9th, the Austin Statesman ran a short article quoting the Southeastern Conference's chief public relations spokesman:
"There might not be a permanent rival," said Charles Bloom, the SEC's associate commissioner. "Don't read anything into next year's schedule. But we are staying with eight conference (football) games."
Charles Bloom is not some low-level functionary running his mouth to some reporter new to the SEC beat who should know better than to print idle speculation. In fact, he has run the SEC's media office for 15 years, having been elevated to the position of Associate Commissioner for Media Relations nine years ago.
A 1985 graduate of the University of South Carolina (Ed - why hasn't anyone run a piece on him recently?), Bloom is a native of Emporia, Virginia who after graduation worked as an assistant sports information director at LSU and Ole Miss before serving as the ECU's SID/Assistant AD from 1988-1995. He joined the SEC in 1995 and has been with the league ever since. Bloom is a consummate sports information/media professional, and in 2011 was honored by induction into the College Sports Information Director's Association (CoSIDA) hall of fame. Not coincidentally he is a past president of the CoSIDA.
Basically, if you've heard or read anything out of Birmingham in the past 15 years - whether print, digital media or otherwise - it almost certainly crossed Bloom's desk. His twitter handle is @SECPRGuy. Short of Mike Slive, he's got the most influential voice in the league office. He's not the kind of guy who commits "gaffes" or spitballs random flights of fancy to reporters.
In a conference as devoted to tradition as the SEC, a comment like this - from a guy like Bloom - is more than just dropping a cow paddy in the punch bowl. It's an intentional trial balloon sent up before an atomic test blast. And don't think for a minute that blasting the permanent cross-divisional rivals, while keeping the current division set-up, isn't akin to a Bikini Toll. The repercussions will be severe with some of the conference's most powerful, charter members.
But is dropping permanent cross-division rivals a good idea - even it going to gore some of the league's top oxes? Before we can answer that question in part 2 of this series, we need to take a trip through recent SEC history.
Keep reading after The Jump!
When the Southeastern Conference expanded to twelve teams for the 1992 season, it was required to split into two divisions in order to meet the NCAA's requirements to host a championship game - the SECCG being the primary rationale for expanding from ten members to twelve in the first place.
Led by former commissioner Roy Kramer, the league wisely decided to create the two new divisions on rough geographic lines (thereby avoiding the mistake both the ACC and Big 10 would later make when each jury-rigged their division splits).
By placing Auburn and Alabama in the Western Division, however, the conference office risked ruffling a lot of feathers because of the number of cherished match-ups which were threatened: e.g., UGA-Auburn, UT-Bama, UT-Auburn, UGA-Ole Miss and UF-Auburn - just to name a few.
To dampen the culture shock for the charter members, the Brave New SEC adopted what would become colloquially known as the 5-2-1 rotation, i.e., an eight conference game schedule in which five would be against division rivals (a full divisional round robin), two permanent cross-divisional rivals, and one rotating home-and-home series with a cross-division opponent. The original permanent cross-division rivals were:
Georgia - 1. Auburn 2. Ole Miss
Florida - 1. Auburn 2. LSU
Kentucky - 1. LSU 2. MSU
South Carolina - 1. Arkansas 2. MSU
Tennessee - 1. Alabama 2. Arkansas
Vanderbilt - 1. Ole Miss 2. Alabama
Alabama - 1. Tennessee 2. Vanderbilt
Auburn - 1. Georgia 2. Florida
Arkansas - 1. South Carolina 2. Tennessee
LSU - 1. Florida 2. Kentucky
Mississippi - 1. Vanderbilt 2. Georgia
Mississippi State - 1. Kentucky 2. South Carolina
This arrangement preserved all the "traditional" rivalries (with the notable exception of UT-Auburn), along with the three in-state match-ups (the Iron Bowl, the Egg Bowl and UT-Vandy) and some tilts that had not been seriously contested in decades - e.g., LSU-Ole Miss, UK-UT, but still meant something to older fans and historians of their school's traditions.
Nevertheless, in preserving the mos maiorum, some of the "permanent" cross-division rivalries were bloodless affairs (e.g., Tennessee-Arkansas, South Carolina-Arkansas) and some were clearly mismatches from the get-go (Alabama-Vandy, LSU-Kentucky). Worst of all, with only one rotating cross-division opponent, it would take a team eight years to cycle through its home-and-home series with the non-permanent rivals. It was a one-size fits all solution to preserve several critical rivalries by forcing others to face permanent opponents with whom they had little in common.
By the time the first 5-2-1 rota made a complete cycle at the end of the 1999 season, the league members were ready for a change. Of primary concern was the feeling some schools had a built-in advantage over others with their "easier" permanent rivals. Additionally, the schedules had become static and boring to a lot of fans; it would create more excitement, and be more fair, if all the league teams played each other more frequently.
Consequently, whether they liked it or not, in 2000 each club dropped its second "permanent" rival and the league went to a 5-1-2 schedule with one permanent cross-divisional rival, and two rotating opponents. Now it would take only five years to roll through the rotating division opponents.
It wasn't a totally bloodless result: many considered the loss of the annual UF-Auburn game as a significant blow to both squads; likewise, UGA-Ole Miss was a sentimental loss, just like Ole Miss-Vanderbilt - both of which had become fairly lopsided, but still ancient and beloved. Nevertheless, the unbreakable rivalries were still preserved and the twelve members accepted the new landscape without (much) complaining.
And so the 5-1-2 bumped along for twelve years. It probably would never have been changed, in fact, except that the league expanded to 14 teams.
So here we are. Should we keep the permanent cross-divisional rival system? Or scrap it? That will be the focal point of Part 2.