The Question of Permanent Cross-Division Rivals Part 2 (or How to Save the SEC from itself)

In Part 1 of this series posted back on January 8, 2012, we explored the history of permanent cross-divisional rivals in the SEC, and how the concept evolved since the 1990 expansion to protect the important, traditional rivalries that could not be easily accommodated within the two division format.

Now that the SEC power-brokers have decided to cleave to an eight game schedule for the foreseeable future, there is an open question in of whether permanent, cross-division rivals make sense in a 14 member, 2 division league - in light of the need to have a full divisional round-robin (i.e., 6 division games) balanced against the desire to make sure members rotate through the opposing-division teams for fairness and fan-interest.

This is a thorny issue which has stirred up a great deal of consternation with our friends over at Dawg Sports - if the league ditches permanent cross-division rivals, then UGA and Auburn lose their annual rivalry game (The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry). The famous "Third Saturday in October" game between Tennessee and Alabama would be lost as well. You might as well as South Carolina to stop playing Clemson, than to ask these four universities - all charter members of the SEC - to give up these cherished rivalries.

The SEC cannot abandon tradition. Tradition is what made the conference. It's hard-wired into the culture of the member institutions and the region. It matters.

At Dawg Sports, vineyarddawg has come up with a plan to create three permanent rivals (which would require the NCAA to scrap the two divsion requirement for a championship game - a big if) and rotate all the other league members on a four-year schedule, while Kyle argues to keep the status quo with cross-division rivals even if it means taking twelve seasons to rotate through the remainder of the league. Frankly, neither position seems workable.

Unfortunately, the obvious solutions seem to be eluding us - but there are some obvious solutions that no one seems to be putting forward. Why don't we run down the best ones:

Option 1: Re-Align the East and West Divisions - No Permanent Rivals, Eight Game Schedule
Re-Aligned East Re-Aligned West
Alabama Arkansas
Auburn LSU
Florida Misssouri
Georgia Mississippi
Kentucky Mississippi St.
South Carolina Texas A&M
Tennessee Vanderbilt

Divisional re-alignment is the simplest solution to keep the east-west geographic divide - and that means sending Bama and Auburn to the East, while transferring Vanderbilt and Missouri to the West. Under this scenario, there is no longer any threat to UGA-Auburn or UT-Tennessee. Note - schools are listed in alphabetical order; there are no cross-divisional rivals.

Pros - Doesn't require a sea-change in NCAA rules; maintains all of the "un-breakable" rivalries; better than some of the more exotic scenarios.
Cons - Moves the current balance of power from the West to the East; would make it that much harder for the old Eastern teams to get to the Championship Game having to contend with both Bama and Auburn, assuming (as we all do) that Florida and Tennessee will eventually reload.
Saleble? - There's been talk of re-aligning the East and West divisions for some time, but it's never born fruit. You can't separate Bama and Auburn unless you're keeping one permanent division rival - which Even if UGA and Tennessee welcomed the addition of Auburn and Alabama to the East, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt would probably object to the extra degree of difficulty.
Option 2: Re-Align the East and West Divisions - Permanent Rivals, Nine Game Schedule

Re-aligned East Alabama Auburn Georgia Florida Kentucky South Carolina Tennessee
Re-aligned West Texas A&M Missouri Ole Miss LSU Vanderbilt Mississippi St. Arkansas
If the league accepts the necessity of a nine-game schedule, then the re-alignment would allow the retention of permanent cross-division rivals.
I have set it up so that Vandy and Kentucky are paired, and USC and Tennessee pick up their old "second" cross-division rivals Mississippi State and Arkansas (though these could be switched). Vandy and Tennessee could be paired if that in-state battle was important enough to either - which may be an open question. (Frankly, all these cross-division rivalries could be re-assigned, with the possible exception of Florida-LSU which would restore a traditional match-up lost when the second permanent cross-division rivals were dropped in 2000).
Pros - All the same as Option 1, but adds back in permanent rivals if those are desirable for scheduling clarity
Cons - All the same as Option 2, but requires a nine game schedule.
Saleble? Probably even less than Option 1.


Option 3: Create North and South Divisions - Permanent Rivals, Nine Game Schedule

North Division Missouri Arkansas Mississippi Alabama Vanderbilt Kentucky Tennessee
South Division Texas A&M Louisiana St. Mississippi St. Auburn Georgia South Carolina Florida

Another idea is to start over and reconfigure the divisions on a rough North-South split -- call this the I-20 Solution. In this presentation, some of the pairings are obvious (e.g., the Iron Bowl).

Pros -- Doesn't require a sea-change in NCAA rules; maintains all of the "un-breakable" rivalries with the exception of Ole Miss-LSU; maintains all of in-state rivalries, maintains at least two of the most important post-1992 rivalries (Arkansas-LSU, Tennessee-Florida); restores LSU-Florida; spreads out divisional east-west travel equally while keeping cross-divisional rivals fairly close to one another. Also - the divisions are pretty well balanced for present and foreseeable future in all divisional-play sports; allows for easy expansion to 16 teams if that is desirable in the future.

Cons --Requires a nine game schedule - unworkable without it. It doesn't restore Tennessee-Auburn or Georgia-Mississippi, but balanced against keeping Tennessee-Alabama, Georgia-Auburn and Georgia-Florida, that is a small price to pay. Ole Miss-LSU was a great historical rivalry, but it's become lopsided of late, and I wonder if the Rebels would truly miss it on an annual basis.

Saleable? Once folks are comfortable that the unbreakable rivalries are saved, the inevitability of a nine game schedule becomes unstoppable. This scenaio eases the pain all around.

Option 4: Abandon Permanent Cross-Divisional Rivals with Two Exceptions

The last solution may be the easiest. Georgia-Auburn and Tennessee-Alabama would remain permanent cross-division rivals. The other ten teams would complete a home-and-home circuit; the four "exceptions" would keep their unbreakable rivalries, and take longer to complete the rotation.

Pros - Doesn't require NCAA rules change and keeps the unbreakable rivalries. Works equally well for an eight or nine game schedule.

Cons - The exception schools take longer to work through the rotation; will cause some more headaches for the schedulers; some may argue it is unfair for the four teams to have a special dispensation.

Saleable - This may be the only solution that fits the bill.

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