Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Attention Birmingham residents: don't be surprised if you look in the "help wanted" section of your local Craigslist this weekend and find an ad from a user named "NoJiveSlive6nCounting" seeking "experienced cat-herder, must be able to wrangle up to 14 strong-willed athletic direc ... er, cats, with 14 differing agendas into moving in the same direction. Happily. Or at least, not angrily."
If you do, you can bet it's a response to this week's meeting of SEC athletic directors, where efforts to begin hammering out a football schedule for 2013 -- and, more importantly, a planned rotation for the seasons beyond -- seemed to have gone just an inch or two past nowhere. Reading the comments of those A.D.'s both during and after the meetings, it's easy to see why; not only is every SEC school bringing its own aims and ideas to the table, but they can't even agree on what they think they agree on. Just ask LSU and Florida, who are both willing to give up their annual cross-division rivalry or, in fact, aren't, depending on who you ask.
Of course, anyone who wasn't expecting these kinds of difficulties as soon as Texas A&M and Missouri joined the league wasn't paying attention. As we've repeated ad nauseum in this space, what the SEC wants -- preserved cross-divisional rivalries, semi-regular rotations for other East-West matchups, a divisional round-robin -- and the number of league games in which it wants them -- i.e., eight -- is flatly impossible, the scheduling equivalent of dividing by zero. Some kind of compromise somewhere in that tangled thicket of demands is inevitable.
But which compromise makes the most sense? Let's break down the SEC's options:
1. A NINE-GAME SCHEDULE
Pros: The simplest solution would give the conference room to preserve one annual cross-division game per team (saving the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry and Third Saturday in October), two slots for rotating cross-division opponents (shortening the gap between home-and-homes to four years), and still fit in the NCAA-mandated six-game intra-divisional round-robin. There's little doubt the league's television partners would vastly prefer another round of conference contests to a snoozer over yet another faceless Sun Belt punching bag.
Cons: They are many, the biggest one being that half the league would be giving up the cash bonanza of a guaranteed home game each year; for teams committed to a nonconference rivalry that requires a biannual road game (South Carolina with Clemson, Georgia with Georgia Tech, etc.) that loss will be particularly tough to swallow. There's also the increased difficulty of bottom-rung teams scheduling their way to a bowl berth; the inevitable loss of one-off nonconference series like LSU's with West Virginia; the inherent unfairness of half the league getting five home games and half just four ... all in all, it's understandable why the league would prefer to stick at eight if at all possible.
2. KEEP SELECTED CROSS-DIVISIONAL RIVALRIES
Pros: In other words, let Georgia play Auburn and Alabama play Tennessee (and maybe LSU and Florida? Arkansas and Missouri?) on an annual basis while everyone else rotates their cross-division opponents. The rivalries that matter are preserved while teams without such rivalries maintain scheduling flexibility.
Cons: For the teams with permanent cross-division rivals and just one rotating cross-division slot, match-ups with the rest of the opposite division will be few and far between--just one home-and-home over 12 years. Will teams in the West who want to recruit Georgia be happy with one trip to Athens every dozen seasons? Will East teams that struggle to fill their stadiums like Vanderbilt or Kentucky be happy with one visit from the Crimson Tide every 12 years? Will traditional rivals Auburn and Florida live with almost never playing each other again? This compromise is better than assigning every team a permanent cross-divisional rival, but it still has major problems.
3. PLAY ONLY FIVE INTRA-DIVISIONAL GAMES
Pros: As discussed by Mississippi State A.D. Scott Stricklin here, this would require an NCAA waiver or repeal of the current rule requiring conferences to stage intra-divisional round-robins to hold a title game (and such a waiver was granted to the MAC, albeit when that league had 13 teams and needed it to make an eight-game schedule work). But it would free up one key slot for a cross-divisional game--and it's hard to think of a team in the league that wouldn't take someone in the opposite division over someone in their own. League regularly dealt with tiebreaks between teams that hadn't played head-to-head back in the pre-divisional days.
Cons: Just because they dealt with them doesn't mean awkward tiebreaks are somehow a good thing; ask the Big 12 about its 2008 season sometime. And it may all be moot anyway--the NCAA may not be inclined to grant the waiver in the first place.
4. REALIGN DIVISIONS
Pros: If Auburn/Georgia and Tennessee/Alabama need to play every year, why not just lump them all into the same division and make the issue of cross-division rivalries irrelevant? You'd have to ignore geography entirely where South Carolina was concerned, but a "Rivalry" division of Tigers, Bulldogs, Volunteers, Crimson Tide, Gators, Commodores, and Wildcats -- with LSU, A&M, Missouri, Arkansas, the Mississippi schools, and the Gamecocks in the "Other" division -- would preserve almost every classic SEC series. And if you don't like that arrangement, there's always other options.
Cons: Hoo boy, the Gamecocks would not be happy with having their Georgia series dissolved in the above scenario. And even if you convince them, any scenario which lumps both Alabama schools in with the traditional East powers is going to be far too competitively weighted towards that division--the West could have just one team (LSU) that had won the league since 1963.
5. ELIMINATE DIVISIONS ENTIRELY
Pros: More than one SEC fan has proposed simply doing away with the divisional setup -- allowing teams to schedule as many annual rivals or rotated games as they wish -- and having the top two teams in the standings play off in the league championship game. No other suggestion in this list would make scheduling easier.
Cons: That the NCAA has mandated divisions for a championship game since the game's inception is a hurdle just a shade smaller than the Empire State Building, and of course the money-tree that is the SEC Championship Game is going to go away when Razorbacks fly. Then there's the tiebreaking issues, the regressive feel of reverting to the pre-1992 standings table ... this isn't happening.
Short of pitching two schools overboard, which will happen immediately after the league gives up its championship game to help it live a life of "monastic conferencehood, in which championships are awarded for each team's level of enlightenment," nope.
SO WHAT SHOULD THE LEAGUE DO?
Simple: go to nine games. For the likes of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky, this means just two nonconference "paycheck" breathers and some massaging of the road/home split to make sure each team doesn't have too many games away from home in one season.
But guess what? The Bulldogs only played two paycheck games last season, and they ended up all right. LSU played only six true home games last year, only two of them vs. tomato can opposition, and their world somehow continued to spin as well. We're not sure there's a fan in the league that wouldn't be willing to trade two seasons' worth of exhibitions against Cupcake State for one ticket vs. legitimate SEC opposition.
BUT WHAT WILL THEY DO?
Despite the noises coming from Georgia's Greg McGarity, we expect -- and fervently hope -- that even a money-grab as naked as this round of SEC expansion has its limits, and that those limits stop outside the cancellation of Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee. For now, expect the league to opt for option No. 2, where the schools who want permanent cross-division rivalries get them and those that don't don't. And in the long run? When the demands of television viewers and high price of paying off bodybags makes that extra home game more trouble than it's worth, the ninth game will make it debut.
Unfortunately, there's going to be a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of scary-sounding statements, and a lot of Mike Slive cat-herding before we get to that or any compromise. Buckle in, SEC, fans.Keep up with the latest college football news from around the country. From the opening kick of the year all the way through the offseason, CBSSports.com has you covered with this daily newsletter. View a preview.
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