published Sunday, February 26th, 2012

UT-Alabama and Georgia-Auburn among SEC football games at risk

Alabama running back Trent Richardson (3) scores a touchdown against Tennessee in Tuscaloosa Ala. on October 22, 2011.
Alabama running back Trent Richardson (3) scores a touchdown against Tennessee in Tuscaloosa Ala. on October 22, 2011.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Remember when six plus one equaled seven?

That equation now adds up to uncertainty as Southeastern Conference athletic directors begin to address future football schedules with two seven-team divisions after the acquisitions of Missouri and Texas A&M. League ADs are getting together Tuesday and Wednesday in Nashville, the site of the SEC women's basketball tournament, where they are expected to discuss eight- and nine-game conference models.

At stake is the potential blueprint for the next generation of SEC football, and the implemented schedules for the 2013 season and beyond will either protect or punt the longstanding rivalries of Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee.

"There has never been a meeting I've attended that has dealt in huge potential swings like this," Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. "With the 2012 schedule, it was like, 'Fellows, here it is. This was the best we could do, and we've got to suck it up for a year.'

"This will have more thought, and there will be more moving pieces. There will be more concerns, and I am sure you will hear four ADs speaking passionately about rivalries that need to be maintained."

The SEC has employed an eight-game league schedule since 1992, when Arkansas and South Carolina increased the conference to 12 members. A 5-2-1 format in which an SEC team played its five divisional opponents, two permanent foes from the opposite division and one rotating foe from the other division was used during the 1992-2002 seasons, and a 5-1-2 format that has allowed for more rotation has been in place since.

After the expansion was announced this past season, the SEC in late December instituted a stand-alone schedule for 2012. Each team this fall will play its six division opponents, a permanent foe from the other division and a rotating foe from the other division, or a 6-1-1 format.

SEC associate commissioner Charles Bloom called the meetings this week "a step in the process," adding that league ADs will gather again in New Orleans before the men's basketball tournament and at least one more time before the spring meetings in Destin, Fla.

"I think everyone involved knows the magnitude of these discussions, and every school has an understanding of what's involved," Bloom said. "Each school will have their pressure points that they want to get in front of the group, and it will make for compelling discussion. We've got some time, but these schools do want to know who they will be playing as soon as possible."

Eight-Game Models

If SEC athletic directors seek to maintain an eight-game conference schedule, then something must give.

Adopting this season's 6-1-1 format in future years could result in rotating matchups occurring so infrequently that pairings such as Alabama-Georgia, Auburn-Florida and Arkansas-Tennessee would take place twice every 12 years. Opting for two rotating foes from the opposite division would enable schools to see one another more often but would end the permanent cross-division rivalries.

"You know six games are a given, so it's all in how we treat the other two," McGarity said. "Our top priority in the whole scheduling discussion is maintaining the rivalry with Auburn. If you do that, then how does the eighth game rotate?

"Is it alphabetically, meaning do you play at Alabama one year and then have Arkansas in here the next and rotate it that way? Or do you play home-and-away with one team, which would take more than a decade to go through? Whether it's a 6-2 or a 6-1-1, there is a long rotation there."

Auburn and Georgia have been playing since 1892 in the Deep South's oldest rivalry, and the Tigers lead 54-53-8 after 115 series meetings. Alabama and Tennessee began playing annually before the SEC's creation in 1933, and the 13 conference titles won by the Volunteers are topped only by the 22 by the Crimson Tide.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley expressed his concern last September that conference realignment was "tampering with something that has made college football so special." In October, two days before his Tide hosted the Vols, Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "It's the biggest game all year to me when we play Tennessee."

The other permanent cross-divisional matchups -- Florida-LSU, Arkansas-South Carolina, Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Kentucky-Mississippi State and the new one, Missouri-Texas A&M -- are not nearly as treasured from a traditional standpoint. So the athletic directors at those 10 schools may not want their cross-divisional games saved at the expense of an extremely infrequent rotation.

"At some point, does the conference make a statement preserving the historical pieces?" said McGarity, who spent 18 years in Florida's athletic department before becoming Georgia's AD in 2010. "I hope that there will be a level of concern and compassion for those two rivalry games. The Florida-LSU rivalry is not a big deal, so the worry there is that it would be a 10-4 vote."

Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin hasn't exactly been flooded with calls from fans demanding his Bulldogs continue to play Kentucky. Stricklin would like to preserve the Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee games, but he also believes the league does not have nearly enough of a rotation.

So will he vote for the 6-2 model over a 6-1-1?

"I hope there are some other options I like more," Stricklin said.

Any Other Ideas?

The NCAA requires that in order to have a conference championship game, which the SEC has staged successfully since 1992, there must be a round robin within each division.

Stricklin wouldn't mind challenging that.

"That legislation was put in before any Division I team was playing in a division for a championship," he said, "and there are some other leagues getting to this size who might support that, but I have no idea."

Stricklin also has no idea how a setup mirroring the NFL might work, but he wouldn't mind exploring that option as well.

"I think the way the NFL determines some of their schedules by where teams finished the year before makes some sense," Stricklin said. "If you finish first in your division, could you play the first-place team from the other division the following year? Same with the last-place teams.

"We have the potential to be really creative with the way we approach this. I don't see this having to be A or B."

There is the possibility of going to nine games within the conference, as the Big 12 and the Pac-12 did in 2011. Nine league games would protect the permanent cross-divisional rivalries and allow for more rotation, but there would be an instant inequity issue regarding a team playing five home games and four road games or vice versa.

Try finding a coach in favor of a nine-game SEC schedule.

"I don't want to speak for all the coaches, but I know that our league is a very difficult league," Georgia's Mark Richt said. "Eight league games, to me, is plenty to prove that you're a good football team."

McGarity at least would be interested in listening to a nine-game argument, which he said has yet to be discussed in a formal environment.

Pressure to Repeat

Simply coming close to the accomplishment that was achieved in 1992 might be deemed a success.

"The people in the room did a great job 20 years ago," Stricklin said. "Going to 12 teams and from a seven-game schedule to an eight-game schedule gave us more structure, because we didn't have much structure before that. Auburn and LSU used to never play. The rotation seemed clunky, but once we went to divisions it seemed to make more sense."

Television has been a driving factor in the changing landscape of college athletics -- ESPN's creation of a "Longhorn Network" is a major reason Texas and Texas A&M are no longer playing -- but CBS Sports executive vice president of programming Mike Aresco insists his network has stayed away from realignment.

And the scheduling chore that comes with it.

"That's up to the SEC," Aresco said. "Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia are great rivalries, and you appreciate those, but we have a great relationship with the conference and realize they have to make those decisions. The league will have some hard decisions to make, and whatever they do, we will absolutely be fine with it."

SEC athletic directors will discuss future schedules in basketball, baseball and other sports as well, and regardless of what is determined, the final products are assured of being new. As many league supporters are learning, new isn't always easy.

"Our fans are disturbed about possibly losing the Auburn game for Missouri," McGarity said. "Adding South Carolina was not that big of a deal back in the day, because there was proximity, and it made sense from a regional standpoint. The difficult thing people are trying to grasp now is that we are outside of the Southeast region or what people think of as the Deep South.

"We've ventured out a little bit, and we're not alone. West Virginia is in the Big 12, and they are going to play this season in Lubbock, Texas. How does that happen? Boise State is in the Big East. You almost have to erase the geographic attachments to the names of these conferences."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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