When the SEC finally welcomes in a 14th member — and like everyone else we fully expect that 14th school to be Missouri — the league will face the incredibly important chore of realigning its divisions. The breakdown of that alignment will impact schedules, fan travel, competitive balance, and more than two dozen rivalries that have been played 60 or more times each.
Needless to say, the SEC had better get it right.
The league’s goal will no doubt be to protect as many traditional rivalries as possible. Also, you can count on the fact that the SEC will want to move as few teams as possible from their current divisional homes. The less change the better. Finally, competitive balance outweighed geography when the league broke into divisions in 1992. Geography might not be a big issue this time around, either.
Below, we’ll look at a number of different realignment options. We’ll see which plans protect the most often played rivalries. We’ll examine the aforementioned idea of competitive balance. And we’ll discuss several other issues that will all be impacted by the league’s divisional alignment.
For reference, when we discuss competitive balance, we’ll talk about the SEC’s eight winningest programs according to all-time winning percentage: Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas.
For a breakdown of scheduling formats (5-1-2, 6-1-1, and 6-1-2) please read Part One of this series.
Also, here’s the list of SEC rivalries that have been played 60 or more times (and with Texas A&M joining the league next year, we include Texas A&M-Arkansas on our list of 23) which we covered in Part Two of this series:
Auburn-Georgia 114… Mississippi State-Ole Miss 107… Kentucky-Tennessee 106
Tennessee-Vanderbilt 105… LSU-Mississippi State 104… LSU-Ole Miss 98
Alabama-Mississippi State 95… Alabama-Tennessee 93… Florida-Georgia 88
Ole Miss-Vanderbilt 85… Auburn-Mississippi State 84… Kentucky-Vanderbilt 83
Auburn-Florida 82… Alabama-Vanderbilt 82… Alabama-Auburn 75
Alabama-LSU 74… Georgia-Vanderbilt 72… Arkansas-Texas A&M 67
Alabama-Georgia 65… Ole Miss-Tennessee 64… Georgia-Kentucky 64
Georgia-South Carolina 63… and Florida-Kentucky 61
To date, two plans have generated the most talk in league circles. Obviously we’ll discuss those plans, but for the sake of argument, we’ll also discuss two other plans that have been pushed by fans on messageboards and blogs. Let’s begin with the plan that’s caused the most discussion…
Realignment Option 1 — Auburn to the SEC East
|SEC West||SEC East|
If the SEC uses an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format, these old rivalries will not be played: Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Mississippi State, Alabama-Vanderbilt (not played now), Alabama-Georgia (not played now), and Ole Miss-Tennessee (not played now).
Old rivalries reborn with an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format: Auburn-Florida (not played now)
Current permanent cross-divisional rivals affected: Alabama-Tennessee would be lost as Alabama-Auburn would become permanent cross-divisional foes. Auburn-Georgia would become a divisional rivalry, so Georgia would join Tennessee in looking for a new cross-divisional foe. One would likely play Missouri each year and the other Texas A&M. The one landing Texas A&M would get a boost in recruiting the state of Texas.
Competitive balance: The league’s eight all-time winningest programs would be divided evenly.
Why do this: Auburn president Jay Gogue has already said his school would be fine with a move to the East. Not only do the Tigers and Georgia play the oldest rivalry in the SEC each year, Auburn has also played Florida (82) and Tennessee (51) more often than it has played LSU (45) and Ole Miss (35). Auburn — which is technically east of Nashville — wound up in the West in 1992 (and Vanderbilt in the East) as the result of a push to create competitive balance in the league. SEC presidents wanted to divide the six all-time winningest clubs evenly — Alabama, Auburn, and LSU in the West… Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the East. Moving Auburn east would allow Missouri to stay in the West where it belongs (at least in terms of geography). The Tigers would be able to start a rivalry with neighboring Arkansas and continue their Big 12 relationship with Texas A&M. Gary Pinkel rebuilt Mizzou football by recruiting the Lone Star State. Though Missouri officials are supposedly fine with either the East or the West, their coaches would likely prefer the West for the sake of Texas recruiting.
Why not do this: Moving Auburn to the East would end one of — if not the — signature rivalry in the SEC. Historically speaking, Alabama-Tennessee is a matchup of the league’s two most successful programs. Breaking them up would be akin to splitting Oklahoma-Nebraska (which the Big 12 did), North Carolina-Duke, or Notre Dame-Southern Cal. There’s a lot of history there. Also, Alabama reportedly isn’t keen on the idea of Auburn putting down recruiting roots in Georgia and Florida (though with AU’s proximity to both states, it’s doubtful they would get much of a boost over their current solid efforts).
One caveat: If the SEC were to go to a nine-game schedule and use a 6-2-1 format (6 divisional foes, 2 permanent cross-divisional rivals, and 1 rotating cross-divisional foe each year) Alabama could protect its games with both Auburn and Tennessee. However, as we discussed in Part One of this series, we believe the SEC will eventually move away from any format featuring just one rotating opponent. Such plans leave too many years between games with cross-divisional opponents. Also, while Alabama has two cross-divisional rivalries worthy of protection, many schools don’t have a natural second rival to add. Heck, some schools (Kentucky, Mississippi State, Arkansas and South Carolina) really don’t have one cross-divisional rival worth playing each year. Would the league add another layer of permanent opponents and create a slower rotation of cross-divisional foes just to protect the Crimson Tide-Volunteer rivalry? Not if there are better options.
Verdict: This one is a real possibility and depending on who you talk to, Auburn is actually campaigning for this to happen. We initially believed this would be the simplest solution. Auburn has more history with teams in the East than with teams in the West. But that Alabama-Tennessee rivalry has been mentioned by ADs and presidents across the league as one to save. They’ll likely do what it takes to save it if they can do so without creating a mess for other schools. We’ve come to believe that this scenario — Auburn to the SEC East — is actually the #2 option at this point, not the #1 option, because there’s another slightly less messy option.
Realignment Option 2 — Missouri to the SEC East
|SEC West||SEC East|
|Miss. State||S. Carolina|
If the SEC uses an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format, these old rivalries will not be played: Auburn-Florida (not played now), Alabama-Vanderbilt (not played now), Alabama-Georgia (not played now), and Ole Miss-Tennessee (not played now)
Old rivalries reborn with an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format: None
Current permanent cross-divisional rivals affected: If Missouri lands in the East, the Tigers will be given either Arkansas or Texas A&M as a permanent, protected rival. Arkansas makes sense because the two states border one another and both could use another rival. But Texas A&M would allow Missouri to continue to hold on to its recruiting base in Texas. A Mizzou-A&M pairing would also allow the yearly Arkansas-South Carolina game to continue, which would mean no current cross-divisional rivalries would be affected under this plan.
Competitive balance: Five of the league’s all-time winningest programs would be in the SEC West while only three would reside in the SEC East.
Why do this: Putting Missouri in the East Division would create the least amount of negative fallout for the league’s current members. Not one of the SEC’s 23 oldest rivalries would be lost (the four that would not be played are the same four that aren’t played now). And while Missouri clearly sits to the west on a map, the distances from Columbia to the schools of the East aren’t that much greater than the distances from Columbia to the schools of the West. (Distance from MU campus to SEC rivals: Arkansas 312 miles, Vanderbilt 431, Kentucky 457, Ole Miss 477, Mississippi State 575, Tennessee 609, Alabama 618, Georgia 736, LSU 772, Texas A&M 779, South Carolina 870, Florida 1,008.) In addition, reports from the Show-Me State claim that Mizzou officials don’t have a preference regarding their placement. At first blush, this one doesn’t seem to make sense. But the more one studies this plan, the more obvious it becomes that moving Missouri to the East is the simplest solution to the SEC’s realignment problem.
Why not do this: Because it doesn’t look right on a map. Also, because it would prevent Missouri from playing either Arkansas — a border state that also needs a rival — or Texas A&M — a key to MU recruiting — every year. Competitive balance would be thrown off a bit, but only because the league’s all-time seventh- and eighth-winningest programs (Texas A&M and Arkansas) would reside in the West. So even on the competitive balance front, you’re still looking at a 3-3 split among the traditional “big six” of the SEC.
Verdict: Color us convinced. The driving distances are key. While it would seem the Tigers would be much farther away from East Division schools than West Division schools, that’s just not the case. Only South Carolina and Florida would be a greater distance from Columbia than Missouri’s old Big 8 and Big 12 North rival Colorado (747 miles). And when you look at the impact this move would have on the SEC’s oldest rivalries — which is to say none — it’s even more of an obvious choice. This appears to be the path of least resistance.
Realignment Option 3 — Mississippi State to the SEC East
|SEC West||SEC East|
If the SEC uses an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format, these old rivalries will not be played: Auburn-Florida (not played now), Alabama-Vanderbilt (not played now), Alabama-Georgia (not played now), Ole Miss-Tennessee (not played now), LSU-Mississippi State, Alabama-Mississippi State, Auburn-Mississippi State, and Ole Miss-Vanderbilt.
Old rivalries reborn with an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format: None.
Current permanent cross-divisional rivals affected: If MSU were to move to the SEC East, their cross-divisional rivalry with Kentucky would be killed in order for MSU to play Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, the SEC’s second-oldest rivalry. For Ole Miss to clear room for MSU as its permanent cross-divisional foe, the Rebels would have to give up their rivalry with Vanderbilt, the 10th-oldest rivalry in the SEC. That would leave Kentucky and Vanderbilt to pick up Missouri (probably Kentucky) and Texas A&M as their annual cross-divisional rivals.
Competitive balance: Five of the league’s all-time winningest programs would be in the SEC West while only three would reside in the SEC East. More importantly the three least successful programs in SEC history would all be in one division.
Why do this: Because to some Tennessee and Alabama fans posting on messageboards, the rivalries of Mississippi, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt apparently don’t mean a whole lot. We’ve seen this idea floated more than once and we’ve even had it emailed to us a time or two. But it’s not going to happen. Even if it would insure that the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry would survive.
Why not do this: Mississippi State is actually a participant in four of the SEC’s 11 most often played rivalry games. And while the Egg Bowl (107 meetings) might be saved, the Bulldogs’ games with LSU (104), Alabama (95) and Auburn (84) would be lost. In the process, the Vandy-Ole Miss rivalry (85) would be killed as well. That’s four longstanding rivalries down the drain. Plus, the three teams at the bottom of the SEC’s all-time standings — MSU, Kentucky and Vandy — would all be placed in the East Division.
Verdict: No way, no how. The SEC’s presidents won’t even consider this.
Realignment Option 4 — Alabama and Auburn to the SEC East, Vanderbilt to the SEC West
|SEC West||SEC East|
|Texas A&M||S. Carolina|
If the SEC uses an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format, these old rivalries will not be played: Auburn-Florida (not played now), Alabama-Vanderbilt (not played now), Alabama-Georgia (not played now), Ole Miss-Tennessee (not played now), Auburn-Mississippi State, Kentucky-Vanderbilt, Alabama-LSU, and Georgia-Vanderbilt.
Old rivalries reborn with an 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format: Auburn-Florida (not played now), Alabama-Georgia (not played now)
Current permanent cross-divisional rivals affected: This would require more moves than a Rubik’s Cube. In order to protect as many old SEC rivalries as possible, one scenario for cross-divisional rivalries might look like this — Alabama-Mississippi State, Tennessee-Vanderbilt, Florida-LSU (continue playing), Arkansas-South Carolina (continue playing), and then Auburn, Georgia and Kentucky from the East would pair up in some fashion with Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M from the West. Incredibly messy.
Competitive balance: Five of the league’s all-time winningest programs would be in the SEC East while only three would reside in the SEC West.
Why do this: Once again, the goal seems to be saving the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry at all costs. Other than that, two old rivalries would be restored as divisional games (Auburn-Florida and Alabama-Georgia). But…
Why not do this: There would be four other old rivalries lost. Such a plan would also require way too many shifts and changes to gain approval from the league’s presidents. The more changes required, the greater the possibility for hold-ups and hang-ups.
Verdict: The Southeastern Conference will most likely want to move as few teams as possible. But this plan would require three programs to shift divisions. Rivalries would be lost. And five of the six winningest programs in league history would all be placed in the East Division. Sorry to those who dreamed this one up, but there’s not a chance this comes to pass.
We’ll not even bother with discussing radical format changes — like the creation of North and South Divisions. It may look good on paper, but the SEC won’t want to completely shake up the good thing it’s currently got going. The goal is to add Texas A&M and Missouri with as little fuss and muss as possible. Moving Auburn to the SEC East would require only one current school to shift and only two traditional rivalries would be killed (Auburn-Mississippi State and Alabama-Tennessee). Even better, placing Missouri in the East Division wouldn’t require any current SEC school to move. And not a single classic rivalry would be lost.
For that reason, it’s our bet that Missouri will find itself in the SEC East if/when it finally comes aboard. As we discussed in Part One of this series, we also expect the SEC to eventually go to a nine-game conference schedule featuring a 6-1-2 format in order for cross-divisional foes to face each other more often.
Therefore, the simplest long-term solution — if/when Missouri becomes the SEC’s 14th school — would look like this:
|SEC West||SEC East|
|Miss. State||S. Carolina|
With a nine-game league schedule and a 6-1-2 format, the annual breakdown of opponents for each team would look like this (abbreviations: Div = Annual Division Rival, Perm C-Div = Permanent Cross-Divisional Rival, Rot C-Div = Rotating Cross-Divisional Rival):
|Div||Div||Div||Div||Div||Div||Perm C-Div||Rot C-Div||Rot C-Div|
|Alabama||Arkansas||Auburn||LSU||MSU||Ole Miss||Texas A&M||Tennessee||UF, UGA, UK||MU, SC, VU|
|Arkansas||Alabama||Auburn||LSU||MSU||Ole Miss||Texas A&M||S. Carolina||UF, UGA, UK||MU, UT, VU|
|Auburn||Alabama||Arkansas||LSU||MSU||Ole Miss||Texas A&M||Georgia||UF, UK, MU||SC, UT, VU|
|LSU||Alabama||Arkansas||Auburn||MSU||Ole Miss||Texas A&M||Florida||UGA, UK, MU||SC, UT, VU|
|Miss. State||Alabama||Arkansas||Auburn||LSU||Ole Miss||Texas A&M||Kentucky||UF, UGA, MU||SC, UT, VU|
|Ole Miss||Alabama||Arkansas||Auburn||LSU||MSU||Texas A&M||Vanderbilt||UF, UGA, UK||MU, SC, UT|
|Texas A&M||Alabama||Arkansas||Auburn||LSU||MSU||Ole Miss||Missouri||UF, UGA, UK||SC, UT, VU|
|Florida||Georgia||Kentucky||Missouri||S. Carolina||Tennessee||Vanderbilt||LSU||ALA, ARK, AUB||MSU, UM, A&M|
|Georgia||Florida||Kentucky||Missouri||S. Carolina||Tennessee||Vanderbilt||Auburn||ALA, ARK, LSU||MSU, UM, A&M|
|Kentucky||Florida||Georgia||Missouri||S. Carolina||Tennessee||Vanderbilt||MSU||ALA, ARK, AUB||LSU, UM, A&M|
|Missouri||Florida||Georgia||Kentucky||S. Carolina||Tennessee||Vanderbilt||Texas A&M||ALA, ARK, AUB||LSU, MSU, UM|
|S. Carolina||Florida||Georgia||Kentucky||Missouri||Tennessee||Vanderbilt||Arkansas||ALA, AUB, LSU||MSU, UM, A&M|
|Tennessee||Florida||Georgia||Kentucky||Missouri||S. Carolina||Vanderbilt||Alabama||ARK, AUB, LSU||MSU, UM, A&M|
|Vanderbilt||Florida||Georgia||Kentucky||Missouri||S. Carolina||Tennessee||Ole Miss||ALA, ARK, AUB||LSU, MSU, A&M|
(Sidenote — You’ll notice that we assigned Texas A&M and Missouri as permanent cross-divisional rivals. That’s a coin flip. Judging from the comments on this site as well as from emails from Missouri fans, Arkansas makes sense to some because of proximity while A&M makes sense to others because of recruiting. It would likely be up to Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina and A&M to decide who pairs up with one another. We think Tiger football coach Gary Pinkel would request A&M.
Also, seeing as how we had to re-type a good chunk of this after midnight, here’s hoping you’ll take it easy on us when you find a typo or miscue.)