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  • Rather than moving just Auburn to the SEC East, the conference could consider moving the Tigers and Alabama to preserve some of the league's biggest rivalries.
By Andy Staples
May 30, 2017

At this time of year, it’s often difficult to determine whether a conversation is serious or whether it blows up because we love college football and we need something to talk about during the slow months between games. The stuff a few weeks ago about Notre Dame potentially joining the ACC as a football member blew up because we needed something to talk about and Fox play-by-play man Tim Brando unknowingly chummed the water in a radio interview. The truth is Notre Dame still cherishes its football independence. Also, if ACC commissioner John Swofford, who is in fact a ninja, is going to make that deal, the news will arrive like lightning out of the clear blue sky. There will not be weeks of talk radio debate beforehand.

The talk of moving Auburn to the SEC East and Missouri to the SEC West felt the same when it resurfaced a few weeks ago. Former Tigers coach Pat Dye started it, and while Dye remains very connected at Auburn, it still sounded like something to pass the hours before the first kickoff in August. At least it did until Thursday, when Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs went on the radio before a speaking engagement in Mobile and said the move sounded like a great idea.

“It makes sense,” Jacobs told Mobile station WNSP-FM. “If we ever had the opportunity to geographically realign, it makes sense. It really makes sense for Missouri, because of the travel or other things like that.”

Jacobs, the second-longest tenured SEC athletic director behind Kentucky’s Mitch Barnhart, knows how his conference’s news cycle works. The SEC’s coaches, athletic directors and presidents all meet this week in Destin, Fla. There are no big issues up for debate. Changing the graduate transfer rule so Florida can take former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire isn’t that sexy, especially since there seems to be little sign of resistance. So we in the fourth estate are looking for anything interesting upon which we can latch. Division realignment? That’s very interesting.

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If moving to the East didn’t interest Auburn, Jacobs would have shot down the questions. He wouldn’t have expounded on the topic, which he did throughout the interview. This is something Auburn wants—and not only because of a burning desire to finally make the SEC’s divisional alignment geographically correct*.

*It didn’t become incorrect when Missouri got placed in the East Division in 2012. It has been incorrect since the league split into divisions in 1992. Vanderbilt’s campus is west of Auburn’s, but league leaders in the early ’90s didn’t relish the idea of potentially playing the Iron Bowl two weeks in a row.

The rest of the league either doesn’t want to change (Alabama and Tennessee) or doesn’t care (pretty much everyone else), but by stoking the fire a little just before the spring meetings, Jacobs might be able to drive some discussion in Destin. While he mentioned specifically that such a move would benefit Missouri from a travel standpoint, the biggest beneficiary would be Auburn, which would move into the football division that has been weaker for the entirety of this decade. An East team hasn’t won the SEC title since 2008, and a West team (Alabama) is favored to win the league again this year.

I’m interested in this idea not necessarily for football reasons but because I’m a stickler for geographical correctness. Don’t even get me started on the song “Wagon Wheel”*.

*Too bad, I’m started. A person hitchhiking from Roanoke, Va., to Raleigh, N.C., would not encounter a trucker out of Philly who was heading west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, Tenn. The Cumberland Gap is west of Johnson City, so the trucker would need to be heading east to get to the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee. But even if he were doing that, he’d be in Tennessee, Kentucky or the far western tip of Virginia (nowhere near Roanoke) depending on his route. Even if we assume the hitchhiker meant Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and not Roanoke, Va., the path still doesn’t make any sense. Of course, according to the song, the trucker and the hitchhiker had a “nice long toke.” So it’s possible they had no idea where they were.

So how would the SEC’s football divisions look if Auburn got its wish? Like this.

East

Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt

West

Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M

How would traditional rivalries be affected? That’s the part where this would really please Auburn and tick off Alabama. The Iron Bowl would be the obvious crossover game because it’s one of the best rivalries in the sport. Auburn’s current crossover opponent is Georgia, which it has played 120 times. That game would be preserved because the teams would be division opponents. Auburn also would resume a rivalry with Florida. Those teams played 80 times between 1912 and 2002 but have only played three times since. The Tigers also would resume a series with Tennessee that was an annual game from 1956 until the league split into divisions prior to the 1992 season.

The SEC’s quirky pre-divisional schedules aligned Auburn far more with the schools that wound up in the East. For example, the Tigers only played LSU 26 times before divisions forced them to play every year. They only played Ole Miss 16 times before 1992.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

But if a change forced Alabama to play Auburn as its crossover rival, the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry would disappear. The Crimson Tide and Volunteers have played 99 times, 18 more than Alabama and Auburn have played. (Of course, the break in the Alabama-Auburn series between 1907 and 1948—during which University of Alabama leaders repeatedly tried to kill off Auburn entirely—only deepened the bitterness of the rivalry.)

The move also would allow Auburn more exposure than Alabama in the high-population-growth states of Georgia and Florida. That is a factor for football recruiting, but it’s even more of a factor in terms of the recruitment of out-of-state members of the general student body who are willing to pay higher tuition than in-state students.

Meanwhile, the schools currently in the East—which have not challenged for the national title in December since Georgia in 2012—don’t necessarily want a change, either. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are happy to watch everyone slug it out in the West while they try to figure out how to return to national title contention. The Vols might not be enjoying this particular stretch of their streaky rivalry with Alabama, but much of the fan base would howl if that game weren’t played every year. The loss of the Third Saturday in October game would be a crushing blow to tradition.

"Are we willing to give up the traditional rivalries?" Jacobs said to WNSP. "When you look around the nation at conferences that have done realignment, they've lost some of those rivalries. Has that helped them or hurt them? I don't really know. What it would take to do that was for us to say 'We're not going to play the same traditional rivalries that we have in the past. We're going to go to the East.' Or does that matter? Do you look at a different way of scheduling altogether? We're certainly open to it.”

Jacobs mentioned “pod” scheduling, which is what the WAC used when it went to 16 teams in the 1990s. In that format, teams were placed in a four-team pod with traditional rivals that they played every year. The other pods rotated on the schedule. The issue with this and the SEC is that the SEC has 14 schools, and the only way to divide 14 and get a whole number is by seven or by two. So unless the SEC wants to add two schools—it isn’t planning to, and we’re not going down a second rabbit hole today—it won’t work.

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Here’s another potential move. Though it would drive me nuts because it would keep the league geographically incorrect, Auburn and Alabama could move to the East and Missouri and Vanderbilt could move to the West. This might seem silly on the surface because it would move the teams that have won the past eight SEC titles to the East and just shift the imbalance of power, but let’s consider why that imbalance exists. We know these things are cyclical. After all, the East champ won six in a row between 1993–98. We also know that one person decides the balance of power in the SEC at the moment. Counting his five seasons at LSU, Alabama coach Nick Saban has won the SEC title in seven of his 15 years in the league. He has won five of the last seven, and he won the national title in one of those two years that Alabama didn’t win the league. Saban, who turns 66 in October, isn’t going to coach forever. When he leaves Alabama, there is no guarantee the Crimson Tide will remain the best program in the SEC.

Placing Alabama and Auburn in the East would allow Auburn to return to those traditional rivalries described above. It would keep the Iron Bowl a divisional game and eliminate the possibility of a rematch in the SEC title game. It would make the Third Saturday in October a divisional game.

The big arguments in that case would concern cross-divisional rivalries. Keeping Alabama-LSU would mean ending Auburn-LSU (a product of the divisional era) and Florida-LSU (which has been played annually since 1953). It also would end Alabama-Mississippi State, which has been contested 101 times. Meanwhile, who would Auburn play in the West? Mississippi State, which has played Auburn every year since 1937 with a year off in 1943 for World War II, would be the logical choice.

These are the arguments that will dominate should the SEC ever decide to recalibrate its divisions, but Auburn seems to lack the backing it needs to even generate a legitimate discussion. Perhaps Jacobs is playing the long game and hoping the SEC eventually moves to nine conference games, which would create the flexibility for the Auburn-to-the-East-Missouri-to-the-West arrangement. Among the league’s power brokers, Saban is the only person who has been a vocal proponent for this. The league’s TV partners would love it as well, but the majority of the decision-makers want to stay at eight. This also could be a idea the Tigers keep planting so it remains top of mind if the league winds up expanding should more radical realignment hit in the middle of the next decade when the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 media rights deals expire.

That Jacobs seems so willing to talk about the idea suggests this is what Auburn wants. But it remains to be seen whether continuing to spark the conversation will ever generate a real discussion among the people whose opinions truly matter.

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A random ranking

The examination of “Wagon Wheel” above got me thinking about traveling songs. So here are the 10 best. These are songs that actually describe travel, not songs best played on a road trip. We’ll save those for another day.

1. “Midnight Train To Georgia,” Gladys Knight and the Pips*

2. “Ramblin Man,” Allman Brothers

3. “Homeward Bound,” Simon and Garfunkel

4. “Ramble On,” Led Zeppelin

5. “Going Back to Cali,” Notorious B.I.G.

6. “Roam,” The B-52s

7. “On The Road Again,” Willie Nelson

8. “City of New Orleans,” Arlo Guthrie

9. “Proud Mary,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

10. “Turn The Page,” Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band

*I have always wanted my own Pips. Just imagine having a trio of guys dancing behind me and either repeating or accentuating everything I say. It might go something like this.

Me: I’ll have a double cheeseburger and fries.

My Pips: And don’t for-get the bac-on.

Me: What they said.

First-and-10

1. The best news of the week? Former Southern receiver Devon Gales, who was paralyzed during a 2015 game at Georgia, took his first steps since the injury.

2. North Carolina released its response to the NCAA’s third Notice of Allegations last week. I explained why North Carolina’s attorneys are earning their money.

3. Defensive tackle Jordan Elliott announced this week he would transfer from Texas to Missouri, and he threw a barb at the Big 12 on his way out of the league. “Looking at the statistics and how over the years Missouri has been producing some really good D-linemen, first-round picks every year consecutively, so you know they’re doing good things," Elliott told Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Also, the SEC is a higher level of play. Why not push myself to compete?”

Elliott, one of several Longhorns leaving after the first spring practice under Tom Herman, must sit out the 2017 season. He can play the next three seasons. As a true freshman, Elliott appeared in six games and made eight tackles for the Longhorns.

4. Lane Kiffin will host a star-studded camp at Florida Atlantic on June 5. His staff will be joined by coaches from Michigan, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Illinois and Arkansas.

5. Chip Kelly will join ESPN this season as a studio analyst for college and NFL games. This could be great or terrible depending on how Kelly approaches it. If he lets us know what’s going on in that brain of his and isn’t worried about giving away too much information or ticking off a potential employer, he’ll provide fascinating insight. If he censors himself, he won’t be appointment viewing. Kelly never struck me as someone who worried much about what others think, so I’m optimistic that he’ll add a lot to any broadcast he’s on.

6. AL.com's John Talty caught up with the Grammy-winning guitar player who happens to be Nick Saban’s doppelganger.

7. Illinois will pay former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic $250,000 for injuries he sustained while playing for the Illini. The payment is a result of a settlement between the school and Cvijanovic, who alleged that former Illinois coach Tim Beckman forced him to play through knee and shoulder injuries. Cvijanovic’s complaint was the first of several, and an investigation into those complaints eventually led to Beckman’s firing in 2015.

8. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh talked grit and milk with the boys from Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take.

9. LSU tailback Derrius Guice spent a lot of time in the tattoo artist’s chair this weekend.

10. Last week, ESPN announced the kickoff times for many of the key matchups in the first full weekend of the season. Indiana and Ohio State will kick off at 8 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 31 on ESPN. On Sept. 2, Florida and Michigan will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC. At 8 p.m. on Sept. 2, Florida State and Alabama will face off in Atlanta on ABC.

What’s eating Andy?

It chafes me to no end that I’ll never be as good as this guy at Plinko, which is the greatest game in The Price Is Right’s arsenal.

What’s Andy eating?

The true hallmark of an excellent taco joint is knowing that no matter how many you order, you’ll probably order more before you leave. This phenomenon must drive the staff at Phoenix’s Tacos Chiwas crazy because no order there is ever enough.

Three of us entered, and I ordered last. As I listened to George Schroeder from USA Today and Adam Rittenberg from ESPN order, I knew they wouldn’t satisfy my friends if these tacos were as good as we’d heard they were. They each ordered three tacos and assumed the foldable delights wouldn’t force their stomachs to make extra room.

I refused to make that mistake. When I got to the counter, I loaded up. I ordered an al pastor taco, a carnitas taco and the house special, a combination of beef, ham, cheese, jalapeño and hatch chiles on a corn tortilla. I also ordered a shredded beef gordita with red salsa and a shredded beef gordita with green salsa.

This still wasn’t enough.

Andy Staples

Like the gorditas from Houston’s Carniceria Aguascalientes that I wrote about a few weeks ago, these are the genuine article. Shredded beef is dunked in fresh red or green salsa, stuffed into a tortilla pocket and kissed by the flat-top grill. If this was all Tacos Chiwas served, people would still pack the place at lunchtime. But those gorditas weren’t even the best thing on the table.

The al pastor and carnitas tacos were juicy and delicious, but they paled in comparison to the Taco Chiwas. The place gets its name from the fact that its food pays homage to cuisine of Chihuahua, the large state in Mexico that borders west Texas and eastern New Mexico. The state should be more famous for this taco than for the yippy dog that bears its name. The hatch—which is quickly becoming my favorite pepper as it enjoys a renaissance on this side of the border—delivers the perfect kick to accentuate the savory mélange of beef, ham and cheese. But while this was the best item in my first order, it wasn’t the best thing I ate that meal.

Andy Staples

As I ate my tacos, I couldn’t help but stare with envy at the tripe taco Rittenberg ordered. What’s tripe? It’s the lining of a cow’s stomach, and it’s delicious. At Tacos Chiwas, the tripe is just crispy enough and just chewy enough, and a sprinkle of cilantro and onions are the only accompaniment it needs.

After a few minutes, we couldn’t take it anymore. Rittenberg had been staring at my gorditas. Schroeder and I craved Rittenberg’s tripe taco. Rittenberg volunteered to make the second order. Soon, another tray arrived as beautiful as the first. On the second try, we all wound up full.

Next time, I’ll order better. I’ll go heavy on the Taco Chiwas and the tripe tacos and the gorditas. But no matter how hard I try, it still probably won’t be enough.

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