Let me make this clear up front:
When it comes to college football, a sport I have been covering for more than four decades, I am a traditionalist.
And damned proud of it.
The love of tradition and the passion that comes with it are the things that set college football apart from the homogenized, sterile product that is the National Football League. Don’t get me wrong. The NFL is the big dog of sports for a reason. The best of the very best play in that league. I respect them big time.
But there is no Midnight Yell in the NFL.
There is no UGA, the Georgia mascot, snipping uncomfortably close at Auburn receiver Robert Baker.
There is no Tiger Walk to Jordan-Hare Stadium where grown men were crying when Alabama came to Auburn for the first time in 1989.
There is no Woo-Pig-Sooie in the National Football League, except for when Bobby Petrino bolted from the Falcons to Fayetteville under the cover of darkness and was calling the Hogs by the 11 o’clock news.
But here’s the thing. The key to the health and well-being of college football is to embrace the traditions without being bound by them.
And that’s the challenge the SEC is now facing by accepting Texas and Oklahoma as members on a date to be determined. Two of the top brand names in intercollegiate athletics will add their muscle to a league that is already filled with the baddest dudes on the block.
The biggest question, aside from when Texas and OU will actually start playing in the SEC, is “what exactly will this look like?”
On this subject, reasonable minds will disagree.
Let’s start with a few guiding principles:
**--On this I believe that my colleagues in the media will agree: The addition of Texas and OU must—I repeat must--bring about a new scheduling model for SEC football. The current model (6-1-1) has teams playing the six teams in their division, one permanent opponent from the other division, and one team from the other division that rotates each year.
Bottom line: Currently SEC members play seven of their eight conference games against the same teams every year. The fans are tired of it. The current scheduling model ends after the 2025 season.
**--There is apparently a lot of support for expanding to a nine-game conference schedule. I’m not sure I buy it although our friend Andy Staples of The Athletic made a compelling case for nine games on Tuesday.
More conference games means more money and fans really liked the 10-game conference only schedule of the 2020 pandemic season. But there are a lot of quality non-conference games coming up in the years ahead. Alabama, for example, has future home and home series with Ohio State, Notre Dame, Florida State, and Wisconsin. The Crimson Tide also has a home and home with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
So nine conference games plus a non-conference rivalry game (Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Florida vs. Florida State), plus a quality non-conference game makes for a very tight and unforgivig schedule.
Also, a nine-game SEC schedule means an additional eight losses that the conference members must absorb. That’s the difference in going to a bowl game or not going to a bowl game.
**--I don’t see a single 16-team conference with no divisions like the ACC did last season with Notre Dame as a temporary member. That’s because somebody has to finish 16th. Bad optics.
**--I also don’t see two eight-team divisions where Oklahoma and Texas are placed in the SEC West while Alabama and Auburn moved to the SEC East. That would be seven division games and only one team could rotate. That’s not enough variety in the schedule, which is what fans want.
So the best option, it seems, would be to divide the conference into four divisions (let’s not call them pods) of four teams each. You would play the three teams in your division and have one permanent opponent from the other divisions to keep some traditional rivalries (Auburn-Georgia, Tennessee-Alabama) alive. Then you rotate opponents from the other three divisions for the other four spots on the schedule.
The top two teams would play in the conference championship game. There would have to be tiebreakers.
There are a lot of ways to do this but here are my four divisions and why I picked them:
East: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky. Florida and Georgia have to be together for obvious reasons. I originally had Tennessee here and Kentucky in the West but changed my mind.
West: Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt. I put Tennessee here in order to keep the Vols’ traditional rivalries with Alabama and Vanderbilt. Tennessee and Auburn have played 54 times so there is some history there.
South: LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri. I almost put Arkansas here instead of Mizzou. But I didn’t want to give up the games between the Hogs and their old SWC rivals.
Southwest: Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas. Our Aggie friends won’t like this but you can’t pass up Texas vs. Texas A&M, Arkansas vs. Texas, and Oklahoma vs. Texas as annual rivalry games.
Here are the permanent crossover games. I kept a lot of the old ones because they are pretty even matchups year-in and year-out. The No. 1 thing a team wants from a permanent crossover is knowing they have a chance to win.
I did some shuffling to accommodate Texas and OU:
Alabama vs. Oklahoma: It would be a block buster game every year, which is probably why it would never happen. This game takes the place of Alabama playing LSU every season.
Arkansas vs. Missouri: The “Battle Line Rivalry” survives.
Auburn vs. Georgia: The longest continuous rivalry in the Deep South. These teams have been playing since 1892. This game means a lot to both fan bases.
Florida vs. LSU: LSU has been trying to get rid of this game for years but the Gators like going to Baton Rouge every other year. Maybe that changes after last season’s “thrown shoe game.”
Kentucky vs. Mississippi State: These two teams have met 46 times including every year since 1990.
Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt: These two have met 95 times in what has been a very competitive series. Ole Miss is Vanderbilt’s second-longest rivalry (Tennessee is first with 115 games).
Tennessee vs. Texas: An annual game where the winner gets to declare themselves “the real UT.” It would also be the battle of the traditional orange of Tennessee vs. the burnt orange of Texas.
South Carolina vs. Texas A&M: This was always the odd fit among the current SEC crossovers. This one might not make it.
So there you have it. I could be wrong about all of this but the day the SEC structure is announced, Paul Finebaum could do a 24-hour show and not break a sweat. It will be that crazy.
It will also be fun.