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The Historical | SEC Scheduling, Part I

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In Part I of this piece, we take a look back to the SEC's history to find the influence for the current 6-1-1 scheduling model and the formation of permanent cross-division rivals

Les Miles, shown here in a pensive moment.
Les Miles, shown here in a pensive moment.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

What’s all this now?

Our good friends over at And The Valley Shook have a nifty little series they do after spring practice concludes called, fittingly enough, Spring Football Five Things. They sit down with a representative from the SBN blog of a scheduled opponent and get a feel for where that team stands going into the summer. Our benevolent RBR overlord Erik Evans sat down with ATVS last week and provided a nice look into the Tide post-spring — you’ve probably already read it. If you haven't, an innocent[1] remark from Erik regarding the Tide's schedule for the 2015 season upset the proverbial bourbon bottle, right onto the long-simmering dissatisfaction of the Tiger faithful with regards to SEC scheduling. That part got kind of ugly in spots as you might expect, but all 319 comments are preserved in their inimitable glory for your reading enjoyment, if you're the type of person who likes to watch car crashes in slow motion.

1 | And entirely accurate, it should be noted.

More importantly, all this vitriol got me thinking about past schedule strength and how to measure it in a relatable, objective way, as a way of addressing questions about long-standing biases in the SEC's process. I think I was successful, but I’ll let you be the judge of that in Part II[2]. But first, in order to properly understand why we find ourselves in this pickle, we probably ought to get our collective kleph on and revisit some history.

2 | Coming to a screen near you tomorrow! Or maybe Wednesday! The uncertainty is what makes it exciting!

The Southeastern Conference

The SEC was established in 1932, when the 13 of the 23(!) members of the Southern Conference located south and west of the Appalachians bolted to greener pastures. Sewanee[3] was the first to leave in 1940[4], as they were just not large enough to compete with the other members in athletics; they later de-emphasized varsity athletics entirely and are now terrorizing Division III’s Southern Athletic Association. Georgia Tech was next, taking their ball and going home in 1964, followed by Tulane in 1966. Both left to become charter members of the Metro Conference, a progenitor of Conference USA; Tech of course would later bolt yet again to join the high-falutin’ academic muckety-mucks (and Clemson) in the ACC.

3 | Now the rather lofty-sounding University of the South.

4 | The article is nestled in WWII/Nazi stuff. The South: keeping football in perspective since forever.

The remaining ten teams are still in the SEC today: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. The next 24 years saw relative stability, as the SEC elected to stand pat with these teams through 1990. Scheduling, as far as I’ve been able to tell, was not difficult during this timeframe. Each team played six conference games, and with only nine other teams to fill those slots achievement of a full rotation happened frequently. The size of the schedule increased over the years of course, but that expansion generally consisted of out-of-conference games. By 1988, however, the schedules were eleven games, seven of which were in-conference. As an example, from 1988 through 1991 the Tide played Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, LSU, and Auburn every season, and rotated home and homes with Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Ole Miss among the other two slots. Simple, right?

1992

Why is 1992 important? Well, in addition to witnessing the Tide stick a fork in the first Miami dynasty, the 1992 college football regular season was the first to be capped with a conference championship game, as the SEC had expanded to 12 teams with the addition of Southwest Conference heavyweight Arkansas[5] and old Southern Conference mate South Carolina. That expansion technically occurred in 1990, but the 1992 season was the first in which the newcomers participated in SEC football. Out of a desire to stage a conference championship game, the SEC elected to split its members into two divisions, with the Central Time Zone schools in the SEC West and the rest of the schools in the East. The exception is Vanderbilt, which is west of Auburn, but was sent to the East to preserve its rivalry with Tennessee. Preserving rivalries was the name of the game here, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

5 | I’m guessing they were fed up with the rampant cheating in Texas.

The conference schedule also expanded to eight games, with five games against divisional opponents and three games against cross-division opponents. Two of those three were reserved for permanent cross-division "rivals", with the other slot set up as rotating home-and-homes against the non-rival four teams of the opposing division. Everyone played a home-and-home with everyone else within an eight-year cycle. Simple, right?

Oh, except for that whole cross-division rival thing. In addition to being a geographical split, the divisional breakdown was done to preserve as many of the yearly rivalry games in the new scheduling format as possible. Florida-Georgia, Florida-Tennessee, and Vanderbilt-Tennessee were all built into the East, with Auburn-LSU, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, and Alabama-Everyone built into the West. The only rivalries left out in the cold were Alabama and Tennessee on the Third Saturday in October, and Auburn-Georgia in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Relegation of these to a rotational basis was not an option, as these two games were the premiere rivalries in the South at the time. Why is that? There’s a couple of different way to look at this, but as an approximation of intraconference success, here's a list of SEC football championships through 1991, not including Georgia Tech or Tulane's combined six titles:

6 | The Iron Bowl belongs here as well, but honestly it transcended "rivalry" a long, long time ago.

TEAM TITLES
Alabama 19
Tennessee 11
Georgia 10
LSU 7
Ole Miss 6
Alabama Poly 5
Florida 2
Kentucky 2
Miss. State 1
Vanderbilt 0

At the time, Alabama and Tennessee had combined for 30 conference titles, so that’s an easy call. Georgia-Auburn is a little less clear, but it is the South's oldest rivalry, and at the time they had the next best total at 15 combined titles, at least among series not involving Alabama. At any rate, to ensure these two rivalries were played every year, the SEC mandated two of the inter-division slots on each team’s schedule be reserved for a permanent cross-division rival, with Alabama getting Tennessee for its primary rivalry spot and Georgia getting Auburn for theirs. LSU, historically the next-strongest team in the West, was paired with the next-highest East team on the list in Florida. The two Mississippi doormats[7] split the two basketball schools, and the two newbies got each other. The secondary slots were filled with lesser series like Alabama-Vanderbilt and LSU-Kentucky, but this slot was eliminated in 2003. At that stage, the three cross-division slots consisted of one permanent rivalry game (the old primary rivalry slot) and two rotating home-and-home slots. Simple, right?

7 | Those six conference titles for the Rebels came in a ten-year span in the late 50s and early 60s — take a bow, Johnny Vaught and Ears Whitworth!

The problem, of course, is that those permanent rivalry matchups were based on the perceived strength of the teams at the time, and a status quo that had been largely unchanged since the 1930s. That problem smugly manifested itself in Steve Spurrier, who was much better at coaching football than anyone realized[8]. Florida proceeded to win five of the first nine conference championship games, eclipsing Tennessee (but only just) to become the dominant team in the East division by the end of the 90s. Georgia was a complete non-factor in the 90s as Ray Goff and Jim Donnan savaged what Vince and Herschel built, which resulted in nasty scenarios like Kentucky making bowl games and Mike Leach building a resume. Alabama got nailed with sanctions twice over the next 10 years[9], opening the door for LSU and Auburn to become the prime players in the West. What was once a simple, clean balance of power was shaky by the early 2000s, only to get further away from historical norms with the ascendance of Nick Saban in Baton Rouge and the fall of Tennessee under Phillip Fulmer[10].

8 | Alternatively, the conference was totally unprepared for his gimmicky offense — however you want to look at it.

9 | Thanks again for being a knucklehead, Antonio!

10 | *snicker*

2012

2012, of course, saw the arrival of Missouri and Texas A&M from the dilapidated husk of the Big 12, in moves eerily similar to that of Arkansas twenty years prior[11]. In order to keep the divisions balanced, Missouri was sent to the East division, despite being almost as far west as Arkansas. At 14 teams in the conference, the divisions now had seven teams apiece. This complicated matters greatly, as the conference was reluctant to go to a nine game schedule and risk pummeling each other out of the national title race every year. In order to make an eight game schedule work with six in-division opponents, one of the rotating cross-division games was dropped, but the now-controversial permanent rivals were maintained. Missouri and Texas A&M started out playing each other in this slot, but starting in 2014 Arkansas began the Meth Bowl with Missouri, and Texas A&M (the westernmost SEC member) now plays South Carolina (the easternmost SEC member) on a yearly basis, because that makes so much sense.

11 | Texas: Incapable of playing well with others since 1835.

Today

Saban, who propelled LSU to dizzying heights before a perhaps ill-advised jaunt to the NFL, returned to the SEC in 2007 and messed with the power balance once again. Lifting Alabama out of sanction hell and the wreckage left behind by Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula, the Tide rose back to the top of the conference with three national titles in four years, and have been in the discussion for the SEC and national titles in six of his eight years at the helm. LSU found a hidden gem to replace him in Les Miles, who's kept the recruiting train rolling in Baton Rouge and is consistently in the same title conversations as his predecessor, despite perhaps the most unique approach to clock management and turfgrass consumption found in the world today. Tennessee got Kiffin'd, and proceeded to notch as many losing seasons under Derek Dooley and Butch Jones (four straight from 2010-2013) as they did in the previous thirty years under Johnny Majors and Fulmer. While no longer the top dog in the East, Jones has recruited well in Knoxville, and the Vols returned to the postseason in 2014, smacking Iowa around for their first bowl win since 2007.

After Spurrier made an even-less-advisable trip to the NFL, the Gators briefly trekked into the wilderness under the immortal Ron Zook before landing the other best coach alive in Urban Meyer, fielding one of the all-time great teams in 2008 and adding a few more trophies to the case along the way. Jim McElwain is now in charge in Gainesville after Will Muschamp tried to blast UF back into the stone age, and it's unclear how effective he'll be — yet only a fool would bet against the Gators at this point. Speaking of Muschamp, he's now tasked with turning around the moribund Auburn defense under Gus Malzahn, whose offensive system[12] took the conference by storm and vaulted the Tigers to a national title in 2010 and an SEC title in 2013, a rise eerily similar to Florida’s and for eerily similar reasons. For better or worse, until the rulebook and defenses catch up to the Gus Bus, the Tigers are now consistently in the thick of the divisional race year after year. Oh, and Georgia? Mark Richt has not had control of the team since before he was the head coach in Athens, and yet they continue to churn out 10+ win seasons, and if they could ever beat Florida they'd have had a national title or two by now.

12 | As well as some truly... fortuitous recruiting from the JUCO circuit.

Why is all of that important? Because slowly but surely the conference is shifting itself back toward the old status quo. Alabama has reasserted itself as the titan in the West with LSU and Auburn nipping at its heels; nouveau riche Texas A&M and throwback Arkansas lurk just behind. The East is up for grabs at this point with Georgia currently on top; Butch Jones is a decent coach, however, and unfortunately that means Tennessee is coming back. Florida’s in a weird spot with a new regime, and it will be interesting to see if they can capture that spark again under McElwain. Much like the West, the two newest members are right in the thick of it as well, with Missouri already holding two divisional crowns in three years.

After 20+ years of flux with an apparent return to the old normal at hand, it might be time to re-evaluate the cross-divisional rival situation. Has this had a demonstrable effect on SEC schedules over the past few years? We’ll find out in Part II later this week.

ROLL TIDE

Note: The original version of this article mischaracterized the cross-division scheduling system between 1992 and 2003 — the error is now corrected.