Either SEC football scheduling model a funeral for traditionalists

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Should the Southeastern Conference maintain an eight-game league football schedule when Oklahoma and Texas form a 16-team collection in 2024, the Alabama-Tennessee game would be held twice every four years instead of annually.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Should the Southeastern Conference maintain an eight-game league football schedule when Oklahoma and Texas form a 16-team collection in 2024, the Alabama-Tennessee game would be held twice every four years instead of annually.

Close your eyes and picture, for a moment, last year's finish to the Alabama-Tennessee football game.

As Neyland Stadium is emptying out, imagine a Vols fan spotting his friendly neighbor who supports the Crimson Tide. The Tennessee fan races up to give his friend a playful hug and exclaims, "We finally got you!!"

Then imagine the Alabama fan turning to his buddy with a smile and saying, "Yeah, but payback is gonna be hell three years from now."

Now, open your eyes and realize that could be a very real Southeastern Conference interaction moving forward.

The SEC has been kicking its league scheduling can down the road for nearly two years now, and it's certain to be the dominant topic when the conference stages its annual spring meetings Tuesday through Friday in Destin, Florida. This topic was debated last spring before any vote for sticking with an eight-game model or implementing a nine-game format was delayed since the College Football Playoff had yet to establish its 12-team field that will begin with the 2024 season.

That so much of college football has become so dependent on an expanded playoff that must be scheduled around the NFL's postseason is beyond sad for traditionalists like me who can remember exactly where they were when Herschel Walker ran over Bill Bates, Lindsay Scott caused Larry Munson to break his chair and when celebratory Vols fans took down the goal posts after defeating Bear Bryant's Alabama.

The SEC was built on tradition-rich rivalries that were lessened when the conference remained at eight games when Missouri and Texas A&M joined in 2012. Many of these matchups will be gutted if a 16-team league with the 2024 arrivals of Oklahoma and Texas stays with eight conference contests and employs a 1-7 format in which each school will have one annual opponent.

One!

The eight-game model would eliminate Alabama-Tennessee on an annual basis, and it also would alter the Deep South's oldest rivalry, Auburn versus Georgia. In more than 30 seasons of covering SEC football, I can assure you that no league pairing contains more vehicles adorned with competing team flags than those traveling up Highway 316 or down Interstate 85, depending on the year.

I was fortunate enough to cover both Alabama-LSU contests in the 2011 season, when two SEC teams met for the national title for the first time ever, but that talent-rich series would vanish annually along with LSU-Ole Miss, which is certain to cause Billy Cannon and Johnny Vaught to roll over in their respective graves.

And how comical does it look bringing Texas into the league and not having the Longhorns play Texas A&M or Arkansas every year?

The annual rivalries in the 1-7 schedule would be Alabama-Auburn, Georgia-Florida, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Tennessee-Vanderbilt, Oklahoma-Texas, LSU-Texas A&M, Arkansas-Missouri and Kentucky-South Carolina. Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State and South Carolina are reported to be the strongest advocates for staying at eight, with South Carolina having the best argument given that the Gamecocks have been the only SEC member in recent years with an annual nonconference foe as tough as Clemson.

By comparison, the nine-game schedule contains a 3-6 model with three permanent opponents. Each option does away with divisions, with the top two teams playing in Atlanta for the league crown, and each provides more rotation to where every SEC program would play everybody else twice in a four-year stretch.

A greater rotation unquestionably has been needed, with Missouri having made its first trip to Auburn last season and with Georgia having yet to travel to Texas A&M.

The nine-game model would provide more inventory on the television front, but the league's 10-year agreement with ESPN beginning in 2024 is already in place, and there are rivalry casualties with this format as well. Tennessee's three permanent foes have been projected to be Vanderbilt, Alabama and South Carolina, so the Vols would no longer face Georgia, Florida and Kentucky each year.

There was no bigger league pairing than Florida-Tennessee during the first decade of divisional play from 1992 to 2001, and the Vols have vied with Kentucky more than any other team. Oh, and last November's Georgia-Tennessee game was a collision of top-three teams nationally.

Given that this dilemma has yet to be settled by this point, any smooth sailing is hardly expected this week. Only Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas have cleared their schedules to allow for nine SEC games in 2024, according to 247Sports.com, which added that Missouri's schedule is booked until 2032.

Then there is the matter of what Alabama coach Nick Saban may say this week after comments he made to Sports Illustrated in March.

"I've always been an advocate for playing more (SEC) games," Saban said nearly three months ago, "but if you play more games, I think you have to get three fixed (opponents), right? They're giving us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don't know how they came to that."

Another SEC spring meetings could come and go before this gets settled, even though everyone is aware the clock is ticking. Should league members reach an agreement this week, athletic directors would make the proposal Thursday for the chancellors and presidents to vote on Friday.

Perhaps then the league could have two slogans — "It Just Means More" and "Home Of The Best Part-Time Rivalries In College Football."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

  photo  Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / There have been 127 Auburn-Georgia football games through the years, a Bowl Subdivision rivalry topped only by Minnesota and Wisconsin meeting 132 times. If the SEC stays with eight league games when Oklahoma and Texas join in 2024, the Deep South's oldest rivalry would he held twice every four years.