SEC issues: Should teams have permanent football rivals?

May 21, 2013 

Second in a series of stories by Josh Kendall, previewing the key issues at next week’s SEC meetings in Destin, Fla.

The Issue

Last year at this time, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and LSU coach Les Miles were pushing their counterparts to consider dropping the league’s current format that includes a permanent cross-divisional rival each year. This year, when the SEC powerbrokers gather for their annual meetings in Destin, Fla., Miles seemingly will be going it alone.

While Spurrier has backed off his previous position, Miles still is trying to get out of the Tigers’ annual game against Florida.

When the format was adopted in 1992, teams were matched based mainly on history and the traditional level of the programs (LSU vs. Florida, Alabama vs. Tennessee, Georgia vs. Auburn, Vanderbilt vs. Ole Miss, Kentucky vs. Mississippi State, South Carolina vs. Arkansas). In most years, the arrangement has worked out, but recently Florida has been a much tougher opponent than Tennessee, which gives Alabama a breather from the SEC West race against LSU.

The Gamecocks are scheduled to swap Arkansas, their permanent opponent since 1992, for Texas A&M beginning in 2014, which could be reason enough for Spurrier to get back on Miles’ side.

What They’re Saying

Miles is the loudest voice on this subject, although Alabama coach Nick Saban hasn’t squashed it.

“I think it makes it more league-oriented when we play more cross-divisional opponents,” Saban said.

SEC newcomer Bret Bielema, who takes over at Arkansas this year, doesn’t see a problem with the format he is inheriting. Arkansas’ new permanent rival is scheduled to be Missouri.

“I am a believer in ‘if ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” Bielema said. “The SEC has won the last seven national championships, and I have a hard time believing that that formula doesn’t work.”

Vanderbilt’s James Franklin is happy with getting the Rebels each season rather than seeing Alabama and LSU rotate through his schedule more often.

“I have been pleased with how this thing has gone so far. I think Ole Miss has been a nice game for our fan bases,” Franklin said.

What They’re Doing

The Big Ten, at least until it goes to nine conference games starting with the 2016 season, is the best comparison to the SEC because both leagues have 14 teams split into seven-team divisions (pending the Big Ten’s addition of Rutgers and Maryland).

The Big Ten’s 2014 and 2015 schedules don’t include permanent rivals, opting instead for six intra-division games and two rotating cross-divisional games.

Even without permanent rivals, though, there are going to be inherent discrepancies each year. Consider this: In 2014, Minnesota’s crossover games will be Michigan and Ohio State. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, will play Illinois and Minnesota in their crossover games.

ACC schools, however, do have a primary crossover opponent each year.

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