Alright, I've been on board with this whole "no expansion talk during football season" thing since kickoff, but with Missouri making a serious move toward the good guys this evening, my concern instantly becomes, "How do we save the Third Saturday in October?"
All the talk that the SEC would never damage its proudest rivalry doesn't mean much when you consider that Nebraska and Oklahoma played for 71 consecutive years before the Big 12 interrupted them fifteen years ago. Nothing is sacred in this game, and the most logical geographical move - Texas A&M and Missouri joining the SEC West, and Auburn coming to the SEC East and continuing the Iron Bowl - leaves Tennessee and Alabama out in the cold.
However, strict geography could also be a casualty here. The ACC's Atlantic & Coastal Divisions probably claim to use geography, but certainly aren't slaves to it; North Carolina and NC State are in separate divisions, as are Florida State and Miami. The Legends and Leaders up north are generally separated north and south, but Illinois and Northwestern are in separate divisions, with Wisconsin playing in a division with teams south and east of them.
More important than geography is balance and rivalry, the thing the SEC needs the most and the thing that gives it its lifeblood. How can the SEC best protect the games people care about the most, and have the most fair division of so many great programs?
So here's one man's idea, a proposal for the best possible SEC divisions under the new format:
ALPHA DIVISION: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M
OMEGA DIVISION: Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Is it balanced? On top, yes. The big six are evenly split - the biggest move is that Tennessee and LSU essentially trade places. Could you pull off this alignment if you left the Vols and LSU with their old division mates? If I said, "Okay, we're going to send Mississippi and Mississippi State to the SEC East in exchange for Kentucky, then put Texas A&M and Missouri in the SEC West", most people would say it's unfair right? As much as we may not want to admit it, LSU is ahead of us as a program right now - swapping the Vols and Tigers brings greater balance to the whole.
In this model, Arkansas and South Carolina remain separated. A&M and Missouri stay together, as do the Mississippi schools. And then each division gets the gift of bad football, with Kentucky and Vanderbilt separated.
When I tweeted this earlier, Incipient_Senescence suggested trading Texas A&M and Vanderbilt on the premise that it's unfair to have the two Mississippi Schools and one of UK/Vandy together. My counter would be that UK and Vandy are not of equal inferiority to the Mississippis, though it's close right now. To me the most balanced option at the bottom is to put Kentucky in one division and Vandy in the other. If you put A&M in the Omega Division and move Vandy to the Alpha, I think the Omega Division would be the stronger of the two. It already includes the three big recruiting states in the conference, balanced out by the more traditional powers of Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee in the Alpha.
What about rivalries? Here's where I'd go for annual matchups:
- Alabama vs. LSU
- Arkansas vs. South Carolina
- Auburn vs. Georgia
- Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt
- Missouri vs. Ole Miss
- Tennessee vs. Florida
- Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State
- The Mississippis lose all their major rivalries except with LSU and each other. With all due respect, raise your hand if you think the powers that be here are making decisions based on the Mississippis. No one? Good.
- The major "20 Year Rivalries" that would die revolve around the LSU/UT swap: LSU/Arkansas, LSU/Auburn, Tennessee/Georgia all say goodbye. You'd also lose smaller current divisional games like Tennessee/South Carolina, but I don't think anyone is going to stop this process over the Vols and Gamecocks not getting together annually. The Tigers and Razorbacks have a great rivalry, but they also went thirty years without playing each other before. That's probably the biggest loss here. And yes, the Vols and Vanderbilt would go their separate ways.
What would we gain? First of all, every major SEC rivalry stays intact. Third Saturday, Iron Bowl, Cocktail Party, Egg Bowl, Deep South's Oldest,
Beer Barrel, etc. all survive. Secondly, some old friends get to see each other again. Younger UT fans might cringe over the loss of the Georgia game, but Auburn was UT's second biggest rival pre-1992, and I'd be thrilled to have them back again. Tennessee also gets Arkansas back on the schedule every year.
This alignment is still true to geography, to an extent. The state of Alabama has to go north, essentially, to add balance, but on a map it would look somewhat similar to the Big Ten's current structure.
And while I'm sure Texas A&M didn't join the SEC because they wanted an annual rivalry with Mississippi State, the Aggies do get an annual divisional game with Arkansas to restore that rivalry, as well as the Bear Bryant Bowl with Alabama. We could give A&M and Missouri the worst teams in the conference every year and I still think they'd be happy to be here.
Why shouldn't they do it this way? You tell me.