In case you’ve missed it while on the royal baby watch, there has been considerable hand-wringing over inequities in the SEC football schedule.
“I’d have to say,’’ LSU coach Les Miles said last week at SEC Media Days, “there’s a repeated scheduling advantage and disadvantage for certain teams in this conference based on tradition and traditional matchups.’’
Steve Spurrier couldn’t resist chiming in, noting the paths Alabama and Georgia took to the 2012 SEC championship game:
“Alabama didn’t play the top three teams in the East and Georgia did not play the three top teams in the West. Scheduling does make a difference.’’
You know who could resolve this travesty of justice and level the playing field?
If the Vols could get back to being the power program they were at the end of the 20th Century when the SEC designated its permanent (traditional) rivals, a lot of the “in” would disperse from the inequity.
Consider the route to the 2013 Western Division title: Alabama’s two East Division opponents were a combined 1-15 in SEC games last year. Permanent opponent Tennessee was 1-7, rotating opponent Kentucky 0-8.
LSU’s two East opponents were 14-2. Permanent opponent Florida and rotating opponent Georgia were both 7-1.
In 1992 when the SEC expanded to 12 teams and split into divisions, the 5-2-1 format called for two permanent non-divisional opponents and one rotating. Alabama and Arkansas were UT’s permanent opponents.
In 2003, the format changed to 5-1-2. Tennessee kept Alabama, shed Arkansas and got two rotating West teams.
The theory was to match strong against strong, weak against weak.
The strong: UT-Alabama, LSU-Florida, Georgia-Auburn. The weak were Ole Miss-Vandy and Kentucky-Mississippi State. Arkansas-South Carolina was more of a middle-ground, newcomer pairing.
With the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012, the 6-1-1 format is one permanent on the other side, one rotating.
Beginning in 2014, neighbors Arkansas and Missouri become permanent rivals. That leaves South Carolina and Texas A&M as distant but permanent rivals.
The problem with the formula is Tennessee hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain as a power program.
In the 21 years of divisional play, UT and ’Bama are 10-10-1 head-to-head. Perfect pairing.
But over the past five seasons, Alabama is 35-5 in SEC play, stronger than ever. Tennessee is 12-28, strong no more. The Tide has won six straight with an average victory margin of 23.3 points.
Meanwhile, LSU has to duke it out with Florida. The Tigers are 28-12 (SEC)
over the past five years, Florida 27-11. Fair fight.
“Scheduling,” said Miles, “should not in any way decide championships repeatedly or throughout.’’
But of course it does, and to some extent always has.
Up until 1992, the Vols played Georgia or Florida sporadically. Florida rarely played Alabama, etc.
The disparity works both ways. Tennessee is currently at a disadvantage by facing Nick Saban’s juggernaut every year. Georgia hasn’t played Alabama since 2008.
Trading Alabama for, say, Ole Miss, Auburn or Arkansas in a given year probably would have gotten the Vols to bowl games the past two seasons. To Tennessee’s credit, there hasn’t been any official whining.
That originates mostly at LSU. Saban, who had to play Florida every year when he was LSU’s coach from 2000-2004, points out that the only equal path to a championship comes when everybody plays everybody.
That works in a 10-team Big 12 Conference that plays nine league games. It’ll never happen in a 14-team SEC stuck on eight games.
But at least the Vols could help level the playing field by pulling their weight again.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.