Ever since I was a little kid and the SEC created the two divisions in football the debate in Baton Rouge and Tiger Nation has been whether or not the lock east versus west matchups were in everyone’s best interest.
Here is a quick history lesson for the casual college football fan. Back in 1992, the SEC expanded from 10 to 12 teams within the conference. It was the conferences first expansion since 1932. The new teams brought new challenges to the programs that had become accustomed to certain rivalries throughout the sixty years prior to expansion.
Before the expansion, Alabama dominated the SEC. With 19 outright or split conference championships they won the SEC on average every three years. The next closest team during this era was Tennessee with 11 and Georgia with 10. After that LSU won seven, Ole Miss won six, Auburn won five, Florida and Kentucky won two a piece and Mississippi State won once. Doing the research for this article I discovered that Tulane (who was a SEC member from 1932-1966) won three SEC titles. So during this era the Meanie Greenies was better that State, Kentucky and Florida, the times have certainly changed.
I bring up the past only to set the table when looking at what the SEC office was thinking when they created the cross-division matchups. When the conference first looked at the matchups they eventually settled on two locked in opponents. This was to help keep the schedules balanced and for the most part it worked. Here is the list of each school with their two yearly cross-division opponents.
Alabama: Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Auburn: Florida, Georgia
Arkansas: Tennessee, South Carolina
Florida: LSU, Auburn
Georgia: Auburn, Ole Miss
Kentucky: LSU, MSU
LSU: Florida, Kentucky
Mississippi State: South Carolina, Kentucky
Ole Miss: Georgia, Vanderbilt
South Carolina: Arkansas, Mississippi State
Tennessee: Arkansas, Alabama
Vanderbilt: Alabama, Ole Miss
After reviewing the only team that was abused like a scene out of American History X would be Auburn, but they asked for it with keeping it yearly rivalry with Georgia. It looks like the SEC got it right for everyone else. If you played one of the top three schools, your other opponent was a bottom three team. It makes perfect sense and the model worked. Then in 2002 the conference decided to change the format from two locked opponents and just go with one. This changed the complexity a bit. Here is how it unfolded.
Kentucky- Mississippi State
On paper the matchups looks like they would hamper a few of the teams, while other thrived with the easy schedule. You might be surprised at the out come over the last 20 years. I created a formula to decide who has played the most difficult cross-divisional schedule among the 12 school.
The formula I used is a simple one. I started by charting each school’s win/loss record against the other conference. Then I charted where each team finished year-by-year in the conference. I did not take into account tie breakers or the championship game. If three teams finished first in the SEC, then they all scored a one that year. Add up each team’s numbers and divided by 20. This was to set a level to where each team finished within the conference over that period. Here are the results.
I know the numbers look odd, but most of the years after expansion most of the teams finished around .500 thus three of more teams finished with the same number. This allowed teams like Vandy and Kentucky finish with a number like six, instead on an 11 or 12.
Getting back to the formula, I took each number associated with each team and multiplied it by the number of times they played an opponent. For example…
LSU played Florida every year since the expansion. So the equation looks like this, 2.05x 20 = 41.00. I did this for each team and ranked them to keep your head from spinning (at the bottom of this article there is a voucher for Advil). Basically, the lower the number, the tougher the opponent, here is the rankings.
12. Ole Miss
This only solidifies why it is hard for the under-30 LSU fan to see Ole Miss as a rivalry game. Even with the easiest cross division schedule the Black Rebels could not obtain a winning record.
11. Mississippi State
No need to harp on a team who still trails both Georgia Tech and Tulane in conference title and both has been out of the SEC since the mid-1960s…
10. South Carolina
Really who cares about the Gamecocks pre-Spurrier…lets just keep this thing moving along.
Here is the first eye-raising moment. As dominant as Alabama has been the last five years, remember for most of this era they were just a middle of the road team due to bad coaching and NCAA infractions. It always helps when you can play Vanderbilt 14 of the 20 years, but in Alabama’s defense, this game is a tradition that must be kept moving forward. (That last sentence was brought to you by the Alabama Restoring Order Project).
Going to avoid making fun of the nerds…they serve a purpose and I am not even close to their intellect…so yea.
When compiling the data on Kentucky, I was surprised to see them this high on the list. The main reason is that they are the only eastern conference team that played both Alabama schools just six times each. I would have assumed that only playing the highest ranked western conference teams the least would have had them in the back third, but it didn’t.
It is easy to overlook just how difficult Arkansas’s early SEC schedule was. It seems too long ago when Tennessee was one of the best teams not only in the conference, but the country. Along with Alabama, Arkansas got the worst from the Volunteers and because of this series alone had the worse record of the western teams.
Wow, I made a paragraph without a Petrino reference…therapy is working.
Now we are getting the teams that the schedules have not favored over the last 20-years. Georgia came in at fifth, but lets face it, they have had it worse than all the other teams. Not only do they have to play the third most difficult schedule in the east, but they have to play a neutral site game against Florida every year. Of all the team, Georgia uses tradition to get itself into more trouble than any other conference team and this has possible cost them extra SEC titles.
It should be noted that Georgia is the only SEC team with a .500 or better record against each team in the other division.
Without question LSU plays the most difficult cross-division opponent in the conference against Florida, but it didn’t help that the team they have rotated the most after their locked in opponents was Tennessee.
As much as I would like to see Florida removed from LSU’s rotation, it has become one of its biggest games each year. When the program was turning around, I always anticipated this game as a gauge to see just how good LSU was. And once LSU became a national power, it meant one more week that LSU was on national television and not another SEC west rival. That exposure alone almost makes the 7-13 record easier to look at.
Florida, like LSU, appears to be the whipping boy of their division. Before conference realignment, they didn’t have a cross-division rival like Tennessee or Georgia. When their series with LSU began, it seemed like a match made in heaven for the Gators, but the game has evolved into one of the biggest conference matchups each year.
Am I the only one surprised that Florida only has an 8-6 record against the state of Mississippi since 1992?
Auburn certainly had some beef when they had two locked in eastern division games. The Tigers brought some of the problem on themselves wanting to keep the Georgia game every year, but Alabama..err, the SEC forced them to play Florida also.
This makes since though. Of all the conference teams, is there a program with an inferiority complex worse than Auburn? I am sure they asked to play Florida every year just so they could stick their chest out to the other conference team in the state and taunt them about how tough their schedule was…
Here we are, Tennessee, of all teams, has played the most difficult cross-division schedule of all. I have to admit I would have never guess the Volunteers, but the numbers do not lie.
Tying this all together one thing jumps out at me, 17 of the 20 SEC championship during this time has been won by teams inside the top five of the schedule. This tells me that the schedule is a lot more balanced than I would have believed prior to researching.
The reason for the balanced numbers is that teams evolve. No team during this stretch has sustained a high level of success allowing teams to move up and down in the rankings.
Would I like to see the conference drop the lock-in game, absolutely, but only because I want to see LSU play all the teams on a consistent basis. I love when LSU plays Georgia and Tennessee, but why should I have to wait four years to see this happen?