By Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
BATON ROUGE – As far as the Southeastern Conference office and a wide majority of its 14 member schools are concerned, SEC West usual power LSU playing SEC East usual power Florida in football every season is akin to Alabama playing Tennessee and Auburn playing Georgia every season in other West-East geographic- and history-based rivalries.
After a special meeting of athletic directors in Atlanta on Sunday that resulted in a 10-4 vote to keep this basic scheduling format that began in 1992, the SEC announced that those cross-division rivalries within the usual eight-game conference schedule will continue despite continued kicking and screaming from LSU athletic director Joe Alleva.
“I'm disappointed in the fact that the leadership of our conference doesn't understand the competitive advantage permanent partners give to certain institutions," Alleva told NOLA.com Sunday night, repeating what he has regularly said after the old format continued to be passed on year after year.
“I tried to bring that up very strongly at the meeting,” Alleva said. “In our league we share the money and expenses equally but we don't share our opponents equally. People voted their own self-interest instead of what is in the best interest of competitive balance. I understand Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia for the history, but that's only four schools. The rest were voting in their own self-interest. They could have kept those games and the rest of us rotated. That was brought up but voted down. I'm not pushing for the self-interest of LSU. I'm pushing for the equity."
Alleva and LSU football coach Les Miles have struggled to find allies for what has become their school’s near singular quest for equity and to end the yearly LSU-Florida game, which has had a tendency to be among the most watched SEC pairings with the highest rankings in the polls. Florida coach Will Muschamp, for example, has wanted to continue the series even though the Gators trail 6-4 over the last decade.
Alleva has often pointed to the fact that LSU has had to play Florida and Georgia more than twice as much as Alabama has had to play both. Alabama’s permanent opponent – Tennessee – has been a league weakling in recent years, while Florida has been a power for the most part with national championships in 2006 and 2008. Alabama, though, has a very equal power and blood rival in its own state that it plays every season in Auburn, which won the national championship in 2010 and played for it last season. LSU, on the other hand, is the only BCS school in its state. It is also not in the central part of the conference as the state of Alabama is and thus has not historically had as many natural, border rivalries as Alabama and Auburn.
“This has been a thoughtful and deliberative process that has resulted in maintaining the current format,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said late Sunday afternoon in announcing the league will continue with the existing format of six games against division foes, one rotating game with a team from the other division and a permanent opponent from the other division.
“Tradition matters in the SEC, and there is no denying that tradition was a significant factor in this decision because it protects several long standing cross division conference rivalries,” Slive said. “It has been a hallmark of the SEC over our history to be able to make continued progress while also maintaining traditions important to our institutions.”
Alabama and Tennessee and Auburn and Georgia have been playing yearly for decades longer than LSU and Florida, though. Florida and Louisiana borders are close, but they are not bordering states as Alabama and Tennessee and Auburn and Georgia are.
The announcement was a culmination of a process that began in the spring of 2013 when the SEC presidents and chancellors committed to a review of football scheduling to be completed in time for the 2016 schedule, according to a release by SEC communications director Herb Vincent, who is a former LSU associate athletic director and often joined Alleva’s fight against the old scheduling format.
The league office pointed to two reasons for keeping the permanent non-division opponent that Alleva has been against. It creates annual cross-division rivalries that otherwise would not be annual games and provides each team with a traditional opponent for the final weekend of the season.
The permanent non-division opponent pairings are Alabama (West) vs. Tennessee (East), Arkansas (West) vs. Missouri (East), Auburn (West) vs. Georgia (East), LSU (West) vs. Florida (East), Ole Miss (West) vs. Vanderbilt (East), Mississippi State (West) vs. Kentucky (East) and Texas A&M (West) vs. South Carolina (East).
“The objective was to establish a format in the best long term interests of the conference,” the release said. “Approval of the format came at a special joint meeting of the presidents and chancellors of each SEC institution and each conference athletic director.”
The SEC also ruled that its member schools must schedule at least one opponent from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, the Big Ten or Pac-12 on an annual basis beginning in 2016 with assistance from the conference office.
“This gives us the added strength of schedule we were seeking while allowing continued scheduling flexibility for institutional preferences, and acknowledges that many of our institutions already play these opponents,” Slive said.