LSU Auburn Football

Auburn running back Tank Bigsby (4) carries the ball as LSU's Ali Gaye tries to make the tackle on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Auburn, Ala.

At his weekly news conference Monday, someone asked first-year Auburn coach Bryan Harsin how he might prepare his team for the strange, unusual, downright daffy things that tend to happen when LSU and Auburn play football.

Fires, missed field goals, interceptions. Stuff like that.

“Did you say there might be a fire?” Harsin asked.

Oh, there was a fire, coach. A giant one. Twenty-five years ago during the LSU game the old, wooden Auburn Sports Arena — just 40 yards east of Jordan-Hare Stadium — went up like a giant cherries jubilee in a first-half conflagration.

It was The Night the Barn Burned. Of course, there was The Earthquake Game in Tiger Stadium in 1988. The Interception Game in 1994 when Auburn beat LSU thanks to four defensive touchdowns (three pick sixes, one fumble return). There was the game in 2007 when LSU scored a touchdown with :01 showing on the clock, its national title hopes hanging by a thread. And the game in 2016 when the thread was cut on Les Miles’ career as LSU’s game-winning touchdown was erased because the snap came :01 too late.

There have been Heisman-worthy moments, victory cigars, Auburn players stomping on LSU’s Eye of the Tiger, and just an overflowing bushel basket of thrilling tussles. Dating back to 1988, 18 of the 31 LSU-Auburn meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Saturday's game at 8 p.m. in Tiger Stadium between these two evenly matched 3-1 teams has all the makings of yet another classic.

Maybe LSU wants to beat Alabama more. Certainly LSU-Ole Miss is a more ancient grudge. And LSU and Texas A&M have more in common geographically with their interconnected oil patch alumni. But over the past three decades, no series LSU plays has produced more drama per gallon than this one.

And now, with Texas and Oklahoma swelling the Southeastern Conference to 16 teams between 2022 and 2025, it may be going away. It definitely seems likely to change, with LSU and Auburn much less likely to play each other every year.

In the old days, SEC schools made their own schedules and LSU and Auburn were infrequent rivals. They didn’t play at all from 1943-68. From 1969-91, they met only eight times.

When the SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1992 by adding Arkansas and South Carolina, LSU and Auburn were suddenly thrust together in the newly created Western Division. This will be their 30th straight annual meeting with LSU holding a 16-13 series edge in that span and a 31-23-1 lead overall.

With the SEC gobbling up the Big 12’s two biggest superpowers, expansion may force LSU and Auburn apart.

No one knows how the SEC will be set up for football or when that setup will begin. The smart money is on Texas and Oklahoma paying exit fees to the Big 12 — somewhere in the vicinity of $80 million each — to leave before their contractual obligations expire. But when the Longhorns and Sooners are in, it will shake up the way the SEC plays football.

Will the SEC keep an eight-game conference schedule or go to nine? Will there still be divisions, or will the 16-team league divide into four-team pods? Or, as in basketball, will there be no divisions or groupings at all? SEC and former LSU spokesman Herb Vincent said Thursday the conference office and SEC athletic directors are sifting through the possibilities now.

Every scenario has its plusses and minuses, starting with expanding to nine SEC games. That would thrill ESPN, which will certainly pay more than the $300 million per year it agreed to give the SEC for exclusive TV rights starting in 2024 (adios, CBS) with Texas and OU coming. It will pay even more for more SEC inventory.

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That’s what the SEC gave its TV partners in 2020, repackaging the schedule into a 10-game, conference-only slate to avoid having the pandemic cancel the whole show. But nine games seem most likely.

Pods have their proponents, as in each school having three permanent opponents while playing the other 12 SEC schools in rotation. During SEC media days, the SEC Network (working with inside information?) suggested these mostly geographically aligned groupings:

Pod A: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina

Pod B: Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt

Pod C: LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M

Pod D: Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas

Under that scenario, LSU would play Ole Miss, State and A&M every year. The Tigers would then play six teams home and home in back-to-back years, and then the other six. So, for example, LSU’s 2025 SEC slate could look like this:

Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Two years later, in 2027, it could be this:

Ole Miss, State, A&M, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas and Vanderbilt.

It all seems more equitable than the SEC’s current 6-1-1 format of six permanent divisional opponents, one permanent cross-divisional opponent (in LSU’s case, Florida) and one rotating opponent (this year, Kentucky). But this formula is also fraught with issues. Texas and Texas A&M aren’t permanent opponents. Neither are Florida and Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia or, most importantly around here, LSU and Alabama or Auburn.

Longtime SEC football observer and SEC Network analyst Tony Barnhart suggests there is no real advantage to pods.

“What do you get for winning your pod?” he asked. “Nothing. You put the top two teams in the SEC championship game.”

That’s what the current 10-team Big 12 does now without divisions. But in a 16-team SEC, the tiebreaker possibilities could be tortuous. It’s easy to envision a year where LSU, Auburn, Florida and Oklahoma all wind up 8-1 in SEC play, igniting a string of potentially controversial tiebreakers to decide which two teams go to Atlanta.

No matter what, SEC football soon will look fundamentally different.

“I’m concerned that we’re going to lose some rivalries,” Barnhart said. “You won’t play everyone in the West every year. I hate to see it, but at the end of the day it has to be done.”

Before it happens, here’s hoping we get at least one more nickname-worthy game between LSU and Auburn.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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