LSU. Georgia. A sellout crowd in Tiger Stadium.
Tens of thousands more expected for the party that will envelop the LSU campus from the levee to the lake. Even the first football-ish weather, somewhat cooler and definitely drier than what we have been experiencing so far this season. The only thing that could make it more perfect would be a night kickoff instead of 2:30 p.m., but check back for that when Mississippi State and Alabama invade Tiger Stadium in the next three weeks.
It will be a colossal game, dimmed only slightly by LSU’s 27-19 loss this past week at Florida. It's still the nation’s highest-ranked battle between the No. 2 Bulldogs and No. 13 Tigers.
It's too bad these games don't happen more often.
LSU and Georgia have never been frequent football foes. Saturday’s game will mark only the 31st meeting between the Tigers and Bulldogs since they started playing each other 90 years ago in 1928. And three of those previous 30 meetings were not scheduled but came about because LSU and Georgia squared off in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
The Tigers and Bulldogs reside in opposite SEC divisions — LSU in the West, Georgia in the East — reason enough that these schools are meeting in football for the first time since 2013 and for only the fourth time in a regular-season game since 2004.
But the fact that the programs are in East and West is not the gulf that divides them. Rather, it is the SEC scheduling format itself.
The current format, which shows no signs of changing, calls for teams to play all six rivals in their division, one permanent opponent from the opposite division and rotate the other six teams from the opposite division annually. Florida is, of course, LSU’s permanent opponent from the East, which means there can be huge gaps between the games with the other six Eastern Division teams.
LSU and Georgia, for example, are not scheduled to play again until 2025 in Athens. The SEC has not released schedules further out than that, but it would be fair not to expect Georgia to visit Tiger Stadium again until 2030 or so.
The SEC has anchored itself to the current format to preserve certain cross-divisional rivalries, namely Alabama and Tennessee. A meteor would hit the Earth if Alabama and Tennessee didn't play every year. The SEC says it wants to preserve other rivalries like Georgia-Auburn and perhaps even LSU-Florida, but Texas A&M and South Carolina play each other every year, too. Those two schools could be on different planets if they didn’t play.
One problem, and there are many, is finding an equitable way to schedule 14 teams. It is like trying to maneuver a giant cargo ship down the Mississippi, cumbersome and fraught with challenges.
The 14-team Big Ten has a nine-game conference schedule with one permanent cross-divisional opponent and two other cross-divisional rotating opponents. The conference is changing permanent opponents in 2022.
The 14-team ACC schedule mirrors the SEC’s 6-1-1 format. The conference two years ago shot down a proposal to go to nine ACC games, something that has been talked about but never seriously considered in the SEC. North Carolina State athletic director Debbie Yow at the time complained that the format only allowed her school to play Duke (whose stadium is 22 miles away) only twice in 12 years.
Conference USA embarked last year on a more equitable system. In CUSA teams play the six teams in their division, then play two from the opposite division home and home, then play the next two teams. For example, Louisiana Tech went to Western Kentucky in 2017 and hosted Florida Atlantic, then in 2018 have WKU in Ruston and play at FAU. Admittedly, the conference isn’t complicated like the SEC by a lot of long-standing cross-divisional rivalries, but everyone plays everyone else within seven years.
So what should the SEC do? Glad you asked. Here is my plan:
1. Make the divisions more geographically true. Missouri came into the SEC in the East though its campus lies west of all but two SEC schools: Texas A&M and Arkansas. Move Missouri and Vanderbilt to the west, Alabama and Auburn to the East. That way, Alabama can play Tennessee all it wants within the division. Same for Auburn-Georgia. Yes, Vandy is actually a bit farther east than Alabama, but leaving Alabama in the West keeps the permanent cross-division rival thing in place. This also creates a heck of a free-for-all in the East and likely LSU-Texas A&M domination of the West, but in the name of Rand McNally it looks right on the map.
2. Eliminate cross-divisional rivalries. Put them in a glass case in an SEC museum somewhere with Tulane, Sewanee and the Wing-T formation.
3. Change the format: Have teams play all six teams in their division and two from the opposite division each year, one home and one away. That way, every SEC school will play each other within a four year span.
Will any of this happen? Not a chance. But it’s fun to dream, and irritate the SEC status quo at the same time.