When you’re flying down the road at 120 miles an hour, sometimes your wheels get a little loose under you. And when you’re speaking at 500 words a minute, sometimes you might just let a bit of previously undisclosed information slip out.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher closed out 2022’s version of SEC Media Days by speaking roughly as many words in his allotted half hour as the previous 13 head coaches had during theirs, combined. And among the discussions of Nick Saban and Alabama (“I have great respect for him and their program, like always”) and the arrest of wide receiver Ainias Smith (“We have no comment at this time”), Fisher seemed to hint that he’s seen some version of a new one-division schedule, one that gives A&M three permanent rivals.
“You want Texas, when Texas comes into the league, when that schedule comes in, definitely because of that rivalry. I think LSU is a great rivalry. But that’s probably our two biggest,” he said. “I think the third team on our gamut, if I am not mistaken, was Mississippi State. Another West team. I believe that’s the way it was. I’m trying to think off the top of my head.” Fisher’s statement of specific rivalries was apparently the first public indication that the SEC has moved beyond the theoretical stage of one-division scheduling and into actual hypothetical schedules.
Left out of A&M’s rivalry slot: Arkansas, which first faced the Aggies all the way back in 1903. Arkansas leads that rivalry, 42-33-3. Texas A&M and Mississippi State first met in 1912, but have played only 14 times, with each school claiming seven wins.
Divisional realignment will be a priority for the SEC once Texas and Oklahoma join, whether in 2025 or earlier. At that point, the conference will have 16 members, and remaining in the current East-West division structure would be unwieldy. Oklahoma and Texas will be the westernmost schools in the conference, but placing them in the West would necessitate moving two schools (Alabama? Auburn? Mississippi State?) to the East.
One possible solution: a nine-game conference schedule, with three permanent opponents and six rotating conference opponents. That would give each team the opportunity for at least one home-and-home with every other school in the conference during every four-year cycle. The eight-game conference schedule would feature one permanent rival and a rotating schedule of seven opponents; the SEC has played an eight-game schedule since 1992.
Earlier in the week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey indicated that the league’s schedule plans are “still under consideration,” but meetings earlier this year ended with “a focus placed on a single division model, with the ability to accommodate either an eight-game or nine-game conference schedule.”
“Probably the model of three is much better because it gives you more consistency, helps keep some traditional rivalries,” Fisher said. “I think that’s the one thing we’re trying to do in college football. To me it makes college football special, the rivalries of college football, trying to keep as many traditions as you can with the expanding world.”
SEC fans can decide for themselves which teams ought to constitute their big three; Auburn-Alabama, Georgia-Florida and Ole Miss-Mississippi State are obvious, but what about beyond the best-known rivalries? That’s where Fisher’s question about Mississippi State over Arkansas comes in. How much influence will schools have to declare who their rivals ought to be, and how much matchmaking will be mandated by the SEC? All is up in the air.
A single-division model will also produce competitive imbalances — some schools will play Alabama, Georgia, or both every year, while some will face neither — and questions about tiebreakers. Plus, there’s the looming question of how to send as many teams as possible to the playoffs, however many playoff spots there may be.
“We want to understand the impact through the use of analytics on bowl eligibility for our teams who are growing their programs, and College Football Playoff access dependent on the number of teams that might be included,” Sankey said.
So as if college football isn’t already complicated enough with NIL, the transfer portal, and conference-jumping schools, now schedule and rivalry upheaval enters the mix. Seems about right.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.