Nick Saban barks up wrong tree about Alabama football schedule rivals. SEC can ignore him | Toppmeyer
To focus on an SEC team’s assigned rivals in the future football alignment and disregard the sum of the conference schedule is to ignore the big picture.
That’s commissioner Greg Sankey’s opinion, and I agree with it.
Count Nick Saban, though, among those who can't see the forest for the trees. The Alabama coach would rather shout at loblolly pines.
Saban recently bemoaned to Sports Illustrated that Alabama’s earmarked rivals in a projected nine-game SEC schedule – Auburn, LSU and Tennessee – are unfair and don’t embody competitive balance.
By June, the SEC is expected to approve a schedule model to begin in 2024, when Oklahoma and Texas join the league. The SEC intends to scrap divisions, and, although multiple models remain under consideration, conference members probably will approve of a nine-game SEC schedule.
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The leading nine-game proposal would have each SEC team playing three rivals annually, while alternating between the remaining 12 teams so that a team plays every conference member at a minimum of once every two years. That's much more often than most teams in opposite divisions play now.
This clever model would create more cohesiveness and competitive balance. But, naturally, squabbling will emanate from both inside programs and within fan bases about the three rivals assigned to each team.
Sankey, though, raised an obvious but important point: Fixed rivals would make up just one-third of a team’s conference schedule, in this model. Crying foul over competitive imbalance within 33% of the SEC schedule ignores the whole.
Across the SEC, schedules constructed using this nine-game, no-division model would be much more equitable than they are within the division structure.
“We’re not talking about three teams in a schedule. We will not play a three-game conference schedule. I can assure everyone of that,” Sankey told me during an interview earlier this week. “The focus on simply three teams overweights three games out of (the sum)."
Sankey didn’t mention Saban during our conversation, and I didn’t specifically ask about Saban’s comments.
But, it’s hard to read Sankey’s quote and not see it as a dismissal of Saban's ruckus over a sliver of the schedule.
Broaden the perspective, and you see Sankey's point.
Here’s what a mock nine-game conference schedule for Alabama could look like, with rival assignments of Auburn, LSU and Tennessee:
Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma
And here’s what a mock LSU schedule could look like, with earmarked rivals as Alabama, Texas A&M and Ole Miss:
Alabama, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Texas
Tell me, is there a gross competitive imbalance between those schedules? I don’t see it.
In a given year, you could make the case Alabama’s mock schedule I've presented would be tougher. In another year, LSU’s may be stiffer. Schedules throughout the conference will be comparably balanced.
Anyway, I’d rather endure Alabama’s trio of Auburn, LSU and Tennessee than be assigned Georgia, Oklahoma and South Carolina. That’s Florida’s proposed rivalry lineup, according to Sports Illustrated's informed projection.
Face Georgia annually? No thanks. Bring on LSU.
Sankey emphasized three points about the schedule formats the SEC is considering, including the nine-game model:
∎ Consider the SEC schedule in its totality, not just a snippet of it.
“We’re talking about the full scope of the schedule, not simply (rivalry assignments),” Sankey said.
∎ Embrace rivalries. A nine-game conference schedule with three rivals per team would allow the preservation of marquee rivalries like the Iron Bowl, plus secondary rivalries like Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee. Additionally, it would restore games like Texas-Texas A&M, Arkansas-Texas and Missouri-Oklahoma, series that were interrupted by previous rounds of SEC expansion.
“I’m not familiar with a lot of other conference expansions that restored rivalries,” Sankey said. “And, so, having those games played has great meaning for us.”
∎ Eliminating divisions will spur more competitive balance. Also, it will reduce the amount of time between matchups among teams that now are in opposite divisions and go years without playing. Currently, Ole Miss plays Vanderbilt annually in an interdivision rivalry, while LSU plays Florida. Fair? Hardly. Nor is it fair that Georgia, within the division structure, enjoys annual games against Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina, while Alabama’s schedule may feature none of those teams.
“There’s a significant imbalance with the strength of schedule now,” Sankey said. “... We know we can narrow that disparity. We know that. So, I think we have to focus on the big picture and not simply a small component of a schedule. I think the exciting thing is, the conversations are really focused on moving teams through campuses with much greater frequency.”
A nine-game conference schedule featuring three rivalry fixtures would be the best change to SEC scheduling in years. Appreciating that, though, requires a wide-angle lens and less shouting at trees.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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