While most everyone will agree that Alabama playing Tennessee on an annual basis while LSU is paired with Florida is ridiculous, how unfair is it?
Yes – the Volunteers are 62-63 (.496) since 2009 while the Gators are 83-45 (.648) – but is there a different way to quantify the competitive disadvantage associated with the permanent cross-division rivalry scheme?
Think about it this way – in the last decade, only seven of the 14 members of the SEC have made it to the conference championship game.
From the East division, Georgia leads the way with four appearances (2011-12 and 2017-18), Florida is next with three (2009 and 2015-16), Missouri comes in third with two (2013-14), and South Carolina is last with one (2010).
In the West, Alabama has a dominant lead with six title appearances (2009, 2012, 2014-16, and 2018), Auburn is second with three (2010, 2013, and 2017) and LSU comes in last with just one (2011).
Though certainly not fool-proof, these seven teams – four from the East and three from the West – are the “top tier” members of the SEC over the last decade.
Next, let’s look at how many times each of these upper-echelon programs played their elite counterparts from across the conference in the other division during the regular season. Where applicable, permanent cross-division rivals are listed in bold.
Georgia – 14 (Alabama in 2015, Auburn from 2009-18 and LSU in 2009, 2013. and 2018)
Florida – 14 (Alabama in 2010-11 and 2014, Auburn in 2011, and LSU from 2009-18)
Missouri – 4 (Alabama in 2012 and 2018, Auburn in 2017, and LSU in 2016)
South Carolina – 7 (Alabama in 2009-10, Auburn in 2010-11 and 2014, and LSU in 2012 and 2015)
Alabama – 8 (Georgia in 2015, Florida in 2010-11 and 2014, Missouri in 2012 and 2018, and South Carolina in 2009-10)
Auburn – 15 (Georgia from 2009-18, Florida in 2011, Missouri in 2017, and South Carolina in 2010-11 and 2014)
LSU – 16 (Georgia in 2009, 2011 and 2018, Florida from 2009-18, Missouri in 2016, and South Carolina in 2012 and 2015)
The results illustrate numerically how inherently unfair the permanent cross-division rival scheme is. While it’s impossible to assert that scheduling is the sole reason why Alabama has ascended to the SEC title game six of the past ten seasons, it’s equally impossible to say that it hasn’t helped the Tide get there.
It also explains why the SEC East has been more competitive – as in no one team has been the consistent frontrunner at least in part because the top two teams have equal scheduling burdens. Furthermore, it makes a strong case for advantageous cross-division scheduling being a major component of Missouri (which is paired with Arkansas from the West) winning the East division in 2013 and 2014.
To really drive home the point, look at the six seasons that Alabama won the West division and compare its regular-season opponents from the East vs. those of Auburn and LSU. Again, each team’s permanent cross-division rival is listed in bold.
Alabama – (8-0 in SEC play) – at Kentucky (win), (22) South Carolina (win), and Tennessee (win)
Auburn – (3-5 in SEC play) – at Tennessee (win), Kentucky (loss), and at Georgia (loss)
LSU – (5-3 in SEC play) – Vanderbilt (win), at (18) Georgia (win), and (1) Florida (loss)
Alabama (7-1 in SEC play) – at Missouri (win) and at Tennessee (win)
Auburn (0-8 in SEC play) – at Vanderbilt (loss) and (5) Georgia (loss)
LSU (6-2 in SEC play) – at (10) Florida (loss) and (3) South Carolina (win)
Alabama (7-1 in SEC play) – Florida (win) and at Tennessee (win)
Auburn (4-4 in SEC play) – South Carolina (win) and at (16) Georgia (loss)
LSU (4-4 in SEC play) – at Florida (win) and Kentucky (win)
Alabama (7-1 in SEC play) – at (8) Georgia (win) and Tennessee (win)
Auburn (2-6 in SEC play) – at Kentucky (win) and Georgia (loss)
LSU (5-3 in SEC play) – at South Carolina (win) and (8) Florida (win)
Alabama (8-0 in SEC play) – Kentucky (win) and at (9) Tennessee (win)
Auburn (5-3 in SEC play) – Vanderbilt (win) and at Georgia (loss)
LSU (5-3 in SEC play) – Missouri (win) and (21) Florida (loss)
Alabama (8-0 in SEC play) – Missouri (win) and at Tennessee (win)
Auburn (3-5 in SEC play) – Tennessee (loss) and at (5) Georgia (loss)
LSU (5-3 in SEC play) – at (20) Florida (loss) and (2) Georgia (win)
Particularly of note are the 2012 and 2018 seasons, when LSU – which was a legitimate contender – played a pair of ranked teams while Alabama scored wins over unranked Missouri and Tennessee.
Also noteworthy is who Alabama didn’t play, a discussion that is every bit as important as who it did face. In other words, the Tide completely avoided Florida and Georgia in four of the six seasons it won the West. Of the two exceptions – in 2014 and 2015 – only once were the Gators or Bulldogs ranked in the Top 25 when Alabama played them. That was in 2015, when Georgia was at No. 8 for its Oct. 3 visit from the Tide. The Bulldogs fell 38-10 in that game and then lost 38-31 to Tennessee the next Saturday, dropping out of the rankings for the remainder of the season.
In fact, where LSU has played eight ranked opponents in cross-division play since 2009, Alabama and Auburn have each played three. It amounts to LSU facing a ranked team in 40% of its total action vs. the East in the last decade compared to Alabama and Auburn playing Top 25 teams 15% of the time.
Furthermore, is it any coincidence that in two of the four seasons that the Crimson Tide didn’t manage to win the West that it also played a ranked Florida team that same season?
As far as contending that LSU, the team that has played the stiffest cross-division schedule since 2009, would have won a division title more than once had there been a true-rotating scheme from the East, that’s tricky because the Tigers have only beaten Alabama twice in the last ten years.
While in that specific instance it makes the point of title-grabbing moot, it does not change the rock-solid fact that cross-division scheduling in the SEC is grossly unfair.
The only true fix is to abandon permanent rivals and institute true rotating opponents from across the league. While there is no way to legislate total equality in a two-division format, this would ensure that no program has an inherent competitive advantage (by permanently being attached to a struggling program) or disadvantage (by annually playing a powerhouse program.)