Even though it is likely in its final-ever season, the SEC’s cross-division format is a perfect illustration of how not all schedules are created equally.
While, by assigning each member a permanent cross-division opponent, the practice protects some of the conferences’ oldest rivalries, it also gives certain teams a one-game competitive advantage while others are strapped with a similar disadvantage.
Throw in a rotating opponent each season and what results is a one or two game swing. In a conference where the winner gets a guaranteed CFP bracket slot, it’s a big deal.
2023 Cross-division opponents: at South Carolina, Kentucky
Mississippi State adds a roadie at South Carolina to its annual clash with permanent cross-division rival Kentucky. Though the Gamecocks are fresh off an 8-5 performance – their best mark since 2017 – they aren’t the defending champion Bulldogs nor the Volunteers, an 11-2 product from a year ago. MSU avoids both in regular season play.
2023 Cross-division opponents: at Missouri, Florida
While it’s impossible to predict whether Florida’s two-season downturn will continue, the Gators’ recent struggles provide LSU with a competitive advantage, at least for now. Where Ole Miss’s dance card always includes Vanderbilt, the Tigers have had the task of playing Florida annually, the SEC East’s most consistent performer over the last two decades. Add in this season’s rotating opponent – a Missouri club that hasn’t gone over .500 since 2018 – and LSU should be able to post a 2-0 record in cross-division play.
2023 Cross-division opponents: at Florida, Missouri
As mentioned above, while nobody can accurately say what will happen in Billy Napier’s second season at the helm, most prognosticators have the Gators finishing among the bottom four teams in the SEC. For Arkansas, who is permanently paired with Mizzou, it means that maybe, just maybe, it’s finally drawn Florida as its rotating opponent in the “right” year. The Razorbacks are 2-10 all-time vs. the Gators. They’ve only beaten them once in SEC play (in 2016) and have never won in Gainesville (0-5).
2023 Cross-division opponents: Georgia, at Vanderbilt
Strapped with the defending national champions as their permanent rival from the East, it would be irresponsible to claim that Auburn has it “easy” in cross-division play. That said, this season they do pair their seemingly impossible dream with a possible one – a roadie at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have won just three SEC games in their last four seasons.
2023 Cross-division opponents: South Carolina, at Tennessee
The Aggies add a roadie at Tennessee to their standing date with South Carolina thereby only avoiding Georgia from the top contenders in the East. It’s a scheduling caveat that will make righting the ship for a team that started its last two seasons ranked at No. 6 in the preseason AP only to finish unranked even more difficult. Texas A&M hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent on the road since Nov. 8, 2014 – a 41-38 win at (3) Auburn in what was Kevin Sumlin’s third season at the helm.
2023 Cross-division opponents: at Mississippi State, Alabama
Not only does Kentucky draw permanent rival Mississippi State in Starkville, where it’s lost six-straight, it gets mighty Alabama as its rotating opponent from the West. The Wildcats are 2-38-1 all-time vs. the Crimson Tide, the only-ever wins coming in 1997 and 1922, both in Lexington.
2023 Cross-division opponents: Vanderbilt, at Georgia
Ole Miss’s blessing of having Vanderbilt as its permanent rival from the East will be counterbalanced this year by drawing the defending national champion Bulldogs. It’s the first time the two have clashed since 2016. The Rebels won that game 45-14 (but ultimately vacated the win), snapping a ten-game losing streak to UGA. They haven’t beaten a team ranked in the Top Ten on the road since a 29-28 win over (10) Texas A&M in College Station on Nov. 26, 2016.
2023 Cross-division opponents: LSU, at Arkansas
Missouri has had two shining moments since joining the SEC in 2012, engineering a stunning 23-5 run from 2013-14. Since then, they’ve managed just two winning campaigns – a 7-6 mark in 2017 and an 8-5 record in 2018. Though they avoid Alabama, this year being “the year” they finally turn the corner will be made one step more difficult by adding a visit by LSU – expected to be a top contender in the conference – to its fixture with Arkansas. Mizzou did manage a narrow home win over the southern Tigers in 2020 but that also marks its only win over LSU in SEC play.
Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.
I know Vandy hasn’t been very successful in SEC play in the last 4 years, but 2 of its 3 SEC wins in that span came last season against Florida and Kentucky, which went to bowls. Clark Lea has the Commodores going in the right direction and I’m not sure the 2023 squad will be one that anyone in the conference can take lightly.
Amy does a good job compiling these interesting observations. So glad this is the last of this insane scheduling matrix where 6 conference members are treated like step siblings playing each other only 2X in 12 years.
Next year playing all conference members at least 1H/1A in a 4-year time frame rewards players and fans. This makes the SEC a real conference – scheduling wise.
College football and its traditions has changed dramatically over the past few years due to the pursuit of money. The SEC is going to have to change and give up some of its traditional rivalries to achieve the goal of playing all conference members H/A within a four-year window.
If they do it right, no one will have to give up a rivalry they really care about in 3-5-5 format.
I believe the SEC needs to go to 4-team pods after Texas and Oklahoma enters the conference. Having one permanent opponent and playing one other division opponent every seven years is not a true conference. With 4 team pods, each school will play each other school every other year. that makes so much more sense, while playing your three pod opponents yearly. I think the permanent opponent and playing but one team from the other division is not the best way to see more opponents on a more consistent basis.
I can’t tell why Missouri is a cross division scheduling loser if they went 7-2 against Arkansas in SEC play. Is Tennessee a loser after going 6-4 against permeant rival Vandy? Is it because the games don’t count when Arkansas has a “down” decade? This is all so confusing
Tennessee’s permanent cross-division rival is Alabama, not Vanderbilt.