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Fairness, tradition collide in argument over SEC schedules

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It is an argument that we've seen more than once as college football becomes a bigger and more lucrative business: How do conferences hold on to tradition -- the very fabric of what college football is about -- while trying to be fair to all of their constituencies?

Les Miles, head coach at LSU, wants to have that argument. Right now. His position: It is time to eliminate permanent crossovers from the SEC scheduling process. Here is what that means.

Under the SEC's current 6-1-1 scheduling format, teams play six opponents in their division, a permanent opponent in the other division, with one opponent rotating on an annual basis. Here are the permanent cross-division opponents for each school in the 14-member SEC:

Permanent crossovers
Static SEC rivalries
SEC WestSEC East
AlabamaTennessee
ArkansasSouth Carolina
AuburnGeorgia
LSUFlorida
MississippiVanderbilt
Mississippi StateKentucky
Texas A&MMissouri

NOTE: In 2014, Missouri will become Arkansas' permanent crossover while South Carolina will pair with Texas A&M.

Permanent crossover opponents have been in place since the SEC expanded to 12 teams and went to divisional play in 1992. It was done, more than anything else, to preserve two of the most storied rivalries in college football:

 Auburn-Georgia is the longest continuous football rivalry in the South. The two teams started playing in 1892 in Atlanta's Piedmont Park. Since 1898, there have been only two years that Auburn and Georgia have not met in football: 1917 (World War I) and 1943 (World War II).

 Alabama and Tennessee began playing in 1901. Since 1928 the two schools have met every year except 1943, when neither fielded a team because of World War II. "The Third Saturday in October," the traditional date when Alabama and Tennessee meet, is one of the most historical days on the college football calendar.

Miles says, however, that the concept of permanent crossovers is an idea whose time has passed. You'll note that LSU's permanent crossover is Florida, a team that the Tigers have actually played annually since 1971. Miles says that isn't fair because, as Matt Hayes of the Sporting News points out, over the past 10 years LSU and Florida have both been ranked nine times when they played. Tennessee and Alabama have both been ranked in the game once in that same span.

Miles is bringing out a lot of numbers trying to back his case that LSU has carried more than its fair share of the load when it comes to playing the best teams in the SEC.

"All I want," Miles told the Sporting News, "is a fair and equitable deal for all involved."

Miles is going on the offensive with his argument before next week's SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. During a brief appearance at a charity golf event in Baton Rouge, he addressed reporters on the issue.

"The most important thing the conference has to do is pick a champion in a fair, straightforward way," he told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "I trust they [other SEC schools] will recognize with the upcoming playoff and with the BCS bowls being so important, everyone should shoulder the burden of playing the better teams. Everybody."

I can appreciate Miles' point of view. The SEC West is the toughest division in all of college football. Alabama is the two-time defending national champion. Texas A&M, with Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, is the only team that beat the Crimson Tide last season.

And this season the Tigers also have to play Georgia (on the road) and Florida (at home) from the SEC East. Those two teams were a combined 14-2 in SEC play last season and will both be preseason top 10 in 2013.

Alabama, by contrast, has to play Kentucky and Tennessee from the other division. Those two teams were a combined 1-15 in conference play last season.

Texas A&M plays Vanderbilt (5-3) and Missouri (2-6) from the SEC East.

I can tell you that the last time this issue was seriously discussed in Destin it was very contentious. Missouri and Texas A&M were coming into the conference and one side felt strongly that at 14 teams, the SEC couldn't afford to hold on to the old scheduling model for the sake of those two traditional rivalries. The old model survived but there was an understanding that the issue would be revisited.

But I don't think LSU and the other schools that support this position will win this debate. Two reasons:

1. The votes just aren't there: It takes a majority of eight votes to do away with the permanent crossovers. Based on some digging around this week, I don't believe LSU has the votes.

We know that Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn are for the status quo. I feel confident in saying that Mississippi, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt also like the setup because their permanent crossovers (Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt, Mississippi State vs. Kentucky) are games that both sides feel they will have a chance to win in most years.

"The reality is that many of us are comfortable with who our permanents are," said Scott Stricklin, athletic director at Mississippi State. "If we're going to keep the eight-game schedule I am for keeping the permanent crossovers."

So that's eight votes right there. And to that list add Florida, which is very happy playing LSU on a yearly basis.

"We're fine with it," said Florida AD Jeremy Foley. "I understand where Les Miles is coming [from] and I appreciate LSU's point of view. But we think it's a great game for us and a great game for college football. Yeah, it's a tough game but we've got a lot of tough games in the SEC."

LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina appear to be interested in change. Arkansas and Missouri are expected to become permanent crossover opponents and an official rivalry game when the 2014 schedules are presented to athletic directors next week. Arkansas-Missouri will be a good game for both schools so I think they like the status quo moving forward.

That's 11-3 for keeping things as they are. Even if I'm wrong on Arkansas-Missouri, it's 9-5.

2. Tradition is a really big deal in the SEC. When the Big 12 went to divisional play in 1996 it did not employ permanent cross-division games. Oklahoma and Nebraska were placed in different divisions and, as a result, their annual rivalry, which had been played every year from 1928 until 1997, eventually came to an end.

"So many of these conference realignments have come at the expense of tradition and history," said Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, an Alabama graduate who played basketball for C.M. Newton. "I don't think history runs any deeper than Tennessee and Alabama and the Third Saturday in October. I would hate to see us lose that tradition. I feel very strongly about this."

This issue could get resolved down the road if the SEC goes to a nine-game conference schedule. That could potentially give the SEC enough flexibility to make all parties happy. We'll see.

So with Miles and LSU leading the way, expect a lively discussion on this issue next week in Destin. Commissioner Mike Slive has said repeatedly that he is open to any discussion of how to make football scheduling better and he often reminds us that "The First Amendment is alive and well in the SEC."

Who's on the other side?

The difficulty of a schedule in the SEC is usually measured by the quality of opponents teams have to play in the other division. Here are the cross-division opponents for each team in 2013 with their 2012 conference record in parentheses:

SEC interdivision games: 2013
Team (Division)Opponent ('12 SEC record)Opponent ('12 SEC record)
Alabama (West)Kentucky (0-8)Tennessee (1-7)
Arkansas (West)Florida (7-1)South Carolina (6-2)
Auburn (West)Georgia (7-1)Tennessee (1-7)
Florida (East)LSU (6-2)Arkansas (2-6)
Georgia (East)LSU (6-2)Auburn (0-8)
Kentucky (East)Alabama (7-1)Mississippi State (4-4)
LSU (West)Georgia (7-1)Florida (7-1)
Mississippi (West)Vanderbilt (5-3)Missouri (2-6)
Mississippi State (West)Kentucky (0-8)South Carolina (6-2)
Missouri (East)Mississippi (3-5)Texas A&M (6-2)
South Carolina (East)Arkansas (2-6)Mississippi State (4-4)
Tennessee (East)Alabama (7-1)Auburn (0-8)
Texas A&M (West)Vanderbilt (5-3)Missouri (2-6)
Vanderbilt (East)Mississippi (3-5)Texas A&M (6-2)

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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