More of this, only with less orange. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
I'm embarrassed for LSU's leadership right now. Arguing against the Florida game is just cowardly, and part of the problem in college football right now: everyone is in a race to the bottom in scheduling.
Schools try and schedule weak out of conference, but not too weak so as not to hurt the strength of schedule. AD's argue with a straight face about the need for eight home games, a full two thirds of the schedule. As if any SEC team, awash in television cash, is in desperate need of another home game to help the bottom line. It's either greed or fear of competition, take your pick. And neither are attractive options.
Let's be the school that bucks the trend. Let's embrace playing a tough schedule. Too hard? Then go to some program where they are afraid to prove how good they are. LSU should embrace the challenge and stop the race to the bottom. Know what's unfair? Robbing fans of one of the best games of the season and depriving players of the biggest stage to prove their mettle.
Big boy programs should want to play other big boy programs. Mississippi State gets Kentucky? Well, when we've only one SEC title in our history, maybe then we can swap for an easier permanent opponent. Shame on Les for even making that argument. That lacked chest.
Arguing against the Florida game from a competition or fairness standpoint makes me sick. It's perfectly fair the SEC makes sure the historic top programs play each other. It's not like Alabama got to keep the Vanderbilt rivalry.* Teams ebb and flow in quality, but roughly speaking, Alabama, LSU, and Auburn are the top programs in the West and they are paired with Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia, the top programs in the East. Arkansas and Texas A&M are the "middle class" programs of the West and they are paired with South Carolina and Missouri, the East's middle class (this isn't meant a slight on these programs, but win a national title or at least contend for one and we'll re-evaluate). This leaves the weaker programs to pair off. This isn't a one-off season strength, but systemic quality of programs over a period of time. We're matched pretty fairly.
*Yes, I know originally we had two permanent rivals and Bama DID get to keep Vandy. That proved unworkable and when push came to shove, Alabama kept Tennessee, a historically strong program.
Also, a loss to Florida cannot, has not, and will not ever prevent LSU from winning the West. If LSU loses to Florida and then wins out, it is impossible under SEC tiebreaker rules for LSU to not go to Atlanta. Think the Florida game is "too tough"? Fine. Win your other games and you still win the division. Hell, LSU won a national title in 2003, a season which included a loss to Florida.
But even if somehow a loss to Florida cost LSU the SEC West, here's the kicker: so what? In this scenario, LSU doesn't deserve the SEC title because Florida is the better team. Does it matter if we lose in October or in December? If it's about the SEC title, then Florida deserves it over LSU in a year in which they beat us. If you get a rematch in Atlanta, it's a gift. But you don't really deserve gifts, you just receive them and say "thank you".*
*Which reminds me, thank you to the SEC for 2001. LSU winning that title in a rematch against Tennessee was absurd. Awesome, but absurd.
You want to be the best? Play the best. And don't complain about how it's too hard. It's supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great. (How often do you get to quote Jimmy Dugan?)
However, there is a good argument against permanent rivalry games, and the former Alabama-Vanderbilt rivalry hints at it: we do need to play Eastern teams with some frequency. The old 5-2-1 system didn't work because LSU would go six years without playing Tennessee, and we'd miss seeing players like Peyton Manning in college. Which sucked. I missed the chance to see Peyton hang 50 on us.
The 6-1-1 proposed schedule repeats the same mistake, even if the conference delays the return of the home and home. It will take six years to play every team in the East, and twelve to visit each stadium. That's a long time, and it loosens the conference bonds.
That said, permanent rivals are important. They also strengthen the bonds of the conference, and it ensures programs of relative quality play each other every year. More importantly, it preserves two of college football's greatest rivalries. Alabama-Tennessee gets the press, but I think saving Auburn-Georgia is more important.
Auburn is an Eastern team playing in the West. Their traditional rivals were largely the eastern schools, and they took one for the conference when they agreed to move West. The SEC predates 1992, and Auburn's already been asked to sacrifice the Florida game, but asking them to also give up the South's Oldest rivalry is just obscene. That's not progress, that's slapping tradition in the face. I think preserving one of the oldest rivalries in sports is not some incidental goal. Auburn's given up a lot for the SEC, and as their conference mates, we can give them this. Tradition matters. It matters a lot. Even if it's not my tradition.
So, if permanent rivals should be preserved and the 6-1-1 doesn't provide for enough frequency of other Eastern opponents, what's left? The solution is obvious: a nine game schedule with permanent rivals preserved.
The 6-2-1 preserves the traditional rivals, and it also provides more frequency. It's also easy to make work. There are six "non-rivals" in the East, and if you play two a year, you can play all six in a three year span. You could visit all six campuses in a six year span, which is just one more year than a redshirt senior's career. A redshirt senior would visit every SEC stadium save one in his career.
What's stopping the nine game schedule? Schools don't want to give up a home game against Directional State U. The non-competitive race to the bottom rears its head again. You know what? You don't need the cash of another home game because you'll be cashing those SEC Network checks.
Gee, I'm sorry that a team might have to play a "mere" six home games in a 12-game regular season schedule. Get over your greed and do something for the good of the game. Playing eight, or even seven, home games in a 12-game season is inherently non-competitive.
Play nine conference games, and some years, you'll only get to play four of those at home. Schedule two Directional State schools and you've got six home games. I'm not going to feel sorry for teams that can't load up with four patsies anymore.
Look at Georgia last year. They played eight conference games, one at a neutral site. They also managed to play Boise at a neutral site (sort of) and Georgia Tech on the road. And the world didn't end and they didn't go bankrupt. LSU played a conference slate plus Oregon at a neutral site and West Virginia on the road. And it was awesome. Nor did the school go bankrupt. You can schedule difficult games and be successful. It can be done. Last year's division winners prove it. We can give up the Towson game.
I'm sick of greed and fear ruling scheduling. Go out and play some teams. College football and the SEC will be better for real competition and schedules that more resemble something fair while preserving tradition. It's too hard? Grab a helmet. No one wants to hear it.