It must be the offseason because conference realignment has reared its ugly head, again. This time courtesy of Auburn's own Gus Malzahn. This realignment talk is a bit different, however. It's not about adding or subtracting teams but rather the internal realignment of divisions within the SEC.
Back when it was announced that the SEC would increase its number by two teams, and add teams in the western geographical footprint, Auburn fans took the opportunity to bring up a subject that has been on our minds for a while: why was Auburn placed in the SEC West when all but one of its true traditional rivals was in the SEC East? If we want to go just in terms of "Games Played," the only team that has been a consistent opponent of Auburn in the SEC West has been Mississippi State. Thanks to a few decades hiatus, Auburn and Alabama's total game count is relatively low compared to the other teams.
The SEC, however, decided that they would put Mizzou in the SEC East and Texas A&M in the SEC West. Yes, Mizzou, which is farther west than every SEC team except Arkansas and Texas A&M, would be in the Eastern Division.
Why is Auburn in the SEC West in the first place?
Why? Well, because there are some rivalries that are just too sacred to mess with. Auburn vs Alabama and Alabama vs Tennessee being the two biggest ones.
When the SEC split into divisions in 1992 due to the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, and the creation of the SEC Championship Game, the Tigers had to give up their traditional rivalry game with Tennessee.* Losing Tennessee while keeping Florida, Georgia, and Alabama was worth it, then. Putting Auburn in the SEC West at the time allowed most all rivalries to be preserved.
Florida and Georgia were kept as permanent cross-divisional opponents until after the 2002 season when the SEC dropped to only one permanent rivalry. For Auburn, Georgia was more important than Florida. However, now we're down to only Alabama and Georgia among Auburn's traditional rivals.
*Update: Will Collier informed me on Twitter that the AU/UT annual series was already set to end at Johnny Majors' insistence. That's something I wasn't aware of, before (I was 10 at the time).
Why do Auburn fans want to move to the SEC East?
Last summer I spent a lot of time writing about who were the opponents each SEC team had played the most in their history. Auburn was the only team of the "Big Six" to have the other five teams in their Top Six most-played. That's a rough schedule. Why do I bring that article up? Well, because it also shows something else.
When you take Auburn's all-time schedule into account, we're still 5-6 years away from any SEC West teams not named Alabama or Mississippi State passing even Tennessee on the list of all-time most-played SEC games for Auburn. To save you some time, here's the chart from that article above:
Matt Scalici, in a rather long and epic Twitter thread from last night, marveled that most Auburn fans seemed to support the move to the SEC East. Look no further than the chart above to see why Auburn fans value UF and UT so highly as rivals. Scalici was surprised we'd want to give up LSU, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. However, until the 1980s, Auburn had rarely ever played LSU, even though they were a conference foe. The same goes for Ole Miss.
The reasons for Auburn fans in their mid-30s onward to want Auburn in the SEC East should be obvious. I can understand younger fans' attachment to LSU, but while Arkansas has been a constant thorn in our side, I don't think you can say Tiger fans really look forward to the Hawgs or Ole Miss as must-see rivalry games each year.
How could it happen?
Here's where it gets touchy, and why I don't see it happening without a lot of other things blowing up. If the SEC wants to keep an 8 game conference schedule with only one cross-divisional permanent rivalry, then if Auburn moves to the SEC East either Third Saturday or the Iron Bowl will have to end as yearly events.
The SEC, with 14 teams, is just too unwieldy as it is. I don't like that we go 6 years between playing teams in the SEC East. However, that's the nature of the beast. I'd prefer we de-align the SEC and go back to pre-1992, but that's definitely not going to happen in the age of Media Rights.
The only other option is for the SEC to consent to 9 conference games with two cross-divisional opponents. That would allow Alabama to keep both Auburn and Tennessee. Auburn would then be able to keep Alabama and also Mississippi State and retain its top seven teams the Tigers have historically played. Some may want Auburn to keep LSU in that circumstance, but do you really want to see a schedule that consists of UF, UT, UGA, Alabama, and LSU? It would possibly be the nation's toughest schedule every single year.
So what do you think? Is this an idea you'd support? Sound off in the poll and in the comments below!