Provided Kenneth Starr and Baylor don’t get litigious again, Missouri is expected to become the SEC’s 14th member at any moment. And with Missouri and Texas A&M arriving as Nos. 14 and 13, somebody from the current SEC West will have to move to the East for the sake of balance. Most folks expect the mover to be Auburn — although Alabama, being its selfish self, is making noises about preferring that its arch-enemy stay put — and how would Auburn feel about upping sticks?
Pretty darn good.
Auburn is based in the Central Time Zone by the grace of 25 miles. It’s almost as close to Atlanta’s southern suburbs as to the capital of Alabama. The Tigers’ greatest rival has always been the school in Tuscaloosa, duh, but for most of Auburn’s existence its next-biggest rivals were Georgia and Florida and Tennessee. (And don’t forget Georgia Tech, which is now out of reach in the ACC, which will require some realignment of its own. Auburn students would hold a Wreck Tech parade — I once covered it — before that annual game.)
Auburn-Georgia remains an annual fixture — it’s the Oldest Rivalry in the Deep South and, in my view, the best game of most every year — but Auburn-Tennessee and Auburn-Florida were lost to the realities of divisional scheduling. They’d return with Auburn’s move to the East, and the Tigers wouldn’t be displeased.
Back in September, both Auburn president Jay Gogue and AD Jay Jacobs said they’d have no problem with moving, and in saying “no problem” they sounded almost giddy. As Jacobs told Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News: “We have so many students come from Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, they come on campus and say, ‘Why aren’t we playing Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina?’ ”
What Gogue and Jacobs didn’t say was what seems rather blatant: As it stands, the SEC East would be easier to win than the West. (Arkansas, the third-best team in the six-team West, is ranked ninth in the BCS standings.) But here we need to say, “Whoa.”
When the SEC split into divisions, the East became Beverly Hills and remained so until Steve Spurrier left for the NFL and Tennessee began to wobble. Of the first 11 SEC championship games, the East won eight. Only after Nick Saban planted his flag at LSU did the West begin to rise, and only after Saban returned from his own NFL misfire to reconfigure Alabama did the West become the cutthroat division we see now.
Alabama and LSU are two of the three best teams in the country. Arkansas is nuzzling into the Top 10. Auburn won the 2010 BCS title. Mississippi State, which was either the fourth- or fifth-best team in the six-team division, was ranked No. 20 nationally in preseason. (That was before anybody realized the maroon Bulldogs couldn’t beat any of its Western brethren save Ole Miss.) The winner of the SEC West has won not just three of the past four SEC titles but three of the past four national championships. That said …
These things are, as things tend to be, cyclical. From 1994 through 2003, every SEC East winner — meaning Florida, Tennessee or Georgia — was ranked No. 6 or higher in the Associated Press poll entering the league championship game. Over that span, only two SEC West champs — Alabama in 1994 and LSU in 2003 — were ranked as high as No. 6.
But Florida is on its third coach since Spurrier and Tennessee on its second since Phillip Fulmer and South Carolina, which for a century stood as a case study in never-won-anything, took the SEC East last year with three conference losses. (And got beaten by 39 points by Auburn in the title game.) Georgia is scrambling to bleed out another division title to prove it’s still relevant. Add all that together, and … why wouldn’t the Tigers be thrilled at the prospects of relocation?
Just as Florida and Tennessee weren’t impervious to time and tide (pun intended), Alabama and LSU and Arkansas won’t be, either. What if Saban takes $10 million to go rescue Texas? What if Les Miles gets a similar offer from Ohio State? What if Derek Dooley loses to Vanderbilt and Tennessee looks to Bobby Petrino, ever-ready to relocate?
For all the homage we pay to college football’s traditions, the cold truth is that the sport’s greatest determinant is the head coach. Alabama won a national championship under Gene Stallings in the first season of SEC divisional play, but didn’t sniff another until Saban worked his dark magic. Florida ruled the SEC under Spurrier but became a punch line under Ron Zook; then it hired Urban Meyer, who won twice as many national titles as the Evil Genius.
So long as Saban and Miles and Petrino remain in the SEC West, any opponent would find the going softer anywhere else. But that’s the catch with coaches. Eventually they leave, and everything changes.
By Mark Bradley