Auburn would be foolish not to entertain thoughts of relocating to the SEC’s East division.
If given a choice, why not pursue the proverbial path of least resistance?
Why deal with the grueling likes of LSU, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State on an annual basis, when you could swap that out with a more manageable combination of Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina, UGA and Florida (no disrespect to the Dawgs and Gators)?
The whole concept makes perfect sense for Auburn officials. It even has merit for the cluster of Tennessee fans (aka the silent majority) who are sick of losing to Alabama every year, by way of the “permanent crossover” obligation.
But here’s the hangup: The initial speculation of potential SEC realignment, while fascinating to ponder, only comes from the Auburn perspective; and that can mean only one of two things:
1) Auburn has gotten ahead of this secretive and sensational narrative, essentially volunteering to move before any other SEC program could publicly make its case.
2) The SEC has no plans of realignment in its current 14-team format. But in conjunction with Auburn stirring the pot, conference officials might be ready to raid the Big 12 (Texas, Oklahoma) or ACC (Georgia Tech, Clemson) for two more powerhouse schools and create a 16-team “super-conference,” thus fulfilling Sports Illustrated’s tongue-in-cheek prophecy from more than 20 years ago.
In essence, Auburn’s out-of-nowhere musing might be an artfully conceived first move for conference expansion in the not-too-distant future.
Should Auburn be in the SEC East or SEC West?
— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) April 14, 2016
For now, though, let’s just address the ‘realignment’ angle with Auburn and the SEC:
THE AUBURN SIDE
With a simple one-for-one swap of Auburn and Missouri, the SEC could preserve most of its permanent crossover matchups earmarked for the next decade.
Here’s a hypothetical look at the adjusted crossovers, accounting for the Auburn and Missouri swap, with minor tweaks:
EAST | WEST
Auburn | Alabama
Florida | LSU
UGA | Missouri
Kentucky | Mississippi State
Tennessee | Arkansas
Vanderbilt | Ole Miss
South Carolina | Texas A&M
SKINNY: The previous crossover obligations of Florida-LSU, Kentucky-Mississippi State, Vanderbilt-Ole Miss and South Carolina-Texas A&M remain intact. However, there would be required changes with the following “East” schools:
Auburn — drops UGA, adds Alabama (preserving the Iron Bowl)
Tennessee — drops Alabama, adds Arkansas
UGA — drops Auburn, adds Missouri
On second thought, if conference officials wanted to start from scratch on the crossover front, similar to what the Big Ten did a few years ago, it could pursue this funky model:
EAST | WEST — CROSSOVER MATCHUPS
Auburn | Alabama
Florida | Ole Miss
UGA | LSU
Kentucky | Missouri
Tennessee | Arkansas
Vanderbilt | Texas A&M
South Carolina | Mississippi State
With the exceptions of Auburn-Alabama and Tennessee-Arkansas, this crossover model offers a different facade than the one above.
LSU — drops Florida, adds UGA (swapping out one daunting annual opponent for another)
Ole Miss — drops Vanderbilt, adds Florida (Hugh Freeze’s reward for building a powerhouse)
Texas A&M — drops South Carolina, adds Vanderbilt
LSU — drops Kentucky, adds South Carolina
Missouri — drops UGA, adds Kentucky
If the SEC shuffles things, @CoachGusMalzahn wouldn't be opposed to Auburn moving to the East. "I think there will be discussion on that."
— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) April 13, 2016
THE SEC SIDE
The West has captured the last seven SEC championships, with an average victory margin of 22 points.
During that span, the West representative also had a composite national ranking of 1.7 (never dipping below No. 3 overall), whereas the East champion had an average national ranking of 10.3.
In terms of being the impetus for change, is seven years a sufficient sample size? That’s debatable.
But what if the “West dominates” trend remains for another five seasons? At that point, it might be too late for SEC officials to tout the “Simple Realignment” model of swapping Auburn for Missouri.
Instead, the massive super-conference look at 16 teams might be the most viable strategy to pursue, in terms of competitive fairness, adding to the league’s revenue pie and, of course, remaining the alpha-dog conference of college football.
Or the SEC could conceive a North-South divisional split, among the current 14 schools (in alphabetical order):
NORTH | SOUTH
Alabama | Auburn
Arkansas | Florida
Kentucky | LSU
Missouri | Mississippi State
Ole Miss | South Carolina
Tennessee | Texas A&M
Vanderbilt | UGA
Back to the East/West argument (14-team format):
Within the basic Auburn-Missouri divisional swap, SEC officials might worry about the likelihood of Alabama and Auburn meeting in back-to-back weeks at the end of the season — the regularly scheduled Iron Bowl and SEC title game (the following Saturday in Atlanta).
It’s a legitimate concern, but one that also warrants a history lesson:
a) In the three seasons Michigan and Ohio State were placed in separate divisions (2011-13), the Wolverines and Buckeyes never faced off in the Big Ten championship game.
b) The ACC has maintained a two-division look since the 2005 season. When the conference opted to put Florida State (Atlantic) and Miami (Coastal) in separate divisions, there was a large outcry from the other programs, believing league officials were stacking the deck to guarantee a TV-friendly FSU-Miami championship bout every year.
Fast forward to the present: Of the 11 ACC championship games in history, the Seminoles and Hurricanes have never shared the same field.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.