SEC's New College Baseball Conference Schedule Misses Opportunity For More
The SEC on Tuesday announced its future conference schedule format to be enacted when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in July 2024.
The SEC will maintain a 30-game conference schedule, with teams playing 10 three-game series. Each team will have two permanent opponents, with the other eight conference weekends filled on a rotating basis. It will discontinue its divisions, which it has used since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 1992. The SEC has not yet determined what, if any, changes it will make to the format of its conference tournament.
Moving away from divisions was expected. A division-less format allows the schools to be more interconnected, produces fewer schedule inequalities and more flexibility. What it isn’t as good for is rivalries. Imagining a baseball season without a series between Mississippi and Mississippi State is absurd. But without divisions or a scheduling structure to ensure some teams always play each other, that’s what you get. Just ask the Big Ten, which every so often skips baseball’s edition of Michigan vs. Ohio State or Indiana vs. Purdue.
So, if the SEC was going to do away with divisions, it would have to create a structure to protect its rivalries. The biggest question was about how many permanent opponents the schedule would allow for.
The SEC landed on two, which I initially thought was fine. The conference was created in 1932 and in 90 years of playing each other, a fair number of rivalries have sprouted. But the conference has changed, expanding three times, and the rivalries can’t all be protected in this version of the league. Most schools don’t need more than two rivalries to be protected—some don’t even really need two.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that two permanent opponents isn’t enough. We don’t yet know what the permanent opponents will be and it’s not an easy puzzle to put together.
What I do know is that, starting in 2025, Texas will be in the same conference as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Only two can be annual opponents. Georgia will be in a league with Auburn, Florida and South Carolina. Only two can be annual opponents. We’ll get Ole Miss and Mississippi State every year. But once you set that series aside, the Rebels and Bulldogs can only play one of Alabama, Arkansas, LSU or Vanderbilt annually. Florida will play Georgia, but it can only annually play one of Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
That's a lot of premium series that will be missed.
Now, not all of those classic rivalries have bitter feelings that go back generations. Florida and South Carolina, for instance, hadn’t played for 73 years before the Gamecocks joined the SEC in 1992. But they’ve played 100 games since, including two in the 2011 College World Series finals, naturally developing an exciting series with some edge to it.
Maybe moving on from those kinds of games being played annually is simply the cost of business in a 16-team conference. Having just two permanent opponents allows for a lot of year-to-year turnover in conference schedules. Every team will play every other team in the conference in two years and a four-year player (as uncommon as they are in this era of college baseball) will visit every SEC stadium. The series that I'm sad to be losing will still be played—just not as often.
But every team can play every other team in the conference every two years and visit every SEC stadium once every four years with as many as five permanent opponents. I would not argue for five permanent opponents. With five permanent opponents, you really have to work to find the right balance of protecting rivalries, playing geographically sensible schedules and competitive balance. Plus, no one has five opponents they need to play annually.
Three permanent opponents seems like the right number to me. Not every team has three teams it will feel like it has to play annually, and that’s ok. It’s worth it to have to jam a squarish peg into a round hole to give Kentucky or Alabama a third annual foe if it means that a year won’t go by without Auburn playing Georgia or Arkansas playing Texas, series that are unlikely to make the cut if there are just two permanent opponents. Those aren't annual series now, but what's the point of expanding and scrapping divisions if the new format can't rekindle these old rivalries?
The more permanent opponents you add, the more teams are likely to complain about schedule inequality. With just two permanent opponents, you’re not forcing any team into a series it doesn't want. Is it perhaps unfair that Texas A&M will likely have to play LSU and Texas annually while South Carolina might get Georgia and Kentucky? Maybe, but part of being Texas A&M is playing LSU and Texas and those are the kind of games the Aggies would schedule as non-conference games if they had to.
I’d argue that three is probably the most permanent opponents you can have before the relative schedule strength tips too far. Objectively, some teams would have it harder than others, but does LSU not want to play Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M? Does Auburn not want to measure itself against Alabama, Florida and Georgia?
Another benefit of three annual opponents instead of two is that it allows for the conference to make changes down the road if necessary. With just two annual opponents, there’s going to be very little room to change them if a suitable new rivalry develops. With three annual opponents, you could create an annual Arkansas vs. Tennessee series, if you wanted. If the 2022 CWS finals was just the start of a true rivalry between Ole Miss and Oklahoma, then you can match them up when the Sooners arrive in the SEC. And then, if half a dozen years later, those series aren’t carrying the same kind of energy, you could reshuffle the deck.
Two annual opponents is sensible. It maintains the conference’s biggest rivalries and it ensures some easy travel in a conference that now spans from Florida to Oklahoma. It’s fine. But it’s going to deny fans some of the best rivalries and atmospheres that the SEC has to offer. If this means more, it should mean more rivalries, too.