For decades, they were two of college football’s most intense rivalries – at least in terms of competitiveness, not necessary fan-base bickering.
First was Auburn-Tennessee, reserved for the last Saturday in September. It was the game that often set the tone for both teams’ seasons. They played for 36 consecutive seasons. There was a stretch of eight seasons from 1983 through ’90 that one of them claimed at least a share of the SEC championship all but two years.
Soon after being hired as Auburn’s head coach, Pat Dye was asked if the Tigers might ever wear orange jerseys at home. Dye shot that down tersely saying, “Tennessee’s orange.”
One of their classics ended in a tie. It was 1990. Auburn had moved up to No. 3 in the country. Tennessee was No. 5. The Vols were up 26-9 before Stan White, a redshirt freshman quarterback playing on by the biggest stage of his life, led the Tigers to 17 consecutive points and a 26-26 tie.
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Second was Auburn-Florida, and by second I’m referring to the calendar, not the significance. They usually met around the middle of the season. Both had bigger conference rivals – Auburn-Alabama and Florida-Georgia. But that didn’t make their rivalry any less fierce. They played 48 consecutive seasons, and produced some legendary moments.
One of those moments came after what I’m fairly certain was the only time a non-human mascot drew a penalty. (I guess Uga’s sideline launch at Auburn’s Robert Bailey was considered just a good, clean football play.) It came in 1976. Florida’s Wes Chandler scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the game. War Eagle, Auburn’s mascot, left his (at least I think his) perch, swooped down and landed on Chandler’s shoulder. A 15-yard penalty on the home team for … what? Unnecessary roughness? Illegal use of talons?
Those two great rivalries became collateral damage to progress. One of the best changes to college football over the past 25 years has also been one of the worst.
Conference realignment, which began the breakup of the Southwest Conference, led to conference championship games and created new rivalries, such as Auburn-LSU and Tennessee-Florida.
But realignment also ended some great SEC rivalries, such as Auburn-Tennessee and later Auburn-Florida. (Preserving the Auburn-Florida rivalry was one of the main reasons that the initial format under divisional play called for each team to play two permanent cross-over opponents.) Auburn’s two were Georgia and Florida, but the latter was eventually dropped.
If Auburn gets its wish, those classic rivalries could be reborn. If Auburn is moved to the SEC East with Missouri shifting to the West – which makes complete geographical sense – the Tigers will revive those rivalries for Tennessee and Florida.
Realignment wasn’t on the official agenda last week as the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. But it was on a lot of people’s minds, including Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs.
“If we ever had the opportunity to geographically realign, it makes sense. It really makes sense for Missouri, because of the travel or other things like that,” Jacobs said.
Sure, that would be at the expense of Auburn’s growing rivalry with LSU, and presumably the Alabama-Tennessee game. Auburn would replace Tennessee as Bama’s permanent cross-over opponent, relegating Bama-Tennessee to the rotation of inter-division games.
A fair tradeoff? Depends on your point of view. It is for Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia. The change would mean Missouri probably would become Georgia’s permanent cross-over opponent, which in some years might not be good for the Dogs, but overall probably would be. Alabama fans might not like losing the Tennessee rivalry.
One way to resolve that would be to play a nine-game conference schedule and go back to two permanent cross-over games. The only way that would be equitable would be for the SEC to continue requiring every team to play at least one non-conference Power Five opponent every year. Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina are already doing that with their in-state rivals – Georgia Tech, Florida State, Louisville and Clemson, respectively.
That would give SEC team 10 credible opponents in a 12-game schedule. That should help come playoff and bowl selection time, not to mention boosting the appeal of season ticket packages.
Maybe next year realignment will make its way to the official spring meetings agenda. It’s time for a change.