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September 13, 2011

HURT: A 13-team SEC


It's a long word, one that people who find their fun in polysyllables toss around from time to time. It means "the morbid fear of the number 13," an affliction that does not affect most SEC football fans.

A related syndrome, though, could be about to spread throughout the Southeast. Call it "Triskaideka-skedaphobia" - the fear of scheduling in a league with 13 teams. The symptoms of that phobia may last only one year, but Mike Slive's Monday comments, in which he indicated that the Southeastern Conference was looking forward to adding Texas A&M as a member and that SEC officials were studying scheduling possibilities for 13 teams in 2012, strongly suggest that people better get used to the idea - and get over the fear of 13.

Other people have already written about the impossibility of a balanced schedule in a 13-team league. Clay Travis addressed the issue on his website a couple of weeks ago and - since we are dealing with the iron laws of mathematics here - my work will necessarily be similar. But here is the simple framework.

The SEC will not do in football what it has essentially already done in basketball and scrap the division concept altogether. The reason is simple: NCAA rules require that, in order to have a championship game, a league must have two divisions. That is why the SEC went to divisions in the first place.

The most logical solution, if Texas A&M is indeed the only member of the league's 2012 pledge class, is to put the Aggies in the Western Division. There are other options, such as moving a team from the West to the East (likely, if Missouri actually becomes Team No. 14) but the current SEC configuration is clean and it's popular, and the less it is gerrymandered, the better. So, hypothetically, you would have a seven-team Western Division and a six-team East. That's where the heavy hand of mathematics curls itself into a fist and punches the schedulers in the nose.

Why? Because there is no way to have an eight-game (or nine-game) SEC schedule in which every team in a seven-team West Divison could play every other team in the division and still play an equal number of teams from the East. It is a mathematical impossibility, insoluble even by a mind like Einstein's (or even Les Miles'.)

At best, you could have three teams playing a 6-2 rotation (six West games, two East) and the four other teams playing a 5-3 rotation. That would give you the requisite 18 interdivisional (East vs. West) games needed to have a balanced schedule in the East (i.e, all teams playing five division and three opposite-division games.) But it also leaves the SEC with four teams in the West who won't play every team in their own division.

That could lead to all sorts of gnarly possibilities. Those range from gosh-awful tiebreakers (what if Auburn and LSU, for instance, both go 7-1 without playing each other? Who gets left out of the title game?) to the hypothetical horror of a year without an Alabama-Auburn game.

Realistically, that isn't going to happen, of course - but there could definitely be a 2012 with no Alabama-Ole Miss game, to cite one possible example.

For one year, the unbalanced schedule might be more of a nuisance than a full-fledged disaster. It will involve some games moving, and some contracts being bought out. (Alabama officials have said privately that it won't affect the 2012 opener against Michigan outside of Dallas, although those officials wouldn't relish two trips to Texas and one to Arkansas in the same year.) No one has said whether the SEC will help financially if nonconference games have to be cancelled, but some compensation would be fair.

If the SEC does indeed go to 13 teams, it won't stay there for long. But in the meantime, it could make for one very interesting football season.

Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News. He can be reached at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0225.

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