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November 21, 2012

HURT: Bama, Georgia have schedules to be thankful for

It was Dec. 27, 2011. People were still recovering from the carb-loading excesses of Christmas. Alabama and LSU were preparing for their decisive meeting in the BCS National Championship Game. And, without anyone realizing it, the Southeastern Conference office may have been determining the course of the entire 2012 college football season - its own league championship and maybe the BCS Championship as well - because that was the day that the league's schedule grid for the 2012 season came out.

The announcement came late because, in 2011, the SEC expanded like those Christmas waistlines and alterations were necessary. No one knew at the time how things would turn out at several schools. Eleven months ago, Arkansas appeared to be a formidable opponent. (One fascinating story line in the SEC this season is how Texas A&M has become what Arkansas was supposed to be, a team with BCS bowl hopes and a likely Heisman winner at quarterback.) Last December, Auburn was barely a year removed from a BCS title and, while it had some one-sided losses, it still seemed like a potential .500 team and not a train wreck.

But a funny thing happened in 2012. The SEC split itself neatly, if not quite evenly, into two divisions, a fierce Gang of Six, three in each division, and a less-imposing Knitting Circle of Eight. While it's easy (and not unfair) to say that you can't play hypotheticals, there is one mathematical fact in the SEC. Every time a team from that Group of Six has played one of the other eight, it has won. Every single time. The record for the Haves vs. The Have-Nots is a perfect 27-0, and unless Auburn, Arkansas or Missouri can pull a big upset this weekend, it will end up at 30-0. So a fair argument can be made that the more non-Top Six teams you played (to be fair, some were pretty good teams such as Mississippi State and Vanderbilt), the better off you were. Proof in the pudding? The two teams that didn't draw a big-time cross-divisional opponent were Alabama and Georgia. Which two teams will, barring a big upset by Auburn, wind up in Atlanta? Alabama and Georgia.

Look a little deeper. If the division titles were settled only by intradivisional play - the Steve Spurrier Suggestion from the spring - true chaos would be upon us. Both divisions would have three-way ties at the top (again, assuming the favorites win this weekend) with identical 5-1 records. But LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina all lost to tough cross-division opponents. Florida won two such games but had to play Georgia on the heels of playing LSU and South Carolina, and lost head-to-head to the Bulldogs. Alabama fans, of course, will say the Crimson Tide could have beaten Florida and South Carolina as easily as it rolled past Missouri and Tennessee, but ask LSU fans if they would like to swap schedules and see.

Or just imagine if Texas A&M had been assigned Kentucky in its first SEC game, rather than Florida. How different would this weekend be?

There was no conspiracy involved. It was luck of the draw, but that luck is going to be more and more important as leagues get bigger and bigger and move further away from round-robin play.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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