This is the first in a two-part series on the impact that playing additional conference games has had on Out of Conference (OoC) scheduling. In this piece I'll begin with a look at the SEC's 1988
schedule expansion to 7 games and the second part will address the 1992 expansion to 8 games. Consequently, this piece will deal primarily with the scheduling changes that came about during the four seasons from 1988 to 1991.
Conference consolidation as we know it can be traced back to the immediate consequences of the 1984 court ruling that put television rights in the hands of the schools and conferences instead of the NCAA. The SEC's expansion to 7 conference games in 1988 is likely one of the first tangible results of that change. With all the talk of further conference realignment altering traditions and the additional fear of changes to come with conferences implementing 9-game schedules, I was curious to see how past scheduling changes had changed OoC scheduling philosophies. These are my thoughts on what I found.
All stats are from the excellent site, CFBDataWarehouse. For purposes of determining major opponents I will use the current Power 5/Group of 5 conference alignments. Note also that I will consider games as being annually consecutive when not played during war-time seasons.
1988 SEC Schedule Expansion
During the early years of the SEC the number of conference games to be played was not mandated. Between its inaugural season in 1933 and the 1973 season a majority of teams played between 5-7 conference games each season. However deviation occurred often, with teams playing anywhere from 4 to 10 conference games depending on who was available to be scheduled in any given year. At the end of each season the team(s) with the best winning percentage were declared (co-)champion. There was no great need for a complicated tie-breaking system since the bowls invited whomever they wished anyway.
Beginning in the 1974 season SEC schedules were standardized at 6 games. For some teams this would have meant scheduling more OoC games—as was the case for Georgia, who began playing both South Carolina and Clemson annually in 1975 and continued to do so for the remainder of the 6-conference-game era. In 1988 the SEC moved to a mandated 7-game conference schedule. With the season still being limited to 11 games at the time, this dropped available slots for non-conference games from 5 to 4. The results of this requirement on the OoC scheduling habits of the SEC's "Big 6" during the four conference seasons from 1988 to 1991 are as follows:
ANALYSIS: The impact on scheduling for Auburn in 1988 is simple to explain. Having played Georgia Tech annually in a home-home format since 1906 and with a total of 90 games between them at the time, Auburn dropped Tech from their schedule to accommodate the 7th conference game.
RESULT: Since 1988 the teams have played one home-home series (during the 12-game era in 2003 and 2005, with Tech winning both games) and currently have no future games scheduled.
ANALYSIS: Prior to 1988 Georgia had frequently (though not always) played both Clemson and South Carolina annually in rotating home-home agreements, as was the case from 1975-1987. Beginning in 1988 it appears UGA's plan was to schedule home-homes with either Clemson or South Carolina in alternating years. In 1988/89 they played USC outside of the conference schedule, and during 1990/91 and 1994/95 they played a 4-game series with Clemson.
RESULT: With the possible exception of LSU, the 7th game seems to have affected Georgia least. Their schedule was consolidated so that they played only one of their two Palmetto-state rivals per year, which happened frequently prior to 1975 anyway.
ANALYSIS: Alabama has no natural OoC rivalries, so looking at how their scheduling was impacted is somewhat more involved. In the late 1980's Alabama still played half their home slate in Birmingham. Amazingly in 1987—the final year of the 6-game schedule—Alabama used 2 of their 5 OoC games to travel to State College, PA and to South Bend, IN to beat Penn State and lose to Notre Dame, respectively. Prior to that they had a string of out-of-state visits to play major OoC opponents dating all the way back to 1976, which they managed by playing one power team and home and one away in most years. (And even in 1975, their non-con schedule included visits from power-opponents Missouri, Clemson, Washington, and TCU with Southern Miss rounding out the 8-game home schedule.)
After the institution of the 7-game conference slate, in 1988 PSU returned a visit to Birmingham and in that same season Alabama traveled to College Station, TX to complete the back end of a home-home with Texas A&M that had begun in 1985. In 1989 Alabama again visited State College, with that scheduling agreement ending after PSU played in Tuscaloosa in 1990. PSU was the sole non-conference power-opponent in those two years.
RESULT: The scheduling philosophy obviously changed significantly between 1987 and '91, but it's hard to quantify it exactly. On average, expansion resulted in a loss of one annual home-home games with an available power-opponent in those years.
ANALYSIS: From 1954 to 1987 Tennessee and Georgia Tech played annually in a rotating home-home series. (They had only met 12 times prior to that).
RESULT: Tennessee hasn't played Tech since the 6-game conference-era and has no future plans to.
ANALYSIS: The series between Florida and Miami began play in 1938 and continued annually until 1987, which was their 49th overall game.
RESULT: These historic in-state rivals—who were both juggernauts at the time—would not meet again in the regular season during the 11-game era, and continue to avoid scheduling each other.
ANALYSIS: As a school with "no rivals" according to its own fans and with its location being among the most isolated in the SEC, The impact on LSU's scheduling is more ethereal to identify due to the natural flexibility. As was shown during the recent snark-fest about cross-divisional rivals, they legitimately do not care who they play (with Ole Miss possibly being an exception).
Historically, LSU played in-state "rival" Tulane annually from 1911 until 1994 in a home-home format. It is also important to note that LSU began playing Texas A&M home-home annually for a 10-game series beginning in 1986, just prior to the 7-game conference schedule being instituted. Additionally, LSU played a home-home series with Ohio State in 1987/88 and had a 3-game set with FSU in 1989/90/91.
RESULT: Given the complete irrelevance of Tulane football during the latter half of the 20th century and the fact that LSU's scheduling philosophy was initially unaffected by the 7-game conference schedule, it's hard not to look at the cancellation of the Tulane series as a belated consequence of the 1988 expansion. During the years immediately following the expansion of the conference slate, LSU didn't need to go out and find new patsies--they already had one. Besides, in-state traditions die-hard, as evidenced by the fact that in the 12-game era LSU would begin a ridiculous revival of the series with Tulane only to cancel it after 4 lopsided contests.
Winners and Losers
This part is completely subjective, but I'm going to declare Florida the winner of this round. Purists still mourn the loss of the Florida/Miami game, but you have to think that removing Miami from the schedule helped Spurrier (who joined UF in 1990) move the Gators into the national spotlight during his time in Gainesville.
In my opinion Georgia Tech is the biggest loser of the 1988 SEC scheduling expansion. Their split-MNC in 1990 may have been partially assisted by not playing #8 Tennessee or #19 Auburn that year, but that triumph has since proven to be a speedbump on their descent into mediocrity and below. Up until 1988 they at least maintained a regional presence by playing their remaining long-time SEC rivals, but ultimately they ended up losing significant history as a result of the SEC's move to 7 games.