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How would an expanded SEC football schedule work? It's complicated

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The Southeastern Conference accepted Oklahoma and Texas as new members Thursday, creating a 16-team entity that will contain several of the nation's most storied college football programs

Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how all these schools are going to play each other in a fair and equitable manner that preserves historical rivalries and competitive balance.

It may require some patience and trial and error. Remember, the Big Ten had Legends and Leaders divisions before scrapping them to form geographic models. What looks good on paper might create unintended consequences and frustration.

One option is to create two divisions of eight with the winners of each playing in the SEC championship game. Another alternative is to create four pods of four teams within geographic proximity of each other, then rotate the number of games with the other pods to have two or four teams with a path to the conference title.

Any model is going to presume an expansion of the eight-team conference schedule. More league games will mean more money, and you don't create a super conference and restrict your inventory. Going to nine or 10 conference games also will allow opportunities to play teams more frequently, which should be a goal for every league.

Division format

This seems like the simplest way to go to retain much of the current structure and have competitive balance, but there would be some changes to accept. 

In a nine-game schedule, teams play division rivals once and then two teams from the other division. The cross-division games would rotate each year so schools would play every opponent at least once in a four-year span. 

By moving Alabama and Auburn to the SEC East, it ensures the Iron Bowl remains a division game and is played on Thanksgiving weekend. The idea of Georgia and Alabama and Florida each playing annually is enticing, too. Plus, the Georgia-Auburn game – the second-most played series in the Bowl Subdivision – is protected.

Missouri would shift to the West to join former Big 12 rivals Oklahoma and Texas, who slot in with Texas A&M and LSU as elite programs on this side. There isn't a huge difference at the top of both divisions, though the top three of Alabama, Florida and Georgia might be tougher. 

Among the other drawbacks are the loss of the annual LSU-Alabama game that has been one of the highest-rated matchups in the conference. That could be preserved by going to a 10-game schedule that allows one fixed matchup from the other division in addition to the other two, though that would create concerns about competitive balance if other contenders get easier games against opponents from the other division. 

Story continues below video

Why Texas and Oklahoma moving to SEC changes college football as we know it
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg breaks down Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC and what conference realignment means for the college football landscape.
SportsPulse, USA TODAY

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Pod format

This is where things get a little tricky. The pods are easy enough to create. How to apportion the games is a challenge to preserve rivalries and schedule balance.

In this scenario, LSU has the easiest pod with at least two power programs in the other three pods. The Big 12 pod – so named because those four schools used to reside in that conference – is stacked, though those teams are going to play each other every season, regardless of the format.

So what does a schedule look like? Let's start with the first option of nine games. Schools play three games in their pod. Then they could play two teams each from the other three pods to get to nine games. That would allow for every team to face each other at least once every two years. 

The drawback: No schedule flexibility to allow for rivalry games. That means no more annual Georgia-Auburn game or LSU-Alabama or several others. But again, that's the price of expansion.

One question to raise: Who goes to the conference championship game? Teams with the best records seems easy enough. What if there are ties from teams in opposite pods that don't have head-to-head games? It could be messy and lead to the complaints about schedule fairness and tiebreakers. Imagine a scenario where three teams are unbeaten or have one loss and none of the three played each other. The team left out is not going to be happy.

One realignment scenario could mean annual rivalries like Georgia-Auburn may be sacrificed to ensure fair and competitive balance among the 16-team SEC.
One realignment scenario could mean annual rivalries like Georgia-Auburn may be sacrificed to ensure fair and competitive balance among the 16-team SEC. Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports

A solution would be eight games in the "regular season" with the ninth weekend having the winners of each pod playing in conference semifinals and flex scheduling among the other schools. This does reduce the fixed games across pods and the likelihood of playing everyone with equal frequency. However, matchups below the pod semifinals could help (or hurt) teams fighting for the expected expanded College Football Playoff spots by adding a game with another strong team. These flex matchups would likely be Thanksgiving weekend and would impact the Iron Bowl's traditional date along with other rivalries.

To avoid these concerns, the schedule could have teams face another entire pod and then use the other two games against a third pod. Those entire pod matchups would rotate every year across the three opposite pods. The pods that faced each other would then yield one entrant to the SEC title game.

So the top record from the East and Big 12 pod would face the winner of the West and Midwest pod in one season and then the matchups would switch. The negative is that teams wouldn't play non-pod games in equal proportion, leaving some games played less frequently than every other year.

Confused enough? Same.

These are just a few of the ideas that are sure to be bandied about at the league office in Birmingham, Alabama, before this all shakes out. There isn't a perfect solution, so some adjustments will be required and take getting used to. That's the inevitable result of a move of this magnitude. 

Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith

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