Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Want more Lane Kiffin vs Tennessee football? Texas, Oklahoma will improve SEC schedule format | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Dwayne Byrd performed an exorcism before the Tennessee Vols played their 2014 season opener.

Byrd, a longtime Vols fan, bought a house in Germantown, Tennessee, earlier that year that was previously owned by Ole Miss fans. So, Byrd went throughout his new home shaking an orange and white pom-pom while “Rocky Top” played on his phone to expel any lingering Ole Miss spirits.

“I really liked this house, but touring it, when it was still occupied it was clearly owned by Ole Miss fans,” Byrd told me last fall. “They had Ole Miss paraphernalia on the walls, something back in the bedroom. That actually bothered me.”

In West Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vols fans intersect on a regular basis.

On the field, the clashes have grown infrequent because of SEC expansion, subsequent schedule structuring and the league's long resistance to play more than eight conference games.

Tennessee and Ole Miss played every year from 1956-69 and again from 1972-91. The teams met for the first time in seven years last October at Neyland Stadium. A rowdy, sellout crowd gave Lane Kiffin hell in his return to Knoxville, but the Rebels won 31-26.

The SEC’s 1992 split into divisions affected other series, too, like Auburn-Tennessee and, later, Auburn-Florida. As the conference’s footprint grew, historical matchups diminished. But an appetite remains for those vintage games that pit members from the SEC’s 10-team days.

Gainesville, Florida, buzzed with excitement in 2019 when Auburn came to town for the first meeting between the teams in eight years. The Florida Panhandle is a melting pot of fan bases. Plenty of Auburn fans live across the border in the Sunshine State.

“Just a regular day in The Swamp, huh?” then-Gators coach Dan Mullen said, tongue in cheek, after Florida beat Auburn for the first time in 17 years, 24-13, in front of a full Swamp.

Unfortunately, Auburn-Florida is no longer a regular day in The Swamp, but the teams should start meeting with greater frequency in a few years – same for Auburn-Tennessee and Vols-Ole Miss.

In an interesting twist, the SEC’s latest round of expansion to 16 teams should help increase of frequency of some matchups between the league’s 10 charter members, especially because the conference finally appears willing to expand to a nine-game SEC schedule after the league grows.

The SEC has not announced how the conference will be configured after Oklahoma and Texas begin league competition by 2025, but commissioner Greg Sankey has vowed that any schedule format the conference selects will ensure teams meet more frequently than interdivision foes play now.

Currently, teams play one designated interdivision rival annually while facing each of the other six teams at a rate of twice every 12 years.

WANT MORE OPINIONS FROM BLAKE TOPPMEYER?: Subscribe to the SEC Unfiltered newsletter for exclusive columns every Friday

 “I want us to take a step back and really think about how we can move teams through our campuses more frequently,” Sankey said on the “Rick and Bubba” radio show in August, after the SEC voted to add Oklahoma and Texas.

“Right now, if you’re on the East side, your non-permanent West opponent, you’ll see at home once in 12 years. We shouldn’t be doing that. We should rotate … more frequently. Now, how do we achieve that?”

Although Sankey didn’t say it, the first way to achieving that goal is eliminating the permanent crossover rival structure. Designating an annual interdivision rival bogs down the schedule and limits the frequency with which teams play other interdivision foes.

Growing to 16 teams should spur the SEC to realign in a way in which prominent rivalries can be preserved annually without further hamstringing the schedule. That realignment could come in the form of eight-team divisions or an alternative non-division format that designates three recurring opponents and six rotating foes.

In either case, most marquee rivalries can be maintained while allowing for more schedule variety.

Take Alabama and Tennessee, for example. They’re designated interdivision rivals now, preserving the annual Third Saturday in October rivalry. In a 16-team conference, they could be placed in the same division or otherwise designated as recurring opponents in a non-division format to accomplish two goals at once: continuing the rivalry while generating scheduling freedom.

Going from 10 to 12 teams created scheduling hurdles, and going from 12 to 14 teams made the problem worse. The SEC's long refusal to expand beyond eight conference games further hampered scheduling.

After growing to 16 teams, the SEC finally seems motivated to get its schedule right and restore some interrupted matchups with greater frequency.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.