MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — Could the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry be going away?
Well, never completely, but having it as a yearly presence would be one of the costs of the SEC deciding to play an eight-game conference schedule as a 16-team league.
That decision still hasn’t been made. It may or may not be decided here at the SEC meetings this week. But it will have to be made soon.
Oklahoma and Texas join the conference in 2024. The initial thought was the SEC simply would increase the number of conference games to nine, which would preserve Georgia-Auburn as an annual rival as well as a several other storied rivalries in the SEC.
But as the football coaches adjourned their portion of this week’s meetings Wednesday, there appears to be growing sentiment to keep the league schedule at eight games. If that happens, conducting the Georgia-Auburn game every year would be collateral damage.
They still would play each other often. But the proposed eight-game model calls for members to agree upon one permanent opponent, then rotate through the others in seven-game increments. Georgia and Florida have identified each other as favored choices to be permanent opponents.
In that scenario, Auburn and Georgia will have to be satisfied playing each other every other year.
“It’s going to be tough because there’s so many people that want that historic rivalry, including me. I was part of that rivalry,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I grew up as part of that rivalry. I think it’s one of the best there is. But I think it’s one of the costs of progress bringing two more teams in.”
The situation is not unique to Georgia. Alabama would lose its annual rivalry with Tennessee, and Florida would have to drop LSU as a yearly opponent, and so on.
Preserving such secondary and tertiary rivalries is a big part of the debate between an eight-game and nine-game schedule. The nine-game model includes three permanent rivals and rotates six other opponents each year. It achieves the same objective of allowing teams to play every other SEC opponent home-and-away over a four-year period.
In the current eight-game format, which has been in place since 2013, teams sometimes go six years or longer without playing each other. That’s what happened with Georgia and Texas A&M, which still haven’t met at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. They finally played at Sanford Stadium in 2021.
But Georgia-Auburn is another deal altogether. It’s known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry because the two schools have met on the field in football every year since 1892, with the exception of pauses for world wars.
UGA officials have not made a public stance on whether they will vote for the eight-game or nine-game model. But preserving rivalry games such as Auburn is one of the reasons the Bulldogs are thought to be in the nine-game camp.
“Obviously, the Auburn game is very important to us, and we respect that rivalry,” Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks said Wednesday. “Georgia’s always going to advocate to keep that in any scenario. I know it’s important to our fan base, and it’s important to me.”
Brooks would not go as far as to say UGA definitely will vote for nine games.
“My opinion is we recognize that our fans want a better schedule and they want more SEC games,” Brooks said. “Whether it’s the 1-7 or the 3-6, the great thing is the variability. The fact that you can tell a young man that’s coming to Georgia or any institution that, if you stay here four years, you’ll get to go to every venue, that’s really good for them and the fans. However this shakes out, being able to say that is the most important thing.”
Auburn folks feel the same way about keeping Georgia on the schedule year. But with Alabama expected to be the Tigers’ No. 1 team in an eight-game conference slate, they, too, know it might be deemed expendable.
“It goes back so far. It’s important. It’s important that we give our fans and their fans that, and that game remains vital to us,” said coach Hugh Freeze, who is in his first year on The Plains. “Now, what that looks like in respect to what is best for the Southeastern Conference, man, I don’t know. I’m not in those discussions. And I try not to be. I have enough to worry about with everything on my plate.
When people ask me about eight or nine games, I’m like, ‘Talk to Dr. (Christopher) Roberts (Auburn president) and (athletic director) John Cohen.’ What is best for Auburn and what is best for the SEC, are those things the same? I know all of those discussions will take place.”
Said Smart: “Sometimes you call that progress; sometimes you upset the fans. I think that’s good debate in terms of your traditionalists who want those rivalries, and others want to see you play the teams they never get to see you play. You can’t have both.”