When the Southeastern Conference announced their expansion in 2012, there was a collective groan across the SEC Nation. Whether it be soft, or a loud grumble; it was there. Because people knew there was going to be change and change is a hard pill to swallow many times, especially for die-hard football fans who live and breathe Saturday SEC football no matter what time of year it is. The SEC earlier this week announced that it would both maintain the 8 game (6-1-1 format) conference schedule through 2025, and while it provided a sense of continuity, it also severed many traditions for fan bases other than Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee—namely, the Florida Gators.
Before delving into this article too deeply, let me first state one thing. I am first and foremost a die-hard fan of the Florida Gators—always have been, always will be. There’s nothing quite like singing “We Are The Boys” at the end of the third quarter on a sweltering afternoon with 88,000+ of your closest fans against the enemy who is trying to storm in and steal a win in our house. But, second to that, I am a fan of my conference. Many people who I know outside the SEC “family” don’t quite understand that. But, that’s exactly what it is folks, a big, dysfunctional, not always happy, but always loyal family.
We all know or have the guy in our midst from LSU who inevitably brings the most delicious fried creations to football gatherings (but always brings enough to share), or the impeccably dapper gentlemen from Vanderbilt that brings the REALLY expensive and good champagne, or perhaps you have the always fun and always out of control Southern frat boy from Ole Miss who shows up to a simple football watch party in a bowtie, oxford dress shirt, and those sunglasses with the strap on the back ready to party it up in style. The point is Gator fans, you root for your team all throughout the regular season, but when it comes time for bowl season and national championships, it’s time to put down the hatred or ill-will (yes, even towards Georgia) and cheer for your fellow SEC teams. Because we all know how incredibly fun it is (especially this time of year where football seems like light years away) to rub into fans of other conferences about just how good our athletes, coaches, and teams are—even if you are a vehement enemy of said teams throughout the year—versus saying “maybe next year”. To me, there is absolutely no better conference, tailgating experience, coaching crew, or group of student-athletes than exists in the SEC.
To give you some background into why I think what happened this week in regards to scheduling football in the SEC was so disappointing and such a loss of tradition for the Gator Nation, I like to divide the Florida fan base into two distinct groups. Firstly, there are the fans who have been around forever, and you know exactly who I am talking about. I’m referring to the silver-haired old salts who wear the orange and blue Hawaiian shirts or oversized and well-worn tee shirts, slap the bright white Bullfrog sunscreen on their noses, have the ice packs on their necks, and shuffle dutifully (with their headphones tuned to Mick Hubert’s play-by-play) to their seats for a great game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. They have been fans since before most of us “youngins” (as my best friend’s father calls me) were conceived, and were there for the lean years of the 1970s, and most of the 1980s when the Gators were the punching bag for the likes of Vince Dooley’s Georgia squads and Bear Bryant’s Alabama teams. They are aware and always cognizant of the fact that success at Florida was earned, and not always a given as some today believe it to be. We’ll call them the “PS” (or Pre-Spurrier) crowd.
Then, there is the other half of the Florida Gator fanbase. People (like me) born in or after the 1980s who grew up in an entirely different Gator Nation. Again—you know who I’m talking about here. The ones who grew up knowing that Georgia was now OUR punching bag, SEC Championships (1991, 1993-1996, 2000, 2006, and 2008) were the norm (not the exception), the FSU/UF “instant classic” games were the epitome of what college football was meant to be, and lest we forget the timeless early September matchups with Peyton Manning, the Great Pumpkin…err, I mean Phil Fulmer, and those nasty Tennessee Volunteers who just, “couldn’t spell Citrus without UT”. The young folks who now show up to games in cut-off tee shirts, tank tops, flip flops, and/or flowing sundresses tend to believe anything less than a 10 win season is a failure, losing to Georgia has always been a rare and uncommon occurrence, and Florida just doesn’t lose at The Swamp. I would place myself here (though I like to think I have a more humbled look at the program after the season we all just endured), and think a great many people exist with this group. The ‘Ol Ball Coach (former Florida Head Coach Steve Spurrier) spoiled us rotten. He made us all punch-drunk for something that we thought would last forever, much akin to investors in the stock market in the Roaring Twenties. The good times rolled, and rolled, and rolled in the 1990s in Gainesville, and an entire generation of Gators grew up knowing that and only that. Consider that between Spurrier’s arrival in 1990 and his sudden departure in 2002, the lowest win total ever earned by the Gators was 9. Continuing even through the much-maligned tenure of Ron Zook, the Gators never managed to dip below 8 wins. And, of course the brief but dizzyingly high climb through the Urban Meyer era, this group of Gators came to know of nothing but success. We’ll call this group the “AS” (or After-Spurrier) crowd.
Both of these aforementioned groups shared, endured, and commiserated through the terrible fall from grace last season, which brought everyone back to Earth. Resolute but frustrated was the first group who’d last been here in the 0-10-1 season in 1979, and dazed, blindsided, and shocked was the second at the 4-8 record, no bowl game to look forward to, and an inexplicable loss at home to an FCS team in Georgia Southern. Both of these groups (both in my estimation through my friends in the flesh and on social media) share in their desire ready to wash out the taste of last year’s bitter losses and defeats, and move back to the world of the living and relevance in the SEC and college football at large. But, in moving forward, both lost a shared piece of their past this week through the SEC scheduling office.
By announcing this week that the SEC would be keeping the schedule at 8 games through 2025, the SEC lost out on both tradition, equity, and cheated its fan base out of a more balanced system of playing teams around the conference more frequently. Not only that, they have given a perfectly wrapped gift to any conference that can and will lobby the playoff committee in arguing they play harder games than the SEC, and deny players to get a true sense of different programs across the conference. The perpetrators are (1) the short-sighted and obstinate avoidance from schools of a needed nine-game conference schedule and (2) the current 6-1-1 format adopted in 2002, which pits one team against their 6 division opponents, one permanent and one rotating cross divisional opponent.
The “permanent opponent” format guards historical cross-divisional rivalries like Georgia-Auburn and Tennessee-Alabama—as it rightly should. Preserving these rivalries are certainly important, and I say that not even having a dog (no pun intended) in that fight not being a fan of any of these teams. This is why the school chancellors and presidents voted to keep the existing format and permanent cross-divisional opponents. But by making that choice, the conference will soon devolve into becoming utterly detached with one another when all the rest of the SEC teams eight years without playing each other in conference play—essentially becoming two mini-conferences under the SEC umbrella.
Consider this: Florida will play at Alabama in 2014, and will host the Crimson Tide in Gainesville in 2021—a full ten years after they last visited. In addition, the Gators will not play one of the biggest historical cross-divisional rivals for the team in Gainesville until 2019. Instead, we get more “cupcake” home games that are only on Pay-Per-View since no one wants or tunes in on network TV to see it, and subjected to more blowouts of lesser opponents—all while launching a new SEC television network. I rarely question SEC Commissioner Mike Slive’s business sense, as it’s worked pretty well for the last 30 years, but this one is a head scratcher for sure.
Next to FSU and Georgia, the leading rival to the Florida fanbase, through both my observations and opinion, is not LSU, and it’s not even Tennessee. It’s the other SEC team that dons variations of orange and blue on the field on Saturday afternoons out on The Plains. The Gator Nation may have lost the Auburn Tigers in 2002 as a permanent rival, but there was always the hope of playing them at least once every four years and maintaining the second-longest rivalry (83 total games) in Florida Gator history. Yes there are those that will argue that prior to the most recent conference expansion, the crossover games came as home-and-home series in consecutive years, so it still took time to get through the conference. It may not have been an every year rivalry, but it was something to look forward to more frequently than it is as of this week. So basically, the SEC bought the engine for a car, but sold away the body to preserve the interests of a few, over the integrity of the rest of us, especially in a rivalry game that has so much meaning to both teams. My niece is now 6 years old. To have to wait until she is 11 to see Auburn visit Gainesville, and then until she is 17 for the Gators to visit Auburn is just a damned shame, folks.
LSU (currently Florida’s permanent cross-divisional opponent) only started playing Florida annually in 1970. In contrast, Auburn and Florida played every single year from 1945-2002, so I think its safe to say, fans from both sides of any age has a memory or two to this rivalry. Whether it be the 1966 game at Auburn where QB Steve Spurrier kicked a field goal to essentially seal his Heisman Trophy campaign, or the 1986 game where unranked Florida stunned the then-#1 ranked Auburn behind an injured Gator QB Kerwin Bell and previously unheralded Ricky Nattiel in Gainesville, the “PS” crowd remembers those games fondly. And for the “AS” crowd, beating Auburn in a dramatic overtime finish with Rex Grossman connecting with Taylor Jacobs in the endzone in 2003, or Auburn being the only team that ever beat Tim Tebow twice, with back-to-back wins in 2006 and 2007. But it saddens me to think my little niece will only potentially enjoy moments like these against Auburn twice before she goes to college herself—-and she’s in kindergarten now. What a damned shame.
One of my favorite columnists (Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun) summed up the rivalry perfectly in 2007 after a painful loss, when he said,
“Florida-Auburn (tonight) delivered another game that made one side ecstatic and one side heartbroken. That’s what it does.”
So very, very true.
Simply put, if you’re a Gator fan (“PS” or “AS”), a part of your childhood died this week. No, it’s not like anyone close died, and like I said, this game may not have been an every year thing, but we all have memories with it—be it fond or bitter. Win or lose, this was a great rivalry game—that will be lost to the pages of SEC history (save for a fleeting encounter once every 6 years). It’s like that girlfriend or boyfriend you dated in college that you run into at a reunion—there are good memories, and bad memories, but you both are sad so much time passed between you. By keeping the SEC schedule at 8 games, the conference has taken the easy road out, abandoned history, and diminished the integrity and fan experience of the conference. This game is always intense, never fails to crack the Sports Center Top Ten when plated, and does the conference a disservice by taking the luster out of a once-great rivalry and making it into just another game.