Conference needs to commit to nine-game league schedule

Gripes from LSU fans about the cloaked process of producing the Southeastern Conference football schedule started several years ago and have only grown louder.

What started out as rational dissent has Tigers fans sounding a bit more spoiled after swapping a manufactured rivalry match-up with Arkansas for a glossier foe in Texas A&M.

Apparently, playing on Thanksgiving Day every other year when the Tigers visit College Station qualifies as sacrilege. Granted, the default mode for LSU fans is to complain and claim a vast conspiracy emanating from the conference’s Birmingham office led by scheduling don and Bama alum Mark Womack.

Even if LSU seems to come out ahead, the reaction is nevertheless spittle-laden cries of rage.

Not that the paranoia is entirely their fault, though.

The SEC’s ad hoc process of cobbling together schedules might be above board and put Congress to shame. But the lack of a coherent and transparent policy inspires the notion among conference fan bases of a process infected with bias, with enough horse-trading to resemble a graft-laden political machine.

No matter what decision is reached, it will be too late. The lack of gumption has created an irksome public relations matter.

The solution is apparent: Stop putting off a move to nine-game schedule with a 6-2-1 format that keeps a permanent rival in play and rotates two cross-division opponents.

The format adds 14 games to the inventory for the ESPN-produced SEC Network, which is expected to be a cash cow. It preserves permanent rivalries and allows a program to face every SEC member in a four-year cycle. Finally, there’s also the impetus to add a game to help the SEC bolter its members’ power ratings used in the new in the College Football Playoff.

It’s the only way to avoid the frustration that spilled forth around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Hackles from LSU supporters about the change were loud enough you’d have thought Commissioner Mike Slive banned kickoffs after 2:30 p.m. and ended the tradition of bourbon-fueled heckling on Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium.

Never mind LSU could face the Aggies on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2015, just like the Tigers did with Arkansas. Or that the Tigers drew a home date against feeble Kentucky to offset facing permanent cross-division “rival” Florida, which seems to placate purple-and-gold supporters who have howled at the gantlet laid before Les Miles and Co. the past two seasons.

And LSU trades in a rivalry that was more one-sided in its passion — Arkansas are fans aren’t exactly thrilled at forging a rivalry with SEC newbie Missouri — for a marquee opponent and a drive along Interstate 10 instead of flying to Tulsa before wandering around the Ozarks.

Often, the appearance of bias is as bad as bias itself. Without a permanent scheduling formula in place, the inferiority complex of every fan base takes hold. Idle minds can craft some nutty theories, too.

In that vacuum, LSU has pounced to put forth its long-standing grievance against permanent cross-division rivals and ask why LSU is saddled with Florida in order to preserve nostalgia-tinged rivalries such as Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee.

A look at the schedules, though, doesn’t show a yawning chasm of unfairness.

Since 2000, Alabama and LSU have each played 38 cross-division games. Over that 13-year stretch, the Tigers have played ranked foes 22 times — five more than Alabama.

There is truth in that LSU’s annual date with Florida is largely responsible for the difference. But it also has more to do with Tennessee slowly trudging into mediocrity in the latter stages of Phillip Fulmer’s tenure and failed regimes involving Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.

Need proof? From 2000-07, the Volunteers were ranked entering the Alabama game. That hasn’t happened once in the past five years. The fact Tennessee hasn’t picked the right guy in two prior coaching searches might have as much to do with imbalance as a perceived effort to appease folks in T-Town.

And here’s the rub: SEC fans crow about how the conference hasn’t totally forsaken tradition in a money grab.

Tennessee and Alabama have played annually since 1928, and there’s as much endearing love in Tuscaloosa and Knoxville for the rite of them facing off the third Saturday in October as there is Baton Rouge for beloved Saturday Nights in Death Valley.

Expansion forced the need for compromise — a reality the powers seem leery of embracing because of the hard choices it will produce.

In May, talks at the SEC’s spring meetings for a long-term scheduling solution produced exactly squat. The men in suits, pressed shirts and ties affirmed the current 6-1-1 format and put together a committee to review options for a permanent format by 2016. Not everyone will be on board with nine games.

Programs such as South Carolina and Georgia, who have power conference rivals in Clemson and Georgia Tech, will say it produces imbalance. Meanwhile, the middle class in Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Vanderbilit and Missouri will be hesitant to trade out a cupcake nonconference game — an aid for bowl eligibility — for a potential SEC loss. For its part, LSU would just as soon stay at eight games and dump permanent rivals.

While it’s not LSU’s desired outcome, there’s enough to like that it could satisfy the school’s demands.

The only way to resolve this potential credibility crisis is for the conference’s athletic directors, presidents and SEC policymakers to reach a consensus moving forward.

If not, LSU fans complaints will only become more shrill.