Schedule strength is SEC priority

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The SEC chose not to stray too far from tradition as it announced Sunday night that longstanding non-divisional rivalries would remain a fixture of the league's eight-game conference schedule.

However, in a twist focused on improving strength of schedule, the SEC will begin mandating that each program incorporate an annual nonconference game against a power conference team starting in 2016.

Historical rivalries such as Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia survived the chopping block as the SEC voted to keep an eight-game conference schedule that will include six games against division opponents and two games against non-division opponents.

"The most important thing to me for Auburn was to keep the Auburn-Georgia rivalry," said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. "Then after that, I always look at what is best for the Southeastern Conference. We all agree that playing the eight games in the 6-1-1 format was the best thing for our league."

One of the non-division opponents will be a permanent annual rivalry game. Others include: Arkansas-Missouri, LSU-Florida, Ole Miss-Vanderbilt, Mississippi State-Kentucky and Texas A&M-South Carolina.

"When people thought of rivalries, they thought of obviously Tennessee and Alabama, and Georgia and Auburn. But we've played Ole Miss 89 times, and people don't realize that," said Vanderbilt AD David Williams. "It maybe doesn't rise to the level of rivalries like those others, but think of the last two games. Both games -- the one down at Oxford that we won and the one that they won up here last year -- were decided in the last minute.

"It's close enough that their fan base can get up here, and our fan base can get down there. So it is a rivalry, and I think that we see each other as sort of a rivalry."

LSU athletic director Joe Alleva isn't a fan of permanent rivalry games and had pushed for two-team rotations.

"I'm disappointed in the fact that the leadership of our conference doesn't understand the competitive advantage permanent partners give to certain institutions," Alleva told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Sunday. "I tried to bring that up very strongly at the meeting today. In our league we share the money and expenses equally but we don't share our opponents equally.

"Since 2000, LSU has played Florida and Georgia 19 times and Alabama has played them eight times. That is a competitive disadvantage. There are a lot of other examples."

Starting in 2016, each school will have to play at least one opponent from either the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12.

"This has been a thoughtful and deliberative process that has resulted in maintaining the current format and adds a provision that will bolster our collective annual nonconference schedule," commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement. "Critical to maintaining this format is the nonconference opponent factor, which gives us the added strength-of-schedule we were seeking while allowing continued scheduling flexibility for institutional preferences, and acknowledges that many of our institutions already play these opponents."

Slive, of course, was referring to previously established rivalries like Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Kentucky-Louisville.

"The concept of strength-of-schedule is based on an entire 12-game schedule, a combination of both conference games together with nonconference games," Slive said. "Given the strength of our conference schedule supplemented by at least one major nonconference game, our teams will boast of a strong resume of opponents each and every year."

The majority of SEC programs are already compliant with the upcoming mandatory nonconference scheduling. Only four teams -- Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M -- won't play a game this coming season against an opponent from one of the other power conferences.

The SEC chose not to move forward with a nine-game conference schedule, which had been discussed but lacked sufficient backing.

Alabama coach Nick Saban seemed to be one of the few vocal proponents of the nine-game format.

"I think there's a little bit more support for staying with an eight-game schedule and everybody playing a ninth opponent that's in the five major conferences," Saban told reporters in Huntsville, Ala., last week. "My thing is I'm for playing nine conference games and still playing another team in the major conferences, so you play 10 games because of fan interest, people coming to games looking forward to seeing more good games."

Information from ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf was used in this report.