Home-and-home rivalries take a hit

As students flood back to campuses across America, it is a giddy time in college sports. At 6 p.m. ET Thursday, North Carolina-South Carolina and Liberty-Kent State share the distinctive honor of kicking off the college football season.

Meanwhile, conferences and schools are starting to roll out their college basketball schedules, making for the annual Sharpie dash to circle key dates.

When does Kentucky head to Knoxville for revenge after its Black Saturday date against Tennessee last season, when the Wildcats lost by 30?

When can NC State fans welcome Duke, upset by the Wolfpack a year ago, back to Raleigh?

Can Purdue fans, with a highly regarded recruiting class, get a sweep of hated Indiana by winning not only in West Lafayette but also in Bloomington?

Go ahead and search for the dates. We have time.

Nothing yet?

Don't worry. It's not your eyesight. The games aren't there.

Welcome to the world of superconferences, where the money is terrific but things like rivalries are largely an afterthought.

Basketball, long the ugly stepchild in realignment, is once again being victimized by pigskin power, forced to pick and choose home-and-home series thanks to the girth of the leagues.

This used to be the sole problem of the old Big East, where managing 16 teams became so unwieldy that Louisville coach Rick Pitino liked to refer to the conference as a corporation.

Now everyone has the same flu thanks to a 12-member, and soon to be 14, Big Ten, a one-division, 14-team SEC and a 15-team ACC.

The ramifications stretch on and on. How do you crown a conference champion when not everyone plays everyone or is handed an equally challenging schedule? How do you gauge league RPI, such a huge barometer of NCAA tournament seeding?

But the immediate issue is much more visceral yet no less critical.

As one Kentucky fan wrote succinctly and accurately on a message board, "I, for one, think it sucks. I understand superconferences, etc., but I also like tradition."

Ah, tradition, a quaint notion about as en vogue as short basketball shorts.

"It's disappointing, but it's one of those things where there's really no answer to it," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "This is the new normal."

Unable to make everyone play each other, conferences are left with little choice than to sort out protected rivalries for home-and-home games, partnering teams that the league seems fit to match up.

Except, as conference offices have learned, matchmaking isn't easy. Which team, for example, should Michigan play twice -- Michigan State or Ohio State?

The SEC head honchos opted to protect Tennessee-Vanderbilt and Kentucky-Florida. The first makes sense geographically; the second is logical based on recent success.

Since when did either common sense or logic factor into passion-fueled rivalries?

The truth is that Tennessee is not only the Wildcats' longest-standing SEC rival (no school in the country can claim as many wins against UK), but it's also the longest on the books altogether, dating to 1901. For decades, the two have had a date in both Knoxville and Lexington each and every season. The game always plays to a packed house, especially important to a program like UT.

But this winter, for the first time since 1953, this series will take place at Rupp only. Next season, it'll take place at Thompson-Boling only.

"You're talking about a very talented team, one of the best programs in and out every year, and to not have an opportunity to play them at your place, it's disappointing," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Fans, players, coaches, we all look forward to it. You want to play the best."

That's how Gottfried feels as well. The ACC intends to keep two rivalries in place for each team, but for NC State, those two home-and-homes will be will North Carolina and Wake Forest. Virginia's will be Virginia Tech and one of the new league members.

Neither NC State nor Virginia will host Duke this season -- an almost-guaranteed sellout and national TV appearance lost to the new scheduling format.

Last season, the Wolfpack beat then-unbeaten and No. 1 Duke. Two weeks later, NC State beat North Carolina for the first time in six years. Both games were in Raleigh.

The two victories sounded the national gong that the Wolfpack were back and relevant.

"Those wins gave us an opportunity to build up credibility with our fans and nationally. No question it was big," Gottfried said. "Recruiting-wise, a lot of kids watched those games. Now some years we won't have that.

"The flip side is we're getting Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville, and on paper, that becomes maybe the greatest basketball league ever. The disappointing part is you don't have the round robin. That's the trade-off, I guess."

The Big Ten will do its best to rectify things next season when Rutgers and Maryland join the league, protecting certain rivalries for the future. Purdue coach Matt Painter is hopeful that Indiana-Purdue will be among them.

"They still have to work out the particulars," he said.

The two first met in 1901 and from 1962 to 2001 played twice annually, going somewhere along the lines of thermonuclear when Gene Keady and Bob Knight stalked the sideline. It was during one of these in-state tussles that Knight found his way into infamy, hurling a now-famed red plastic chair while Steve Reid stepped to the line to shoot free throws.

When the Big Ten announced in May that the two would meet just once this season, in West Lafayette, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass went so far as to suggest they play a nonconference game at Assembly Hall.

"I was a player when Penn State came into the league," Painter said. "Certain things aren't traditional, but it was such a punch for our league. Nebraska is another one. It's about stability.

"Football has to be right. It just does."

Even if everything else is wrong.