No perfect way to split a conference

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A conference was expanding and splitting into divisions, and nobody knew what would happen to its two most bitter football rivals. Would they stay in the same division or be split apart?

No, this isn’t a tale about Michigan and Ohio State. It’s about Alabama and Auburn, which could have ended up in different divisions if the Tigers had gotten their preference.

“Tennessee was a big game for Auburn, and Georgia of course is a natural rivalry,” former Auburn coach Pat Dye said. “We would have had three big games, with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee every year _ and then Alabama.”

Instead, the Tigers went to the SEC West, a move that worked out fine in the long run. Now it’s the Big Ten and Pac-10 that are splitting into divisions _ and dealing with all the usual concerns about geography, competitive balance and protecting traditional rivalries.

Like so many other leagues, the Big Ten and Pac-10 are learning they aren’t going to be able to address every potential concern.

“Either way we go, there’s some school _ us, somebody else, somewhere _ it’s inevitable (they’ll be unhappy) with change,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “Hopefully we can do everything we can to protect Ohio State’s interests in change and we’ll do everything we can with that. But at the end of the day, we have to do what’s best for the conference.”

With the addition of Nebraska next year, the Big Ten is adding a championship game and introducing divisional play _ and the Pac-10 is on the verge of its own divisional split as Colorado and Utah join the fold.

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott says the league could be divided geographically or through some form of a “zipper” alignment in which rivals from the same area _ like Southern California and UCLA _ could meet every year but be in different divisions.

The latter idea could allow both divisions to have a presence in the L.A. market. Scott says it helps that the league’s existing teams are spread out in pairs in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Washington, Oregon and Arizona.

“We’ve got a lot of logic and symmetry to the way our conference is laid out,” Scott said.

In the Big Ten, there’s speculation Michigan and Ohio State could play in different divisions with their annual game moved earlier in the season. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said recently he’d relish the chance to play Ohio State twice in a year, including once in the Big Ten championship game.

But projecting the future is always tricky. When the ACC debuted its football divisions in 2005, Florida State and Miami were kept apart, and it seemed like only a matter of time before they met for the conference championship. Five years later, it still hasn’t happened.

“We all know that success can be quite cyclical,” said Michael Kelly, the league’s associate commissioner for football.

Kelly said Florida State and Miami wanted to keep playing each other but from different divisions, and that’s exactly what has happened. The ACC and SEC both protect certain rivalries across divisions, allowing those teams to keep playing each other annually.

With Miami and Florida State boasting recent national championships, it seemed sensible at the time to separate the traditional powerhouses, but the split ensured that one of the Florida schools would be in a division with Boston College, the league’s northernmost outlier.

The Big 12 took the opposite approach when it formed during the mid-1990s, opting for geographic simplicity by putting its Oklahoma and Texas schools in the same division.

“If you create too much of a situation where fans can’t drive to your away games, I think you lose a level of interest,” former Oklahoma athletic director Donnie Duncan said. “There are all kinds of ways to put these things together. It depends on establishing criteria and then working it from there. Ours was, I think, fairly clear and not very controversial.”

However, the Big 12 didn’t protect rivalries across divisions, so Oklahoma and Nebraska, for example, have played only eight regular-season games in the last 14 seasons.

“Any time you draw a line, there’s someone or something standing right on the other side of it,” Duncan said. “You start making an exception, then where’s the next exception? We’ve stood pretty clear of all that.”

The SEC has a slightly different philosophy. It put Alabama and Auburn in the West, but each team in the West is assigned a team from the East it plays every season. That’s helped alleviate some of Dye’s initial concerns _ Auburn still plays Georgia every year.

“Our biggest rivalries were Alabama and Georgia, and then probably Tennessee would have been next,” Dye said. “We really just lost Tennessee, and we play them … whenever they come back around (in a rotation). It’s been a good format for the Southeastern Conference.”

Both the Big Ten and Pac-10 appear open to that kind of setup, but that’s still just one of many issues that have to be ironed out before the final formats are agreed upon.

“We are trying to look at competitive equality over time. We’re obviously looking at rivalries, no doubt about it, but a little bit of geography,” Ohio State’s Smith said. “I can’t predict how it’s going to line up because we’re still in the minutiae, but at the end of the day, the kids are going to have great games.”

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AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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