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Nine-game conference schedule remains contentious issue in SEC

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The Southeastern Conference was founded in 1933 and for the first 54 years of its existence its members were required to play only six or less league games in order to compete for the championship.

In 1988 the SEC went to a seven-game conference schedule and the coaches fought it. In 1992, when the SEC expanded to 12 teams and went to divisional play, an eight-game league schedule was instituted along with a conference championship game. Again, the coaches fought it -- hard.

"I had coaches tell me that the SEC would never win another national championship," said former commissioner Roy Kramer, who orchestrated the move. "I thought they were wrong. At least I hoped they were."

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The coaches were wrong. Alabama won the national championship in 1992, the first time SEC teams had to play eight regular-season conference games. Since 1992 there have been 21 national college football championships awarded. The SEC has won 11 of them, including the last seven in a row.

With that piece of history as a backdrop, the ultra-successful SEC has another important decision to make. Last week the conference announced a landmark 20-year deal to form its own network which will be run by ESPN. It will be a station dedicated to the SEC 24/7/365. That's a lot of content.

The creation of the SEC Network, which will launch in August 2014, has reopened the discussion on whether or not the conference should follow the lead of the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Big 12 and increase its regular-season schedule to nine conference games.

"All I can tell you is that the First Amendment is alive and well in the Southeastern Conference," said Commissioner Mike Slive. "We have discussed scheduling issues in the past and I'm sure we will discuss them again."

In fact, the SEC athletics directors are meeting this week in advance of the all-important Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., which start May 28. The subject of the nine-game conference schedule is going to come up.

"I can't remember a meeting lately when we didn't at least touch on it," said Greg McGarity, athletic director at Georgia. "I can't really say how much support there is for it but given the changes that are happening, I don't think the subject is going away."

Like most things in college athletics, how schools feel about the nine-game conference schedule depends on the individual circumstances of that school. But without getting too deep into the weeds, here are some reasons to favor it:

 It provides a better inventory of games for TV. The SEC has committed to putting three games per Saturday on its network. An extra conference game per school means a better overall selection and fewer Saturdays when there are no compelling games.

 More quality games for the fans: Every athletic director I talk to concedes that fans are getting tired of investing significant amounts of money to attend cupcake games. With the advent of the secondary ticket market, more fans are passing on season tickets and paying a premium for the games they really want. Or they have season tickets and just stay at home for less than attractive non-conference opponents.

 Improved strength of schedule: Given its track record over the past 20 years, the SEC will expect to get its champion in the new four-team playoff every season. SEC officials believe that if the conference is to have a chance to get a second team in, then the overall non-conference schedule of the league needs an upgrade.

"Strength of schedule is absolutely going to be a big factor moving forward," Alabama coach Nick Saban told me last week. "Why don't we just agree that everybody will play nine conference games and one strong intersectional game? It would be better for the fans who pay the freight and better for the conference in the long run."

Here are three reasons to be against the nine-game conference schedule:

 Every other year teams in one division will have four conference games at home and five on the road. In an ultra-competitive conference where the fairness of the schedule is already hotly debated at eight games, an unbalanced schedule will be a tough thing for some fans to stomach.

 Non-conference scheduling headaches for some schools: Georgia (Georgia Tech), Florida (Florida State), South Carolina (Clemson), and Kentucky (Louisville) all have mandated state rivalry games that are outside of the conference. If those schools play nine conference games with a tenth against their rival, that leaves them with only two games to schedule. The reality is that those four schools will have to schedule a pair of cupcakes to ensure seven home games.

"The problem for us is that great non-conference games like Georgia-Clemson (which will be played in 2013-14) will probably have to go away," said McGarity. "That is just the reality of this situation."

"Nine conference games and Florida State, that's a tough challenge," Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley told the Birmingham News. "We'll continue to listen to the conversation. Right this second I don't love it for Florida but obviously there are 13 other schools in this league, not just one."

 The potential for fewer bowl teams. One less non-conference game means a guaranteed additional seven losses to be spread over the SEC. Last season the SEC sent nine of its 14 teams to a bowl. Two other teams finished 5-7.

Here is an additional wrinkle that could push the SEC toward a nine-game conference schedule. More and more coaches and athletics directors are expressing their displeasure of "permanent crossover" opponents in the other division. LSU of the SEC West, for example, plays Florida from the SEC East every season. LSU coach Les Miles has gone on record saying that's unfair scheduling.

"It would be interesting if you would compare our schedule with others," Miles said recently on an SEC coaches teleconference. "I wonder if there should be no permanent partners.

"The key piece for any conference certainly is to allow equal access to be champion," he added. "I suspect there's going to be some questions there."

But some schools like their permanent crossover partners. Georgia and Auburn have made it clear that they are not willing to give up their annual game, which has been played since 1892 and is the oldest continuous rivalry in the South. The Alabama-Tennessee game, traditionally played on the third Saturday in October, is one of the most storied rivalries in college football.

"The Georgia-Auburn game is very important to the Auburn people," said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. "It is hard to imagine that game not being played on a yearly basis."

The current 6-1-1 (six division foes, one permanent crossover, one rotator) format keeps the permanent crossovers in place. A nine-game conference schedule might enable both sides of this debate to be satisfied. It might also address one of Saban's concerns.

"Under the current setup a student-athlete could stay at one of our schools for four years and not play everybody in the conference," said Saban. "That's not right. We should be able to tell him that if he signs with a school in the SEC and stays four years he will get to play against every team."

In the short term it looks like the eight-game schedule will stay in place. CBSSports.com has been told that the scheduling formats for 2014 and 2015 will be presented in Destin and both seasons call for an eight-game model.

But Georgia's McGarity is right. This is not going away. Given the realities of the new world order in college football (SEC Network, four-team playoff) a nine-game conference schedule in the SEC is not only possible, it appears quite inevitable.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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