Discussions on tap, but no plans for SEC vote on nine-game schedule

DESTIN, Fla. -- The Southeastern Conference will discuss a nine-game football schedule during this week’s spring meetings but has no plans to vote on the matter, according to two league sources.

Commissioner Mike Slive said late Tuesday afternoon he doesn't expect closure on the issue this week but "we'll see where we are by Friday."

Most of the league coaches favor eight games. Alabama’s Nick Saban seems to be on an island as an SEC coach who’s vocal about the need for nine.

Saban said if teams from the SEC or elsewhere schedule up, teams can afford to lose more games and “still have a chance to be recognized” when postseason slotting begins, sort of like in the NFL.

“[I’m] absolutely in the minority -- no question about it,” Saban said.

This is a multi-layered debate, but the need to filter more programming to the SEC Network isn’t (at least I don’t think) the primary reason for a potential change to nine games.

Sure, a nine-game schedule gives ESPN seven more games to broadcast, but the SEC still can get most of its nonconference games on the network because many are home, and the league owns those rights. Watch -- they’ll own rights to those trendy neutral-site games, too.

A move to nine would be, at least in part, a postseason play. The league will want two teams in the four-team semifinal. Just listen to Slive, who said the league wants a selection committee that "would look at (Georgia and Alabama in the SEC title game0 and say, the fact that Georgia lost by 5 yards doesn't mean they shouldn't be in the plahyoff along with the winner."

If not playing nine conference games like the Big Ten (starting in 2016), Pac-12 and Big 12 threatens the league’s title parade, then maybe the SEC will change its stance.

The ACC basically plays an eight-and-a-half-game conference schedule with Notre Dame playing five league games a year.

With the voting criteria for the playoff selection committee still undetermined -- BCS director Bill Hancock told the SEC as much in a meeting this week -- the league doesn’t have incentive to push for nine games based on playoff implications just yet.

About a year since commissioners established the need for a committee, the only well-established criterion for voting is that strength of schedule matters.

So maybe those FCS opponents will hurt the league’s profile, but many acknowledge that nonconference scheduling could or should improve (Vanderbilt’s James Franklin said the Commodores will push for some of the toughest nonconferences schedules in the country in future years).

If the committee favors conference champions or makes nine games a necessity, suggesting the five power conferences need a uniformed approach, maybe that will prompt the SEC to tweak something that it hasn’t had to during this seven-year title run.

Even if it happens, a nine-game schedule wouldn’t surface until 2016 at the earliest. The league is committed to the 6-1-1 format (six conference games, one permanent cross-division rival, one roaming division opponent) for 2014 and likely 2015. The 2014 schedule could be finalized by as early as this week.

Franklin is fired up about the league needing to stay at eight games. He fears good nonconference games will dissipate if the league adds another game.

“That’s going to be the next thing. We’ll go to nine, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, well. We don’t have enough sexy out-of-conference games anymore,” Franklin said. “When is it going to stop? Two years from now, they’ll say, ‘You know what? You’ll probably have to schedule an NFL team. You’re going to have to play the Jets. You’re going to have to play the Falcons.’”

As it stands, Saban likely wouldn’t have the votes to support nine games. The schools with locked-in ACC opponents -- Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt -- robably wouldn’t budge because they feel they already play nine conference games.

The league might have an easier time passing a vote on the permanent cross-division rivals, which LSU would love because it’s tired of playing Florida, but consider all the schools locked into rivalries (Georgia-Auburn, Alabama-Tennessee, Vandy-Ole Miss, Kentucky-Mississippi State). You think they’d rather have Texas A&M or LSU take that spot on certain years?

But no doubt, Saban still raises interesting points. With six SEC teams in the BCS top 10 late last season, Saban wonders how undefeated Ohio State, which was on probation and ineligble for postseason play, would have fared facing all six of those teams. “Would they have won three?” Saban asks. “I don’t know.”

This isn’t a knock on Ohio State, Saban says, but a push for a more balanced, competitive system in which several teams are in contention.

“One of these days, [fans] are going to stop coming to the games,” Saban said.
"They are going to stay home and watch it on TV. And then everybody’s going to say, ‘Why don’t you come to the games?’ ‘Well, if you play somebody good, we’ll come to the games.’”

Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin uses a question to make a point about eight games and postseason play: When was the last time during the SEC’s seven-year run when the public cried foul about the SEC’s strength of schedule?

You could argue Alabama’s strength of schedule in 2011 helped them leapfrog Oklahoma State in the BCS when both had one loss.

The playoff process could change all that, but nobody knows yet how 15-20 committee members will select four potential champions.

This topic will persist all week, but nothing will be changed -- at least not this week.


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