Despite all the chatter since the announcement of the SEC Network last week about the SEC increasing from eight conference games to a nine-game conference schedule in football, the change apparently won’t happen before 2016.
Tony Barnhart reports CBSSports.com has been told the scheduling formats for 2014 and 2015 will be presented later this month at the conference’s spring meetings in Destin, Fla., and both seasons call for sticking with the eight-game model.
Still, the nine-game schedule is starting to look inevitable.
Last week at the announcement of the SEC’s new partnership with ESPN, Commissioner Mike Slive took note of the the upcoming College Football Playoff and the strength of scheduling factor that its selection committee will take into account. “Obviously the playoff impacts how we think about scheduling,” Slive said. “Strength of scheduling will be a significant component in the committee’s analysis. As far as I am concerned, I am open-minded about how we should schedule, and I anticipate continued discussions about how we schedule in the future.”
That sounds pretty close to a nonendorsement endorsement of a ninth conference game, and Slive usually gets what he wants, even if most of the conference’s coaches are against the idea and the athletic directors and school presidents (who actually will make the decision) appear divided on it.
As Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told Barnhart, “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.”
Should UGA fans be for or against the Dogs playing nine conference games each year? I’ve gone back and forth on the issue, which has a lot of moving parts to it.
There are several factors that favor the nine-game schedule, most notable being the strength of schedule business, especially with the Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12 on board with playing nine conference games. The impetus behind the move to the playoff was, frankly, the rest of the country being sick of the SEC owning the BCS national championship. Giving the selection committee any ammunition for downgrading an SEC contender trying to make the playoff seems unwise.
Then there’s TV money. The SEC Network is going to need programming inventory and doesn’t want to have to deal with too many of those cupcake weekends when everybody in the league plays lesser nonconference opponents. And, like Slive, ESPN usually gets what it wants.
And there’s also the fact that SEC schools are trying to keep fans interested in buying tickets and showing up for games, which is made more difficult by scheduling three or four jabronis a year. You don’t have to like outgoing UGA President Michael Adams to agree with what he had to say on the issue recently when talking with the Macon Telegraph. Adams, who said he believes there’s “a lot of motion in the direction of nine games right now,” noted that “The fans don’t like the games against some of the competition that we play, and I don’t blame them. … I think ultimately what will win out is fans are properly tired of seeing two or three really poor games per year. I do get concerned about the impact of more SEC games on the student-athlete. And one of the reasons I think we’ve been successful thus far in holding to an eight-game schedule is that. But I think a lot of the motion is in the direction of nine games right now.”
Among the arguments against a nine-game conference schedule: Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky play a major nonconference in-state rival every year, and so would face 10 tough games each season and have less home scheduling flexibility. (And UGA officials have made it clear recently that even if the conference does go to nine games, rival Georgia Tech won’t be dropped from the schedule.)
Although Alabama doesn’t face that problem since its in-state rival, Auburn, is in its division of the SEC, Nick Saban has declared he wants his school still to schedule a major nonconference opponent every year, even with nine conference games, and he thinks everyone in the conference should do that. But, let’s face it, not every school would be likely to toe that line, meaning more cupcakes for some folks than for others.
Also, a nine-game conference schedule will require teams to have four conference games at home and five on the road every other year. The loss of a home game will hurt the bottom line at schools, though it’s possible (maybe even probable) that the payout each school will get from the new SEC Network will more than make up the difference.
One more factor arguing against the move: A ninth SEC game will make it that much more difficult for the conference’s lesser programs like Kentucky to get enough wins to qualify for a bowl game.
Coaches like Florida’s Will Muschamp also argue that adding a ninth SEC opponent will simply make schedules too difficult. Some have even argued it could make it more difficult for the SEC champion to make it to the national championship, though that same argument was made when the conference added its championship game a couple of decades ago, and things worked out exactly the opposite.
Getting back to a UGA fan’s viewpoint of all this, while I’m glad that Adams and McGarity have said dropping the Tech rivalry is not a consideration for the Dogs, I’m troubled by the prospect of losing the occasional nonconference game against a quality opponent like Clemson. It’s bad enough that the Georgia-Clemson series, once one of the South’s great football rivalries, has been reduced to a couple of games per decade. A nine-game conference schedule likely would eliminate even that.
“My own personal opinion is the games like the Clemson game will go away,” Adams told the Telegraph. “And frankly that’s OK. If the trade-off is another SEC game or the Clemson game, I think that’s an OK trade-off. But if you go to nine games, and you play Tech, I don’t think those 11th or 12th games are likely against Clemson or Ohio State, for that matter.”
McGarity agreed. “The problem for us is that great nonconference games like Georgia-Clemson will probably have to go away,” he told Barnhart. “That is just the reality of this situation.”
But back on the plus side, adding a ninth conference game would make it easier to maintain cross-division permanent conference opponents without schools on each side of the east-west divide having to go too many years between playing everybody in the conference — one of Saban’s main arguments in favor of the nine-game schedule.
“Under the current setup a student-athlete could stay at one of our schools for four years and not play everybody in the conference,” Saban told CBS. “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.”
Crossover permanent opponents is not an issue on which all the conference members are of one mind, but despite LSU’s continued whining about how unfair it is that they have to play Florida every year, I think protecting storied rivalries like Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee is likely to be a fairly high priority for the folks at ESPN.
As Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs told Barnhart, “The Georgia-Auburn game is very important to the Auburn people. It is hard to imagine that game not being played on a yearly basis.”
So I’m still of a mixed mind on a nine-game schedule. I wouldn’t be crazy about having to play five conference road games every other year and I hate the idea of not being able to see Georgia meet Clemson. But losing a cupcake in favor of a conference opponent every year does sound enticing.
How about you? What are your thoughts on the SEC going to nine conference games and how it might impact the Dogs?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg