It’s time for Mark Richt, Greg McGarity and Jere Morehead to bite the bullet and join Alabama’s Nick Saban on the nine-game train in the SEC. That is, if maintaining Georgia-Auburn as a yearly rivalry is really UGA’s top priority when it comes to conference scheduling, as Richt and company repeatedly have said.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said Monday at an Associated Press sports editors gathering that a decision will be made soon on whether the conference goes to a nine-game schedule. The athletic directors are due to vote on the issue soon, and the SEC’s presidents and chancellors (who have the final say) will decide how to structure the football schedule from 2016 onward before the May 27-30 meetings in Destin, Slive said. In fact, Slive indicated a new schedule structure should be in place by early May (though it might not be announced until Destin).
Up for consideration are four possible scenarios: continue the current setup of playing eight conference games divided into six in your division with one permanent cross-division rival every year — like Georgia -Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee — and one rotating cross-division opponent (known as the 6-1-1 plan); play eight games without permanent rivals, with both cross-division opponents rotating (6-0-2); add a ninth conference game while keeping the cross-division rivalries; or add a ninth game and still drop the cross-divisional rivalries.
Regardless of the result of the vote, Slive conceded that no plan exists that would please all 14 schools, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported. “We tell them that all of the formats — every one of them — has a series of advantages and disadvantages,” the commissioner said. “There’s no one that lines up with all advantages and there’s no one that lines up with all disadvantages. So people are going to have to make a decision knowing that whatever decision they make is going to have some advantages and some disadvantages.”
What makes the outlook so unclear is that there are competing interests at play. It would please ESPN, which is running the SEC Network, to have a ninth conference game in place of uninteresting cupcake matches, and generally the Worldwide Leader in Sports gets what it wants. Plus, the other four major conferences either have added a ninth game to their schedules or are moving in that direction, and in the new world of the College Football Playoff, only having eight conference games could work to the SEC’s disadvantage when the selection committee starts meeting.
On the other hand, the SEC’s coaches and athletic directors generally have been against adding a ninth game (with Alabama being the notable exception) because they feel the schedule already is competitive enough and they need the scheduling flexibility (and additional revenue) from another nonconference game, which is usually at home.
Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee want to continue the every-year cross-division rivalries, but LSU’s coach and athletic director have been outspoken in opposition to those rivalries because Les Miles thinks it isn’t “equitable” for his program to face Florida every year while Bama only plays the Vols.
The conference coaches got together informally Monday to discuss the issue, though they apparently didn’t take a vote. In the past, Georgia’s Richt has been an ardent supporter of staying at eight games while keeping the permanent rivals, but at his UGA Day appearance Monday in Gainesville he said, “I’m not going to make a comment right now because I don’t know if I’m supposed to. So I’m just going to be quiet.”
Bama’s Saban, who has argued in favor of adding a ninth game primarily on the basis of fans not being too excited about cupcake games, told AL.com after the coaches’ meeting that he didn’t think there’s any support for adding a ninth conference game. But whether they stay with the 6-1-1 format or go to 6-0-2 (which would doom Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee as yearly matches) seems to be up in the air. “I don’t know if we stay with the 6-1-1 or 6-0-2,” Saban said. “I don’t know.”
LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who backs Miles’ opposition to the rivalries, told the Baton Rouge Advocate back in March that he didn’t see the ADs voting to drop them, but he added that he hoped the presidents might.
Both UGA’s Morehead and Auburn President Jay Gogue have spoken out this week saying they still support keeping the permanent cross-division rivalries.
“I absolutely support continuing the Auburn series,” Morehead told the Macon Telegraph Wednesday.
But whether Morehead and Gogue can muster the votes to keep the rivalries if the presidents opt to stay at eight conference games is a very open question.
Asked by the Telegraph whether Georgia fans should be concerned about the rivalry ending, Morehead was noncommittal. “The presidents and the athletic directors will meet and resolve the scheduling issue shortly,” he said. “There hasn’t been a resolution on any of those issues at this point. So until a vote is taken by the presidents following that meeting, I can’t predict what that outcome may be. We certainly appreciate that it is an important and longstanding rivalry for the University of Georgia.”
What it may very well come down to is that if Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee are going to be maintained as yearly games, those schools’ officials are going to have to get behind the push for adding the ninth game. While a nine-game slate with no permanent rivalries is in the hopper, that likely is just a sop to LSU purely for appearances during the discussion; most observers believe that if a ninth game is added, the rivalries will be safe.
That additional cupcake provided by the eight-game conference schedule might be more profitable in the short run, but eventually resistance to upgrading the conference schedule could exacerbate attendance problems as fans decide it’s not really worth a trip to campus in order to watch a glorified scrimmage against a 1-AA team or some nobody school with a directional name.
Simply put, asking fans at Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee to accept the loss of a traditional rivalry game with a storied history just so those programs can buy a guaranteed win is not in the best interests of college football.
As I’ve written before, if the SEC starts throwing away those longstanding traditions that have engendered the fanatical fan support that has provided the foundation of its success, what you end up with is just a feeder league for the NFL.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg