DESTIN, Fla. — The SEC completed its annual spring meetings Friday with votes aimed at preserving rivalries in regular-season football and maintaining the conference’s clout in the postseason.
The league, soon to consist of 14 schools, overwhelmingly approved a football scheduling format that will keep the 120-year-old Georgia-Auburn game intact annually.
But after siding with history on that vote, the presidents of the SEC schools bucked tradition by unanimously endorsing a national four-team football playoff.
The SEC’s support of the proposed playoff came with a caveat that will be contentious in negotiations with other conferences. The SEC wants the nation’s top four teams in the playoff field, a position at odds with other leagues — the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big East — that want to give preferential treatment to conference champions.
After producing the past six national champs and placing two teams in last season’s BCS title game, the SEC is adamant that as many of its teams as possible should be able to qualify for the playoff.
On the matter of regular-season football scheduling for 2013 and beyond, the SEC put aside the objections of several schools and adopted a 6-1-1 format: six games against division opponents, one game against a permanent cross-division opponent (Auburn in Georgia’s case) and one game against a rotating cross-division opponent.
“That was our priority all along, to maintain that series with Auburn,” UGA athletic director Greg McGarity said. “… Every school has their own agenda, but at the end of the day, it’s what was best for the SEC.”
The other annual cross-division games will be Alabama-Tennessee, Florida-LSU, Arkansas-Missouri, South Carolina-Texas A&M, Kentucky-Mississippi State and Ole Miss-Vanderbilt.
In an acknowledgement of the fluid landscape of college athletics, the 6-1-1 proposal passed without a stipulation regarding how long it would be in force. SEC commissioner Mike Slive said he didn’t think the issue would be revisited for at least three or four years.
The strongest objection to the format came from LSU, which said permanent cross-division opponents should be scrapped in the interest of more equitable scheduling.
“That was my argument, and obviously it didn’t stick,” LSU chancellor Michael Martin said. “But, hey, you lose some and you win some.”
While the SEC was able to settle the issue of its football schedule, the league’s position on the national playoff merely established its stance for negotiations with other leagues. The playoff, if enacted, would begin with the 2014 season.
Meetings of the BCS commissioners are scheduled for June 13 and June 20, and a meeting of the BCS presidential oversight committee is set for June 26. By then, the goal is to have a consensus among conferences on a deal.
The SEC position calls for the semifinal games to be incorporated into the bowl system and for the championship game to be bid out to cities, like the Super Bowl.
The thorniest issue in negotiations figures to be the SEC’s view that the four best teams should reach the playoffs, regardless of whether those teams are conference championships. Other leagues have suggested various ways of favoring conference champions. The Big Ten’s position, for example, is that if four conference champions are ranked among the nation’s top six teams, those four champs should comprise the playoff field.
“If we’re going to go to a four-team playoff, which I anticipate we are, I think it needs to be — and I think the fans would expect us to provide — the four best teams in the country: one, two, three, four,” Slive said.
Slive added that he is open to different ways for determining the top four teams, “whether it’s a committee or data points,” but is opposed to “gerrymandering who is playing for the national championship” by making conference championships a criteria.
“I think people will come around some in some of the other conferences,” UGA president Michael Adams said.
But it’s not clear what will happen to the proposed playoff if they don’t.
Adams said the SEC discussed several “fallback” positions, but he wouldn’t say what they are.
“I think you have to be careful now about not painting yourself in a corner,” Adams said. “This is a new world, and I think you have to rearrange your mental furniture a little bit and say, ‘Are we really prepared for this next iteration?’
“Everybody every now and then has to give a little to make something work. You’ve got to quit thinking now about the way the world has been. You have to start thinking about the fact this is a new day with a new set of rules.”
– Tim Tucker, AJC