Column: A nine-game SEC schedule seems inevitable

By Marc Torrence

The Crimson White, U. Alabama via UWIRE

The debate has raged on ever since the SEC announced it was adding Missouri and Texas A&M to complete a 14-team league: how do you re-organize the conference schedule?

Do you take away one of the rotational, cross-division games in favor of adding another division game to ensure each division member plays one another? Do you keep the 5-1-2 format and just rotate one division opponent each year that a school wouldn’t play? Or, do you go with the nuclear option of a 6-0-2 format that would mean the end of annual rivalries such as Tennessee against Alabama and Auburn against Georgia?

The previous 5-1-2 format was simple and allowed for teams to face every other SEC team at least once in a four-year rotation, while preserving traditional, cross-division rivalries such as those listed above.

But adding two more teams to the league has thrown a wrench into the efficient machine that was SEC scheduling. If the conference wanted to keep the same number of games on the schedule while maintaining those traditional rivalries, a sacrifice would have to be made.
The league has decided on the 6-1-1 format for now, but according to the Associated Press, it will reconsider in two or three years. The other option on the table is a nine-game schedule that would involve six games against divisional opponents, one permanent, cross-division rival and two rotational, cross-division rivals. The Pac-12 has a similar format in place.

A nine-game schedule, however, would have a significant effect on nonconference scheduling. It’s tough to see games like Alabama vs. Michigan or LSU vs. Oregon taking place when teams are already playing nine games against their conference. That would only leave room for two “cupcake” games against lower-level teams, and there would be less of a chance of making it through your schedule undefeated, something that has become a necessity, even with a four-team playoff.

At SEC Media Days, however, Alabama head coach Nick Saban spoke adamantly about the advantages of a nine-game schedule.
“My opinion was the number one priority should be that every player at every school have the opportunity to play every SEC school in his career,” he said. “But what scheduling format gives us an opportunity to do that? So we’ve always played two teams on the other side, plus a fixed opponent. You can do that by playing eight. You could do it by playing nine.”

Right now, players do not have the opportunity to play every SEC team, but with a nine-game schedule, they would. The 5-1-2 idea that Saban floats is a dangerous one, in which a team would not play one team from its division each year. What if Alabama and LSU had never played in 2011 and both were undefeated? Would the decision on who would play in the SEC Championship Game come down to a BCS ranking?

All signs would indicate that when SEC Commissioner Mike Slive sits down to put together a permanent schedule format for a 14-team SEC, the nine-game schedule would be at the top of his list.

The league has always been at the forefront of change in college football and ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation, and scheduling is no different. A nine-game schedule solves all of the league’s problems, and while it may diminish the scheduling of tough nonconference games slightly, it only adds what Saban calls another “opportunity to prove that you are a quality team.”

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