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VOL. 40 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 17, 2016

It’s time for SEC to schedule 9 conference games

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For 24 years, the Southeastern Conference has held that line against playing more than eight league football games.

It’s time to take the plunge. With 14 member schools and two seven-team divisions, eight SEC games simply isn’t enough.

I say this knowing full well that many fans of SEC teams would prefer fewer conference games, not more.

Their rationale: This is the best league – top to bottom – in the country. SEC programs already beat up on themselves enough. Why extend the misery to nine games?

Another excuse: If you add another conference game, you’re greatly reducing the chances of an SEC team getting into the four-team College Football Playoff. Nobody can survive another SEC game, plus a conference championship game and eventually win a national championship.

Sorry, I’ve heard it all before.

There were similar arguments when the SEC switched from seven conference games to eight in 1992, the year the league expanded from 10 schools to 12 with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina. As a group, SEC football coaches said you could bid farewell to the possibility of a national championship now that they were playing an extra conference game.

Then Alabama won the national title that very season. Florida followed suit in 1996 and Tennessee did so in ’98. Since going to an eight-game conference schedule, the SEC has won 12 national championships.

And I suspect the SEC would continue to win national titles at a similar pace if it went to a nine-game league schedule.

Nick Saban is the only SEC coach to embrace the concept of nine conference games. The other 13 coaches oppose it. I guess they figure this is their only chance to beat Saban at anything so they continue to shoot down the idea.

Other conferences have gotten with the program. The Pac-12 plays nine league games. So does the Big 12. The Big Ten is taking the plunge this season. That leaves the SEC and ACC as the only members of the so-called Power Five conferences with eight-game league schedules.

You can include Stanford coach David Shaw among those who take shots at the SEC for choosing to stick at eight games.

“Don’t back down from playing your own conference,” Shaw said in 2014. “It’s one thing to back down from playing somebody else. But don’t back down from playing your own conference.”

Some argue that adding another SEC game would reduce the opportunity for those big-time non-conference games that draw national attention. Yep, you wouldn’t want to lose instant-classic matchups like these: Arkansas-Alcorn State and Ole Miss-Wofford.

At some point, the brain trust at ESPN is going to start pushing for some better game-day options to put on the SEC Network. Even an SEC mismatch is better than some of these non-conference dogs that show up almost every week.

A nine-game conference schedule would improve things on a number of fronts. For one, it would create more crossover games between the SEC Eastern Division and the SEC West. Currently, each program plays the other six members of its division, plus one permanent crossover opponent. The eighth opponent rotates among the remaining members of the opposite division.

That allows traditional rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia to continue. But it means UT will face a program like LSU just once every six years. A ninth conference game would cut in half the length of time between such matchups.

Alas, the SEC tends to stand its ground in terms of expanding its schedule. When it comes to change, this conference moves at its own pace. East is East and West is West – except in the SEC.

At the league’s recent meeting in Destin, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn pointed out the obvious. When the SEC expanded to 14 schools in 2012, it added one newcomer – Texas A&M – to the Western Division and the other – Missouri – to the East.

As longitude would have it, College Station, Texas, is farther west than Columbia, Missouri – 96.3344 degrees compared to 92.3341 degrees. In that regard, the SEC got it right.

But Malzahn noted that Auburn is the eastern-most school in the SEC West. Why not, he said, have Auburn and Missouri swap divisions, thus bringing some geographic clarity to the conference?

This discussion has been out there for a while. In 2014, Auburn president Jay Gogue told the Auburn Villager: “Most Auburn people say that it would be more logical for Auburn to play in the East. We’ve told the SEC we are willing to move to the East.”

Of course the Tigers are willing to move to the East. Who wouldn’t be? For the last few years, the SEC West has been significantly stronger than the Eastern Division. The West has won seven straight SEC Championship Games. During that time frame, 14 SEC West teams have finished the season ranked in the top 10 by the Associated Press, as opposed to eight from the East.

In sum, you can’t blame Malzahn for wanting to get out of the SEC West. He may be talking about geography but he’s really focused on self-preservation.

While a move to the Eastern Division likely would create an easier conference schedule for the Tigers, it’s not like they would escape their rivalry with Alabama.

There’s no way the SEC’s television partners would allow the Alabama-Auburn game to occur just once every six years. Some things are non-negotiable. Abandoning the Iron Bowl is one of them.

Of course, a divisional crossover game between Alabama and Auburn would eliminate the storied Tennessee-Alabama rivalry. Or would it? If the SEC added a ninth conference game and went to two crossover games, UT-Bama would survive.

This is one of the few times when the competition has gotten it right while the SEC is wrong. The Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten have gone to nine-game conference schedules. It’s time for the SEC to catch up.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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