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In the 2013 college football season, SEC schools played nonconference games against such baked goods as Coastal Carolina, Murray State, Chattanooga, North Texas, Toledo (twice), Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Carolina, Kent State, Sam Houston State, Arkansas State (twice), Colorado State, Georgia State, Alabama State, Appalachian State, Sorry If I Missed Your State, Florida Atlantic, South Alabama, Texas-El-Intercepted-Paso (thank you, Steve Harvey), Alcorn State, Troy and everybody's favorite, Austin Peay (twice), which went 0-12 and finished 246th of 252 teams in college football RPI rankings, give or take a major organ.

This is not to suggest that the SEC is the only conference where teams build rest breaks and comic relief into the schedule. It merely has elevated it to an art form. The explanation generally goes along the lines of, "Our conference is tough. We need breaks. Besides, we're awesome."

With revenue streams, TV ratings and a string of national championships, nobody could argue. The SEC has never had a reason to change its policy of playing only eight conference games in a 12-game season. But it's different now. If the SEC doesn't change, it'll look bad. Cowardly, even.

There are five major conferences. The Pac-12 and Big 12 already play nine-game schedules. The Big Ten recently approved going to nine games beginning in 2016. The ACC appeared to be moving in that direction, but has balked, in part because of its complicated arrangement with Notre Dame (which remains a football independent, but plays up to five ACC opponents per season).

SEC coaches and athletic directors, including Georgia's Greg McGarity, remain against a scheduling change. The issue is a major agenda item in next month's SEC meetings in Destin, Fla. The decision ultimately will be decided by a vote of school presidents.

McGarity said he hasn't "taken a straw poll lately," but Alabama's Nick Saban appears to be the only coach who favors schedule expansion. He made a point a year ago that proved prophetic: "One of these days, they're going to quit coming to the games because they're going to stay home and watch it on TV. Then everybody's going to say, 'Why aren't you coming to the games? Well, if you played somebody good, we'd come to the game.' "

It's happening. There are an increasing number of empty seats, particularly in student sections at Sanford Stadium and other SEC venues for games against weak nonconference opponents.

The simple reason more coaches don't want to go to nine games is it provides another chance for a loss. They would rather take an easy road to a bowl game by going 7-5 or 6-6 than have to give up that Toledo game.

If a coach doesn't go to a bowl or finishes 4-5 in the conference instead of 4-4, he might lose his job. That's what this really is about.

McGarity has two concerns about a nine-game schedule: 1) The Georgia-Florida game is in Jacksonville. Another conference game would necessitate eliminating a walkover at home, thereby reducing the Bulldogs' home schedule to six games every other year; 2) With Georgia already playing Georgia Tech, 10 total major conference games would limit his ability to occasionally schedule another big opponent, such as Clemson.

On the Georgia-Florida concern: It's their choice to play the game in Jacksonville. That's not a mandate. As for the Tech game, it plays into an important strength-of-schedule factor that I'll get into below.

Here are some reasons why the SEC should go to a nine-game schedule:

Playoff factor: College football will begin a four-team playoff. Some within the conference are convinced that the "We're the SEC argument" will sway the selection committee to put two SEC schools in the four-team field. I doubt that. Strength of schedule likely will become a major factor, similar to RPI in basketball. McGarity counters, "Nobody knows what the metrics will be." He also said the four SEC schools with rivalry games --- Georgia (Tech), Florida (Florida State), South Carolina (Clemson) and Kentucky (Louisville) --- will be at a disadvantage. True. But my belief is that will put more pressure on other schools to upgrade their schedules as well.

Fan factor: Saban is right. Fans want, and deserve, better games. Texas A&M last year played Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU and Texas-El Paso out of conference. Marketing departments are starting to lose battles to big-screen HDTVs. A better product is needed to sell tickets.

The TV factor: It's all about money. The SEC's network partners are going to want more potential conference matchups. The new SEC Network also would benefit.

McGarity said he's concerned for "the welfare of these kids. What does it say if they have to be at their very best for nine conference games a year, plus a 10th (rivalry) game. I think some kids would love to say, 'Let's start out with a softy.' "

There's no problem with that, but a schedule should have only so many cupcakes.

 

March 21, 2014

 

 
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