SEC coaches voted 13-1 against moving to a nine-game conference schedule (Saban was the one in favor). That was not a surprise. Coaches value staying employed. An extra non-conference body bag increases that probability. Playing eight games is great for coaches. But it’s not so great for the conference.
Nine-game conference schedules provide more high quality TV inventory. They improve strength of schedule. They improve scheduling parity. They make scheduling easier. Those obvious benefits are why the Big 12 and Pac 12 moved to nine games and why the Big 10 plans to do so. They are why some believe a nine-game SEC conference schedule is inevitable.
If SEC coaches are really that fearful of having their trophies…err…bowl games put at risk, they should support tweaking the eight-game schedule to improve it. One change could be replacing the permanent rivalries with a seeded game based on the previous year’s finish.
The present cross-division rivalry games arouse little sentiment and present a huge advantage or disadvantage for certain teams. Alabama plays Tennessee every year, while LSU plays a generally much better Florida. That difference can be compounded by a favorable or unfavorable draw for the second cross-division game. Last year, Alabama played Tennessee (No. 53 SRS) and Missouri (No. 45). LSU played Florida (No. 5) and South Carolina (No. 8). The ninth game increases the chance Alabama draws a tough opponent and LSU draws a manageable one to balance things out.
Another way to achieve that parity would be to replace those rivalry games with a seeded game. Run through the previous year’s standings (for our purposes 2012). Seed the teams as follows: East (1) vs. West (1), East (2) vs. West (2), East (3) vs. West (3) etc. The East and West divisions would alternate years hosting. The division not hosting would host the other set of cross-division games. Here is what the 2013 schedule would look like.
(1) Alabama at Georgia
(2) LSU at Florida
(3) Texas A&M at South Carolina
(4) Mississippi State at Vanderbilt
(5) Ole Miss at Missouri
(6) Arkansas at Tennessee
(7) Auburn at Kentucky
TV Inventory: This would provide the TV overlords with better games. The seeded draw produced three potential Top 10 matchups involving six teams. The fixed rivalries produced one, LSU vs. Florida. Even factoring in the second cross-division game, there was only one more, LSU vs. Georgia.
Schedule Strength: The SEC’s top teams would all play at least one tough cross division game. In most years, playing at least four of the conference’s top six will guarantee a Top 10 to Top 15 schedule. Should the playoff implement a firmer SOS component, that will be valuable for getting that second team into the top four.
Parity: Teams in the same division face a similar test. Both Alabama and LSU play at least one top-caliber team from the East on the road. It would still be possible for Alabama to host Kentucky and LSU to host Georgia. But the extra quality opponent ensures schedules are much closer than they would be under the present system.
Adding a ninth game may still be preferable. Though, with the SEC on track to improve, opposition to it from the coaches will only calcify. The seeded game, or another innovation to improve the cross-division schedule, might prove an acceptable compromise.