DESTIN, Fla. – Nick Saban’s Southeastern Conference brethren should listen to him.
Not just because he owns them on the field in the fall. Because he’s the smartest coach in the conference room, too.
They should listen to the Alabama coach’s pitch for adding a ninth game to the league schedule. They should man up and embrace the challenge, instead of using the SEC’s legitimate power status as an excuse to schedule timidly. They should resist the lure of three or four hollow victories a year over the likes of Alabama State, Alcorn State and Southeast Missouri State and take on someone their own size.
This will be the hot topic this week at SEC spring meetings – over chilled jumbo shrimp, at the beach, on the golf course and at places where actual work may get done.
Saban made his case for nine games again Tuesday, saying “I’m absolutely in the minority, no question about it.” Most SEC coaches say it’s like volunteering to hit yourself in the head with a hammer nine times instead of eight.
“If you look at it through a straw and how it affects you and you’re self-absorbed about it, nobody’s going to be for it,” Saban said. “I shouldn’t be for it. We have a better chance to be successful if we don’t do it. But I think it’s best for the game and the league.”
Despite his minority status, Saban might have the most powerful ally in the room when the issue is raised here. Commissioner Mike Slive hasn’t come out as publicly pro or con regarding the nine-game schedule, but at the very least he sounded eager last month to engage his membership in serious debate.
Slive knows that, on the drawing board at least, strength of schedule will be a bigger part of the equation when the lyrically named College Football Playoff is implemented in 2014. And the best way to augment strength of schedule in a power league is to play more league games.
Under the tragically flawed current system, the greater goal is to go undefeated than to play the best competition possible. To that end, Saban was asked Tuesday about the possibility that Ohio State – undefeated but on NCAA probation last season – would have taken the Crimson Tide’s spot in the national title game last year.
Which gave Saban a chance to take a shot at both the current system and the Buckeyes, who played a soft 2012 schedule.
“How well would they have done if they played the six (SEC) teams ranked in the Top 10?” Saban asked. “Would they beat them all? Would they beat three of them? And I think they have a really good team and Urban (Meyer) is a great coach. I’m not questioning any of that. I’m just saying that’s where strength of schedule and who you play don’t get sort of accounted for quite equally.”
In point of fact, no SEC school played all six of those opponents in 2012. In fact, only two teams played four of the six: LSU (2-2) and Florida (3-1). Alabama played three of them and went 2-1, losing to Texas A&M.
But the point is valid. The best thing the SEC can do in a strength-of-schedule world is to play itself more often and increase its own power ratings. This already is the growing trend nationally.
The Pac-12 and Big 12 have gone to nine games. The Big Ten will do the same starting in 2016.
The SEC is scheduled to release its 2014 schedule during these meetings, and it will be an eight-game slate. But there will be an opportunity for change starting in ’15.
Saban said Tuesday he’d like to see everyone from the five major conferences play 10 games against its peers – nine in league play and one in non-conference, leaving two guaranteed home games against lightweight opponents. Schools playing a traditional non-conference rival – Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Kentucky-Louisville – should not opt to drop that game in event of a nine-game league slate.
Saban pointed out that his program is scheduled through 2017 to play a heavyweight non-league opponent: Virginia Tech this year, with Wisconsin, West Virginia and Michigan State twice in years to come. And he said he’s firmly in favor of continuing the annual cross-division rivalry game with Tennessee, which he expects to rebound from its recent malaise in short order.
“They’ve got a good coach now,” Saban said of Butch Jones, which should make former Saban assistant Derrick Dooley feel three feet tall. “They’ve got great tradition. They’re going to be good again.”
The Tennessee series and the marquee non-conference opponents are fan-friendly games – and as Saban pointed out, the fans usually are the last group considered in the crass money grab that is college sports. Fans love college football so much that they’ve been willing to endure all manner of high-priced inconveniences and indignities, including a steady diet of cowardly non-conference scheduling.
But we may have reached the tipping point in that area. As the Chattanooga Times-Free Press pointed out last week and as I wrote about last year in the Forde-Yard Dash, attendance has started to decline – even at some bedrock football locales.
A primary culprit: bad games. More fans are opting to stay home and enjoy the ever-improving television experience instead of investing the time and money to watch the home team slaughter an FCS chump.
“One of these days they’re going to quit coming to games,” Saban predicted. “Everyone is going to say, ‘Why aren’t you coming to the games?’ Well, if you play somebody good, they’ll come to the games.”
That’s common sense worth listening to. Nick Saban doesn’t just coach best, he knows best about what’s good for the SEC.
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