Southeastern Conference's scheduling model bears watching at spring meetings

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo! Sports

The SEC's annual spring meetings will be this coming week in Destin, Fla., and one of the more interesting topics is going to be the conference schedule going forward.

The league will make known its ideas on the four-team national playoff that is set to begin in 2014 – unless there is a shocking reversal, it will be "play the semifinals at bowl sites, bid out the final and let the top four teams in the nation make up the field" – but whether the league will move to a nine-game conference schedule has importance as well.

The ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 are going to have nine-game league schedules in 2013. Actually, the Big 12 and Pac-12 have them already; it's a complete round-robin in the 10-team Big 12, while the Pac-10 had been a nine-game round robin before Colorado and Utah came aboard last season to make it the Pac-12.

The ACC will have 14 teams next fall, and the league announced that its teams would play nine conference games when Pitt and Syracuse come on board. The 12-team Big Ten already has announced it is going to a nine-game schedule in 2017.

The SEC, though, seems hell-bent on remaining at eight despite being the first league to expand past 12 teams. Missouri and Texas A&M have joined the league, which meant changing each member school's league schedule for this fall.

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(The Big East plans to play eight league games starting next fall; that's an increase of one from this season, when it is an eight-team league. The public rationale for the eight-game conference schedule was that it would allow more teams to be bowl-eligible, presumably meaning a lot of cruddy/easy nonconference games.)

Larry Templeton, the former Mississippi State athletic director, heads the SEC transition committee; part of its mission is to come up with conference schedules. He told the Birmingham News this week that the conference seems likely to stay at eight games. The league is broken into two seven-team divisions; six games would be against division foes, one would be against a permanent crossover foe and one would be against a rotating division foe (likely two-game sets, home and away, over a two-season period).

That format would save two of the SEC's longstanding rivalries: Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia (the oldest rivalry in the Deep South). The flipside: It means schools would go 10 years between meeting six of the seven schools in the other division.

Remember that one of the selling points to expansion was that admitting Texas A&M would open the state of Texas to SEC for recruiting. Apparently, that was just meant for SEC West teams. It will be hard for SEC East teams to go into Texas and sell themselves when a Texan could go his entire five-year career without playing a school from Texas, much less setting foot in the state for a game.

That even applies to Missouri, which made a living out of recruiting Texas while in the Big 12 (nine Texans started for Mizzou in the Independence Bowl). South Carolina reportedly will be Texas A&M's annual crossover opponent, while Mizzou's will be Arkansas.

Eight conference games, of course, would leave SEC schools free to schedule powerful nonconference opponents. (We'll pause here to let that sentence sink in; once it does, commence knee-slapping laughter.) SEC schools are playing 15 FCS opponents this fall, the most of any conference in the nation. The idea that staying at eight league games would mean SEC schools would ramp up their scheduling is absurd.

And you wonder what the SEC's TV partners think of this. Even if you're a college football fan who thinks the SEC is overrated as a whole, you have to admit that Florida-Alabama or Georgia-LSU is a heck of a lot more appetizing to watch on CBS than Florida-UAB or Georgia-Tulane on ESPNU.

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The Sports Business Journal has reported that CBS indeed is balking at significantly higher rights fees for the next TV contract. The idea was that big TV markets in Missouri (Kansas City and St. Louis, both between 21st and 31st) and Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, both in the top 10) would up the ante. But an SEC game matching two established programs, even if they are in "small" markets, is a bigger deal on TV than a game involving two teams that have nice-sized markets (Mizzou vs. Vanderbilt, for instance).

"I think what TV is interested in is how many quality games we're going to have every Saturday," Templeton told the Birmingham News.

A nine-game conference schedule would mean more quality games. But it seems as if it will be impossible to convince league athletic directors of that. Then again, most of them are in a good place: They can play seven or eight home games, bring in three or four rummy nonconference opponents and sell upward of 80,000 tickets at $50 a pop. Why risk a league loss when you're basically guaranteed a win and $4 million in the coffers with a nonconference patsy?


Grid bits


• California lost a potential starting linebacker when Cecil Whiteside was booted from the team Thursday. Whiteside was a four-star signee in 2010 from Newport Beach, Calif., who was the No. 38 player overall and the No. 4 outside linebacker in the nation. He started three games last season after redshirting in 2010.

• Count the Big East as a league that will play its conference title game at an on-campus site. The league will unveil its championship game in 2013. A cynic would say that was a no-brainer of a decision because, hey, who would travel to a neutral site for the Big East championship? But we're not cynical, so we won't say that.

• Staying with the Big East, the league still is trying to determine how it will divide into divisions in 2013. The league's coaches want a Florida, Texas and West Coast presence in each division. Give them credit for admitting they want it that way for recruiting purposes.

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