SEC needs to expand football conference schedule to nine games

Pat Forde

The Southeastern Conference keeps building add-ons to the mansion.

The SEC Network was announced May 2, a full-immersion media initiative that will close the revenue gap between America's best football conference and America's most lucrative TV conference (the Big Ten). The College Football Playoff is coming, and no league figures to gain more financially from that than the SEC. And there is one other underrated cash geyser soon to begin spraying the SEC's way – its whopper of a deal with the Big 12 to basically co-opt the Sugar Bowl, with ESPN paying a reported $80 million a year to televise.

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That is new money and a new concept – not quite cutting out the middleman that is the bowl, but taking control of the property and the vast majority of the cash.

"We created what I might call a paradigm shift," commissioner Mike Slive said Thursday on the "Wetzel To Forde" show on Yahoo! Sports Radio.

And the $80 million annually in TV money that comes along with that shift?

"We were comfortable with the amount," he said, chuckling.

In SliveSpeak that translates to, "We're making out like bandits with this deal."

[Related: Alabama spent $3.4 million to attend the BCS title game in Miami]

Now here is the byproduct of the rich getting richer: There is no longer a viable excuse for the rich not to play a nine-game conference schedule. The SEC mansion needs quality competitive furnishings, not knock-offs from the FCS thrift store.

The Pac-12 is doing it now. So is the 10-team Big 12, which doesn't have a title game and doesn't need one with everyone playing every opponent in the regular season. The Big Ten formally announced last month that it is headed to nine games in 2016.

So the ACC and SEC should join the movement. Especially the SEC.

There is backlash to that, of course.

You've heard a lot of caterwauling from coaches, who would love eight SEC opponents and four games against Cadaver Tech if it were the difference between 5-7 and a berth in a bowl – any bowl. You've heard some grousing from athletic directors, who say they need a guaranteed seven home games a year to make ends meet financially. You've heard coaches and athletic directors doomsaying about the physical toll of one more week in the meat grinder of league play.

Now hear this: Every SEC team should play a nine-game league schedule, with one decent non-conference opponent and two creampuff home games. Anything less and the league is cheating itself and its fans.

"I'm open-minded and I want to hear the discussions," Slive said, adding that the topic is sure to come up for the second year in a row at the league's annual spring meetings in Destin, Fla.

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The reasons it should happen are abundant and obvious.

With an expansion to 14 teams, it is harder to make equitable schedules that establish true divisional champions with eight games. More teams means the need for more games to diminish the odds of a team riding a weak league schedule (ahem, Georgia) to a division title.

The commitment to the SEC Network translates to a need for more quality programming. That should mean fewer games against Samford, Alabama State, Southeast Missouri State and others. Nobody wants to see those games but the parents of the third stringers, whose kids may actually get to play.

The clear mandate to the as-yet-unnamed selection committee for the College Football Playoff will be increased reliance on strength of schedule as a differentiating factor. Slive correctly points out that league games are part of that, and nobody's league is harder than his. (No matter what Bob Stoops says.) But playing another SEC opponent instead of Western Carolina will absolutely boost strength of schedule.

And as noted above, the massive influx of new revenue drowns out concerns about needing an annual seventh home game to balance the books. If six home games every other year plus the increasingly fat SEC member check that arrives every June isn't enough to keep the athletic department running a surplus, then ADs need to stop spending like Steinbrenner on a bender.

(Exhibit A: Alabama blowing nearly $900,000 at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami for the BCS Championship Game – an extravagance Caligula himself might deem excessive. Bringing a 458-member marching band was a bit much, too. Maybe they don't need a dozen baton twirlers.)

Some schools undoubtedly would like to respond to a ninth league game by dropping any and all decent non-conference opponents. That should be vigorously discouraged, especially by schools that have established non-league rivalry games. South Carolina has to play Clemson, Florida has to play Florida State, Georgia has to play Georgia Tech, Kentucky has to play Louisville. And it would behoove the more traditionally ambitious schools like Tennessee and LSU to continue to play opponents from the West Coast or elsewhere.

[Also: Former Notre Dame fullback Asaph Schwapp dies at age 26]

Even with a nine-game SEC schedule.

Asking fans to pay ever-escalating ticket prices for bad games is an insult to the consumer, especially when there is money to be made elsewhere beyond the turnstile. It's true that college football fans – especially in the SEC – have come to tolerate multiple mismatches on the home schedule every autumn. But if some of the empty seats around the South last year were any indication, we may be reaching the consumer saturation point for bad football games.

That's something for all the SEC honchos to keep in mind when they meet later this month in Destin. For all the new money the league will soon be raking in, nine league games is the least it can do in return.

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