Marc Daniels: SEC Must Decide If Nine Is Greater Than Eight

Tennessee v South Carolina

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In 1983, the SEC had 10 teams. It was considered a large conference. Back in 1983 the Big Ten actually had 10 teams. There were no divisions in either league. But the Big Ten played a true round-robin format and had nine conference games. Every team played everyone in the conference. That year, Illinois went 9-0 and won the championship with quarterback Jack Trudeau. The Fighting Illini lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl and finished the year at 10-2.

As for the SEC that year, they played six conference games. That's right, six. That meant the conference champion, Auburn, didn't play three schools in the league. That's just the way things were in the SEC. The Big Ten likes the concept of playing everyone to determine a true champion. The SEC preferred to play more non-conference games and more home games so schools could make more money. It's just the way things were 40 years ago.

Now the SEC faces a new scheduling model as it becomes a 16-team league with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas starting in 2024. But while the current 14-team model has used divisions to determine title game participants, it has also used a scheduling model where teams have played everyone else in their division and then two games against teams from the other division. It's not been a perfect system since some schools went years, even a decade without playing a certain school at their stadium. But all is about to change.

The SEC, like all other Power 5 conferences are doing, will abandon divisions and just have the highest two teams play in the conference title game in order to maximize the chances of getting your best teams into the newly expanded college football playoff with 12-teams.

The conference is now facing a debate among its coaches about whether to keep playing eight conference games or to go to nine as the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac 12 have been playing. With a new multi-billion dollar media deal in place, many have assumed Disney/ESPN prefers a nine-game league schedule to increase the value of its deal. Conference games are worth a bit more than those LSU-Louisiana Monroe games. But there is more than just the value of another conference game going on here.

The conference has studied more than 40 different scheduling models and are apparently down to two. The first features an eight game conference slate with seven rotational opponents and one permanent opponent. Assume Florida keeps playing Georgia and Alabama keeps playing Auburn. The other model is a nine-game schedule with six rotating opponents and three permanent opponents. Hence, the debate lies here as some schools don't like who their permanent opponents would be. Others don't like the fact that every other year they play five conference road games while hosting four.

Smaller conference schools prefer an eight game schedule for revenue issues. They like the idea of being able to schedule extra home games. Bigger schools in the SEC seem to prefer the nine-game model.

Yet, Nick Saban has gone on record that he prefers to play eight league games. He says it creates a more balanced schedule with teams playing four home and four away games. Saban has reportedly expressed his concern about the projected permanent opponents for Alabama. The model has the Crimson Tide playing Auburn, Tennessee and LSU each season. Saban thinks that is a tougher slate to get annually than some other schools. That has also become a big topic of debate among coaches who see some of their biggest competitors getting a "softer" trio on their schedule. Florida is reportedly targeted to have Georgia, South Carolina and Oklahoma has their three permanent opponents.

The conference has provided all schools with plenty of data for both an eight and nine game schedule. No model seems to have an overwhelming number of votes.  

Athletic directors are meeting this week to dive deeper into the issue and Greg Sankey is hoping progress is made before the league gathers in Destin for their annual spring meeting in a few weeks.

ESPN is waiting and they have expressed their position and while one thinks they have a major say, it appears they are letting the conference make this decision without wielding its money fist, for now. Heck, if it was up to ESPN, they would want a 10-game conference schedule.

But remember that coaches like to keep their job and the only way you do that is to win games. Someone has to finish 14th, 15th and 16th in a 16-team league with no divisions. You avoid finishing down there by playing as few conference games as possible. Coaches at teams that know they have little chance to compete for the league title want as many lower G5 opponents and at least one FCS team at home. Getting to six or seven wins doesn't get easier with a nine-game schedule.

If you are forced to play nine-league games and the mandated one non-conference game against a P5 opponent, you can see how the path to six wins gets more challenging for several schools.

No one knows how the selection committee will handle an 9-3 or 8-4 team that played a challenging league slate and quality non-conference schedule, but someday the argument will be about an 8-4 SEC team versus a 10-2 Pac 12 team, 

What once was thought to be a no-brainer and that the SEC was going to nine games is now not a slam dunk. Saban's voice is powerful and he's not alone about wanting to stay at eight. Some have suggested that all P5 leagues should play nine games. The SEC doesn't care what any other league thinks about what they should do. When the final decision is made it will likely be announced that it was unanimous in the vote.It won't. 

Some schools need to clear out a date if the league goes to nine games. Alabama would have to decide to drop a home game with Western Kentucky or Mercer in 2024 or Eastern Illinois or Louisiana Monroe in 2025. I have written before that Florida faces a similar situation in 2024. If the SEC goes to nine, the Gators have to drop or move one of the following: Miami(no), FSU(no) UCF or Samford. I've stated before, I don't think Florida would drop Samford. It's a win. I think they will(and may have already asked) UCF to move their 2024 2027. It's the only year Florida has a non-conference date still available.

And so the debate continues in the league with a decision looming and one that is not as simple as once thought. Then again, nothing in college football is easy these days. I would not be shocked if the league sticks at eight. I think enough schools will convince others it's easier to win games playing fewer conference games. We shall see in the coming weeks.

Final note: That 1983 season saw the Gators playing non-conference games against Miami, at USC, home against Indiana State and East Carolina and the season ending game with Florida State. 

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