SEC Spring Meetings Preview
By Matt Smith
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In the middle of a tumultuous offseason, there is much to talk about next week in Destin.
What once was a relatively relaxing week for SEC coaches, athletic directors and presidents has now become one of the major events on the college football offseason calendar. While the schools will still receive their apportionment of ever-increasing league profits, it won’t be all fun and games at next week’s SEC Spring Meetings at the Hilton Sandestin in Destin, Fla.
There is certainly no lack of discussion points for the four days of the annual congregation on the Gulf Coast. Last year, the focus was on oversigning, a practice heavily criticized during the 2011 recruiting season that allowed for coaches to sign upwards of 30 recruits with the likelihood that a few would not be academically eligible to enroll in the fall.
Now, oversigning could not be further from the mind of fans, coaches and administrators. The first two days of the event, which begins Tuesday, mostly involve coaches and athletic directors, with university presidents arriving late in the week. Four hot-button issues will make up much of the conversation in Destin.
Little has been settled with regards to how college football will determine its national champion beginning in 2014. We thought a four-team playoff was a certainty, but last week’s announcement of a postseason game between the Big 12 and SEC champions has reignited the possibility of a true plus-one, where two teams would be selected after the bowl games.
Conference presidents and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will convene next month for BCS meetings. Earlier this week, Swarbrick expressed his desire to have a resolution to the playoff issue at the close of the June meetings. The SEC, for obvious reasons, is against any plan that favors conference champions. The league has had two teams ranked in the top four of the final BCS Standings in three of the past six seasons.
The format is only one of many playoff-related issues to be worked out. Dates, locations, and how teams are selected are likely to spark more disagreement within the league than the format. SEC commissioner Mike Slive told WJOX in Birmingham earlier this week that he is not in favor of on-campus semifinals. The overwhelming sentiment is that the idea proposed earlier this spring by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney is all but dead. The role of the bowls in the playoff system will be the most controversial and complex matter.
With conference commissioners and athletic directors about as honest as NFL general managers are in the week prior to the NFL Draft when it comes to expansion, it’s difficult to truly know where schools and conferences stand on the issue. Thanks to a rant from vociferous Florida State Board of Trustees Chairman Andy Haggard last week, we now know many within the Seminoles’ inner circle are not thrilled with the ACC’s recent TV contract, specifically the sale of third-tier rights.
At 14 teams, the SEC is the clubhouse leader in the expansion arms race. With the Big 12 regaining its long-term stability, any expansion would likely be to the north and east. Louisville, N.C. State and Virginia Tech make the most sense as candidates. North Carolina may be the school most coveted by the SEC, but a separation from Duke is unlikely.
While nothing appears imminent, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is an outside-of-the-box thinker, and could make another run at a 16-team league at any moment. There is no doubt Slive has a list of candidates somewhere in the back of his desk. The league does not need to be proactive, but must be ready to react to any seismic shift in the landscape.
3. Television Contracts
The SEC’s landmark 15-year contract with CBS and ESPN that began in 2009 has become somewhat outdated thanks to the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M and the recent deals signed by the ACC and Big 12. Discussions are underway to redo the contract, which in pure dollars will almost certainly top that of any other conference.
The bigger question, however, is whether the much-discussed “SEC Network” (not the conglomerate of stations that air the early-afternoon SEC game) will come to fruition, now that the Big Ten Network can officially be deemed a successful experiment. The market is there for it to work, but with the amount of air time already given to the league on the various ESPN networks, is it really necessary?
With the high subscriber rates charged by similar regional sports networks (Comcast Sports Net and Fox Sports Net affiliates), it is likely the league could increase revenue from either a joint venture (as the Big Ten has with FOX) or a fully in-house operation (as the Pac-12 Network will be). The SEC footprint now spans from Texas to the Carolinas. There are over 90 million people in states with SEC teams, which is 20 million more than in Big Ten states.
When the league announced its 2012 schedule last December, it said it was a one-year model and that the format rotation would be revisited prior to releasing any future schedules. Ideally, the league would like to have a 2013 schedule prior to the start of the 2012 season (it’s the South, people need to know when bye weeks are so they can plan weddings).
More than likely, the 2012 format of six division games, one permanent inter-division game, and one rotating inter-division game will continue. The downside is that it will take 12 years to cycle through the rotation, meaning SEC East teams other than Tennessee will host Alabama only one time in 12 years. It’s a small price to pay, however, to maintain annual rivalries such as Alabama-Tennessee, LSU-Florida and Georgia-Auburn. Nine conference games appears off the table due to the need for at least seven home games and to maintain various non-conference rivalry games.
The only tweak expected is with permanent inter-division rivals. South Carolina and Arkansas will likely no longer play annually, with Arkansas being paired with newcomer Missouri. Arkansas’ campus lies just 30 miles from the Missouri border. The Gamecocks would then begin playing Texas A&M each year, which was initially paired with Missouri for the 2012 season.
Check Southern Pigskin next week and my Twitter feed @MattSmithCFB for updates from Destin.