Big Ten to Nine Games; Will SEC Follow?
By Matt Smith
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Currently, both the Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine conference games. The ACC, Big Ten and SEC play eight conference games.
It’s February – the time when discussions in the college football world shift from on the field to off the field. One of the current hot-button topics is conference scheduling, an issue arising from the combination of expansion and the four-team playoff, which begins following the 2014 season.
Currently, both the Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine conference games. The ACC, Big Ten and SEC play eight conference games. Both the Big Ten and ACC had intended to move to nine games, but tabled those plans last year.
On Monday, the Big Ten reversed course yet again, telling the Chicago Tribune that the league will go to a nine or ten-game conference schedule in the near future. The league will expand to 14 teams in 2014 when Maryland and Rutgers join the league.
The nine-game schedule eliminates multiple problems the Big Ten has faced in recent years. With the league electing not to hold any conference games until Week 5, it has been largely off the radar during late September with most teams feasting on cupcakes from the MAC and FCS.
With a 14-team league, the nine-game schedule also prevents teams going 12 years between home games with most teams in the opposite division. A nine-game schedule would cut that number in half, with only six years in between home games with non-division, non-permanent opponents.
I had said previously, when the ACC announced in February 2012 that it would move to nine games, that the Big Ten and SEC would go to nine games at the same time. My sentiment has changed a bit since the October announcement that the ACC would stay at eight games, due in large part to the alliance with Notre Dame that will have the Irish facing five ACC teams each season beginning in 2014. The SEC would no longer be the lone outlier with an eight-game schedule, and there is enough internal conflict to keep the status quo in place for the foreseeable future.
Within the confines of the SEC, opinions are mixed on moving to nine games. Much of the contention arises from Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina having annual non-conference rivalry games with ACC opponents. All other SEC teams, barring renewals of the dormant Missouri-Kansas and Texas-Texas A&M rivalries, have greater flexibility in non-conference scheduling.
Florida coach Will Muschamp, who concludes his season each year with Florida State, has spoken out against a nine-game schedule. Conversely, Alabama’s Nick Saban, who has no such non-conference rival, is a proponent of nine games. With four new coaches in the league, the pulse of the league’s coaches as a whole likely won’t be known until they convene in Destin, Fla., in late May for the league’s annual spring meetings.
It’s safe to say, however, the greatest concern about a nine-game schedule is coming from Athens, Columbia, Gainesville and Lexington. The four SEC East schools would likely want an agreement where all teams were required to play at least one team from the soon-to-be five major conferences each year. Going back to the institution of the 12-game schedule for all games in 2006, only nine times (of 86 schedules) has a team not played a BCS-conference opponent outside of the SEC.
Another concern involves the annual Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville. Theoretically, in a nine-game schedule, both teams would always have four home games, four away games, and the neutral-site contest at Everbank Field. With an intra-state rivalry game on the road every other year, the teams would not always be able to hold seven home games on campus on an annual basis. Georgia has had just six games in Athens multiple times, but Florida has had seven games in Gainesville every year since 2006 (they will only have six in 2013 due to a game at Miami).
For financial reasons, most major programs like to have seven games on campus every season. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were the only schools to host just six games in 2012. Arkansas and LSU each hosted eight games. In a nine-game schedule, having seven games at home each year would be feasible even with a home-and-home series with a BCS opponent outside of the SEC. The non-conference road games would simply have to occur in years with five SEC home games – of course, Florida and Georgia will likely never have five SEC home games.
Requiring that each team play one “challenging” non-conference game is a clearable hurdle. The Florida-Georgia game is a bit trickier. Would a nine-game schedule be the final straw in moving the game back to campus sites? It shouldn’t be. Texas and Oklahoma have made a neutral-site conference game at the Cotton Bowl work with a nine-game schedule. Neither team has had seven home games since the Big 12 went to nine games in 2011. For Florida and Georgia, they could still have seven home games every other year. However, that probably won’t be enough to satisfy the money-hungry leadership of the two universities.
Saban rarely is denied what he wants, but he may be permanently living at his Georgia lake house before the SEC goes to nine games. Seven home games are vital to athletic departments with ever-increasing budgets. Until the SEC is no longer given the benefit of the doubt by selection committee members and is forced to strengthen its non-league games, expect the league to stay at eight games.
It’s not good for the fans. It’s not good for the players. But the finals verdicts of these debates rarely are. After all, it’s February.