SEC Spring Meetings Preview
By Matt Smith
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The issues to be tackled at the SEC spring meetings are a bit less pressing than they were in 2012, with the SEC Network being formally announced earlier this month and expansion seemingly on the back burner.
Offseason? College football fans scoff at the mere mention of the word. February is for recruiting, March and April are for spring practice, and May is for conference meetings.
The coup de grace of meetings season comes next week in Destin, Fla., when SEC coaches, athletic directors and presidents convene at the luxurious and poorly cell phone-serviced Hilton Sandestin for four days of friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly debates and discussions about the hot topics within the conference and the major sports.
Of course, the distribution of annual revenues should help ease any tension. Last year, the league distributed over $240 million of revenues from television contracts, bowl games, and NCAA Championships. That amount should be significantly higher this year with two additional teams participating in the 2012-13 athletic year.
Last year’s meetings focused heavily on scheduling, the pending college football playoff, initial planning for the SEC Network (known as “Project X” at the time) and the integration of newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M.
This year, the issues are a bit less pressing than they were in 2012, with the SEC Network being formally announced earlier this month and expansion seemingly on the back burner. Let’s look at some of the issues that will be discussed behind closed doors next week on the Gulf Coast.
Eight games or nine?
The Pac-12 and Big 12 already play nine conference games. The Big Ten will do so beginning in 2016. Five ACC teams will play a quasi-conference game against Notre Dame each year beginning in 2014. The SEC, however, appears content at eight.
Yes, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart support nine games, but the SEC East teams that play an annual non-conference rivalry game (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina) would like to remain at eight. Vanderbilt’s James Franklin likes the flexibility of eight games depending on the state of each program.
Saban and Hart prefer nine because it would allow their teams to continue the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry while at the same time ensuring their players still play every other school at least once during their career. With eight games and the current model, four-year players would not play at least two schools in the opposite division.
The benefit of nine games would be more balanced scheduling and increased schedule strength in the minds of the selection committee for the upcoming four-team playoff, set to launch in 2014. However, until the SEC is dethroned from its pedestal that stands seven crystal balls high, it will receive the benefit of the doubt in the minds of the selection committee.
Sufficient television inventory is now a concern with the SEC Network, but with 14 teams, the league can still satisfy its television partners with an eight-game schedule. The league already took one major step in that regard with its 2013 schedule, moving Texas A&M at LSU to the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a day that had become known for feasting on FCS schools as tune-ups for rivalry weekend.
The sentiment at this point is that the league will remain at eight until they have a reason to move (i.e. an SEC team being left out of the playoff due to a lack of schedule strength).
LSU’s Les Miles, although never concise, has been the most outspoken coach about the idea of eliminating permanent non-division opponents, something the league has had in place since splitting into divisions in 1992 (two permanent opponents from 1992-2001, one permanent opponent since 2002).
Simply glancing through Miles’ Tigers’ 2013 schedule shows why his viewpoint is what it is. LSU plays both Florida and Georgia from the SEC East, while Alabama plays Kentucky and Tennessee, and Texas A&M plays Missouri and Vanderbilt. Alabama played Missouri and Tennessee in 2012, while LSU played two 11-win teams in Florida and South Carolina.
While the notion that Alabama was benefitting from playing Tennessee every year would have been laughed at in the ‘90s, the downturn of the Volunteers coinciding with Saban’s elevation of the Crimson Tide to the top program in the nation hasn’t sat well with fans of Alabama’s two biggest SEC rivals – Auburn and LSU – who must deal with Georgia and Florida respectively on an annual basis.
We know Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee prefer status quo in order to preserve their rivalry games, while Florida and LSU would like a change. However, it’s the other eight schools that will swing the pendulum one way or the other.
Missouri and Arkansas are likely to become permanent partners when the 2014 schedule is released (expected next week), creating a new border war that could be played Thanksgiving weekend. Since losing Kansas from its schedule, Missouri has been without a team it can call its main rival. The Kentucky-Mississippi State and Ole Miss-Vanderbilt games sit well with the quartet, as all four are currently avoiding playing two heavyweights from the opposite division. South Carolina and Texas A&M, who are expected to become permanent partners, likely would be open to rotating both games.
What about a compromise? Could a team play its non-division partner twice every four years and the other six SEC East teams once? Commissioner Mike Slive has said he’s open to all ideas. Middle ground might be the best solution, but the call here is that the 6-1-1 format will still trump the 6-2 format if it simply comes down to one or the other.
SEC Network Programming
ESPN got the ball rolling Thursday when it formally announced longtime Birmingham radio personality Paul Finebaum would join its family of networks. His daily radio show will be simulcast on the SEC Network when it launches in August 2014.
While specific shows are likely still months away from being developed, some general concepts are already in the discussion stage. A nightly SportsCenter-type show is a must, as well as plenty of classic games. The Big Ten has produced a handful of Big Ten’s Best shows (Best Quarterbacks of the ‘90s, Best Running Backs of the ‘80s, Best Rivalry Games, etc.). No conference’s fanbases appreciate both history and debate like the SEC’s, so a series of shows like these would certainly bring in a sizable audience.
Casual college football fans often overlook recruiting due to the flip-flopping nature of the process and the frustration in placing . However, in the SEC, recruiting is a sport of its own. The SEC Network can take televised recruiting coverage to a level that both Rivals and 247Sports have done for written recruiting coverage.
The SEC Storied documentary series currently running on ESPN has become appointment television. The series can continue and be expanded upon with the SEC Network to involve other sports.
Playoff Selection Committee
While this is more of a national issue than an SEC issue, the playoff selection committee, which the playoff directors hope to have in place in the coming months, will certainly not be lacking an SEC flavor.
Names like former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, former Tennessee Philip Fulmer and former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer are among the many names with SEC ties as possible candidates for the selection committee.
By the end of next week, we’ll likely learn that none of the 14 current athletic directors have any desire to be a part of the committee. Florida’s Jeremy Foley has already stated his lack of interest.
Who would want to be a part of what will amount to a full-time job from September through November in which every decision they make will be constantly scrutinized by fans and media? To this point, few candidates have emerged that possess the desire, credentials, and impartiality to properly serve on the committee.
We may learn some other names to watch in Destin. The more likely scenario, however, is that we learn nothing. A decision that seemed logical when announced last summer after years of frustration with the coaches’ poll and secret computer formulas has begun to backfire a bit with the realization that, perhaps, the best candidates for the committee – media and bookmakers – are the ones who have no chance of being selected.