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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Future of core SEC football rivalries at stake as league meetings loom

Eight or nine?

This seemingly evergreen debate over how many intra-conference SEC football games each team will play is heading back to the beach and starting to approach a deadline.

Instead of last year’s Nick Saban-Jimbo Fisher blood feud, this legislative matter will headline the only league event not televised live on the SEC Network. That’s right, time again for conference leadership to parachute into Destin, Florida for the annual SEC spring meetings.

The behind-closed-door conclave should finally yield a resolution though it doesn’t sound like the suits will be padlocked in the beachside resort meeting rooms without white smoke.

A series of roadblocks caused the can to be kicked down the sandy road until meetings begin Tuesday. The expedited addition of Texas and Oklahoma to the 2024 season and an agreed-upon format for the College Football Playoff clears the path for the 16-team league to finally chart the future of its scheduling.

It’s a matter of playing eight SEC games a year like they do now or bumping it to nine beginning in 2024.

Of course, it’s complex and everyone’s got an angle.

The prevailing sentiment points toward making the move to nine from the eight-game plan adopted after Missouri and Texas A&M jumped in the pool back in 2012.

That nine-game plan aligns with power-conference peers in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 while the ACC still plays eight games each.

There’s obviously a financial angle here as an extra weekend of SEC games would be a bargaining chip with the league in the pursuit of more cash from ESPN when its exclusive deal begins in 2024.

Ultimately, it will be up to the 16 school presidents who will cast the deciding votes on how they’ll move forward.

A few points to remember in this whole discussion:

  • Divisions won’t be part of either plan so the 2023 season will be the last of East vs. West. There was once discussion of pods, but they didn’t survive a boardroom at some point in this slog.
  • With no divisions, setting the parameters for which two teams will play for the conference championship and the finer points of a tiebreaker process makes this an especially tedious exercise.
  • The eight-game proposal threatens a number of rivalries since each team will have one fixed annual opponent with the other seven teams rotating. Assuming the Iron Bowl would remain, yearly meetings like Alabama/Tennessee and Auburn/Georgia would become every-other-year affairs.
  • The nine-game proposal gives three fixed opponents for each school with a rotation filling out the other six.

Nailing down the position of each of the 16 schools has been a challenge.

“I can go either way on that,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said May 10 before playing the Regions Tradition pro-am outside Birmingham. “I think either format will allow us to cycle through the SEC much faster so there won’t be a 4-year window where you don’t play everybody home and away, either way. So, in the grand scheme of things, what are we really talking about? People are looking for something to debate about but we’re going to play everybody in four years, home and away with the two methodologies.”

A week earlier, Auburn athletics director John Cohen took a similar approach meeting with reporters in Huntsville.

“There’s so many factors that I can’t explain at this point in time,” Cohen said according to the Montgomery Advertiser. “There’s a part of me that thinks if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s a little bit of that going on right now. But also, that ninth game is extremely important for a variety of reasons. There’s a worth connected to it, and that has been defined in many different ways.”

Others, however, weren’t as undecided … or at least as guarded.

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher recently told an alumni group in Houston he was in favor of the nine-game format, according to TexAgs.

Nick Saban offered a different perspective.

The Alabama coach wasn’t pleased with the three fixed opponents that would be assigned to the Crimson Tide — Tennessee, Auburn and LSU — in a March interview with Sports Illustrated.

“Look historically over a 25-year history, and the three best teams in the East are Georgia, Tennessee and Florida,” Saban told SI. “You look historically at 25 years, Alabama, LSU and Auburn are the three best teams in the West. So we’re playing them all.”

Any opposition to a nine-game format is a real departure for Saban who has long championed that general concept. In fact, he touted the benefits of playing nine league games as far back as 2012 in the immediate aftermath of scheduling to include Texas A&M and Missouri.

At the time, adding the Aggies to the West and the Tigers to the East kept a similar format to scheduling.

“My thing is I’m for playing nine conference games and still playing another team in the major conferences,” Saban said a year later in 2013, “so you play 10 games because of fan interest, people coming to games looking forward to seeing more good games.”

Alabama’s already taken an aggressive approach to non-conference scheduling in the era of an expanded playoff that allows more tolerance for a loss. It has a pair of Power 5 opponents on the books every year from 2025 through 2034. So, with a nine-game SEC slate, that means playing 11 regular-season games against Power 5 teams compared to the nine (with three against Group of 5 or FCS teams) now.

Gone from the annual Alabama schedule would be SEC West opponents they’ve handled generationally. Its win streak is 16 against Arkansas and 15 with Mississippi State. Ole Miss and Texas A&M would also cease to be yearly opponents under either scheduling format.

So, to the windowless and beige meeting rooms they go with front-facing matters at stake. No doubt issues like NIL and transfer portals will consume a share of the Destin oxygen but with rivalries in the balance, the matter of eight or nine should be the talk of the SEC assembly next week by the gulf.

Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.

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