Saban said Tuesday he would like to see the SEC expand from eight to nine games, an opinion that surely will draw debate and dissent during the league’s annual spring meetings this week.
Saban was the only SEC coach to publicly call for increasing the number of league games, the biggest topic being discussed during daylong meetings held in the resort town. SEC presidents and chancellors could vote on the issue Friday.
“I’m absolutely in the minority, no question about it,” Saban said. “But everybody has their reasons.”
Having won three of the past four Bowl Championship Series national title games, Saban admits he should be against changing the model.
“If you look at it through a straw and how it affects you ... then you’re not going to be for it,” he said. “I shouldn’t be for it. We’d have a better chance to be successful if we don’t do it, but I think it’s best for the game and for the league. I’m trying to look at it from 1,000 feet.”
Others, including Georgia’s Mark Richt, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, want to keep the status quo. The SEC currently plays eight conference games: six games against division opponents, one against a designated rival from the other division and one rotational game against the remaining six teams.
Several coaches argued that expanding to nine games would only make an already difficult schedule even tougher — and could affect bowl eligibility for teams on the bubble.
“You add a ninth game and that’s seven more losses for our conference,” Freeze said. “We want to fill all our bowl slots and represent our conference. When you play that ninth game, it would create some more revenue, but it’s seven more losses. I’m in favor of playing the West and two rotators. That’s what I will push and vote for.”
But with a four-team playoff on tap for the 2014 season, strength of schedule could become a bigger priority for teams with national title hopes.
The SEC’s 14 coaches spent Tuesday discussing the pros and cons of eight- and nine-game schedules. While most want to remain at eight games, some would like to see the 6-1-1 model switched to a 6-2 version that would eliminate cross-division fixed opponents. That would mean the end of annual rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee, which have played all but one season since 1928, or Auburn-Georgia, which have played 116 times in the past 120 years.
The 6-1-1 model certainly eased Alabama’s path to the title game last year. Alabama’s fixed Eastern Division opponent is Tennessee, which went 1-7 in conference play. The Crimson Tide’s rotating East opponent was Missouri, which went 2-6 in the league. Alabama won the division by one game over LSU, which faced Florida (7-1) and South Carolina (6-2) from the East, and Texas A&M, which faced Missouri (2-6) and Florida (7-1).
Georgia tied Florida for the East title and won by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. South Carolina, which beat Georgia in Columbia, finished a game back. Georgia played West opponents Auburn (0-8) and Mississippi (3-5). Florida faced LSU (6-2) and Texas A&M (6-2). South Carolina played Arkansas (2-6) and LSU (6-2).
When the SEC had 12 teams and five division games, fixed opponents didn’t affect the race as much because the rotating, cross-division games somewhat leveled the playing field. With 14 teams and one rotating opponent, the fixed opponent can be a make-or-break game.
“Eight games, nine games, 6-1-1, 6-2, I think you can make a lot of arguments,” Franklin said. “That’s what we’re going to discuss. Again, we’ve won the last seven national championships with similar models to what we have now. Our first couple of years in these meetings was to make sure we were able to hold on to some of these rivalries we’ve had for a long time. That’s important to certain fan bases and certain institutions, so we’ll see.
“The thing that I’m pounding the table about is eight games. Really there’s no other discussion but eight games. That’s in the best interest of the SEC. That’s in the best interest for Vanderbilt.”
Coaches will vote and take the result to athletic directors Wednesday. The ADs will make a final suggestion to presidents and chancellors later in the week. The league is likely to make a decision on the 2014 schedule Friday, but might not reach a final resolution regarding future schedules until later.
“If any coach is going to speak truthfully and honestly, they prefer the eight,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “A wise man once taught me: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The SEC has won the last seven BCS titles, no doubt a stretch of success that any conference would love to boast about. But the league is in the midst of a major overhaul, so the schedule might just be next to change.
Not only did the conference add Texas A&M and Missouri last year, it also is launching the SEC Network in 2014. The network surely will want more marquee matchups in exchange for increasing revenue.
Saban, though, said more consideration should be given to fans during these scheduling discussions.
“One of these days, they’re going to quit coming to the games because they’re going to stay at home and watch it on TV,” Saban said. “Everybody’s going to say, ‘Why don’t you come to the games?’ Well, if you’d play somebody good, then we’d come to the games. That should be the first consideration. Nobody’s considering them. They’re just thinking about, ‘How many games can I win? Can I get bowl qualified? How many tough teams do I have to play?’
“After coaching in the NFL for eight years, everybody in the NFL plays everybody in the NFL, and you lose some games. The Giants lost how many games and won the Super Bowl, six? I think it makes it more exciting if you don’t have to go undefeated or lose just one game to be able to have a chance to qualify to play for something at the end.”