Should the SEC Stay at Eight Conference Games or Expand to Nine?

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Is it time for the SEC to expand to nine conference games?

Should the SEC Stay at Eight Conference Games or Expand to Nine?

Future schedules are a hot topic in the SEC. With the creation of college football’s four-team playoff postseason format, most BCS teams have beefed up the non-conference schedule in order to improve the resume.

While improved non-conference scheduling seems to be directly tied to the new playoff format, that’s not the only discussion involving scheduling in most conferences.

The Big 12 and Pac-12 already play nine conference games, and the Big Ten is set to expand to nine league contests in 2016.

The ACC is considering a switch from eight games in the future, and the SEC is in discussions its schedules for upcoming seasons.

As college football’s No. 1 conference, is it worth it for the SEC to expand to nine league contests every year?

With the creation of the SEC Network, more inventory for television is needed. However, could a tougher schedule hurt the SEC when the playoff teams are announced?

To help answer this question, Athlon Sports has enlisted two editors to discuss the SEC schedule. Braden Gall breaks down why the SEC should expand to nine conference games, while Steven Lassan makes the case for staying at eight games.

The SEC Needs to Expand to Nine Conference Games:

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Don’t listen to my esteemed and respected colleague Steven Lassan. There is no rational, financial or strategic reason why the SEC should play eight conference games. There are only coaches acting in the interest of self-preservation. They've voted against nine-game SEC schedules because they want to go to bowl games and keep their jobs. That’s it. Otherwise, there is no other rational argument that can be made against a nine-game slate.

First, always follow the money. The money is really all that matters in this situation. Mike Slive and the SEC could play — and subsequently sell — 57 total SEC games to its TV partners. Or it can produce and sell 64 games to its TV partners. Which one do you think the TV partners are going to vote for? And when it comes time to renegotiate the deal? Slive and the SEC are in an even better position to drive the broadcasting price higher. The desire for more SEC football is only getting stronger and adding a game to the schedule enhances the conference’s situation financially.

That’s not all, however, as there's more than one money angle. A home SEC game is worth in excess of $10 million in revenue to the local economy. A fifth home SEC game for half of the league would be a huge coup to local businesses and the community in general. Additionally, the sport as a whole has seen its attendance numbers stagnate and even decline. The best way to curtail that trend is to put a better product on the field. Texas A&M and South Carolina is obviously a bigger draw than a game between the Citadel and South Carolina.

Lastly, and most importantly for the fans, is strength of schedule. From a strategic standpoint, strength of schedule is going to play a larger and larger role in determining playoff spots — no matter how big the College Football Playoff bracket gets. Every other major league plays nine conference games and adding a marquee SEC win to your favorite team’s resume will give it a much better shot at landing in the playoffs. Nick Saban knows this is the direction college football, the SEC and the selection committee is heading and he is simply the first one to jump on board the moving train. He’s not scared of anyone, not from the SEC or any other league. And as the college basketball selection committee has shown in recent years, the strength of one’s schedule is paramount to evaluation process. A ninth quality conference game and likely 10th opponent from another “Big 5” league will almost be a necessity rather than an obstacle.

To top it all off, I am a selfish college football fan and I want to see more good games and no more of these garbage, sacrificial showdowns between college football’s greatest teams and rosters that don’t belong anywhere near an SEC campus. Top that, Lasso.

The SEC Should Stay at Eight Conference Games:

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I can’t deny that Braden makes a lot of good points in his writeup. And I’m probably fighting an uphill battle here since it seems inevitable that the conference will go to nine games.

However, is it possible there is too much of a good thing here?

The SEC is the SEC, and as long as elite talent on the recruiting trail continues to flow into the conference, this league will always be No. 1 nationally. However, adding a ninth game could eat into the bottom of the league, and there's no need to make the path to a conference championship more difficult.

If I am Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi State, I do not want a ninth conference game. If a ninth conference game is added, could it widen the gap between the top and bottom of the league? Also, I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so I do not want to see rivalries like Auburn-Georgia and Tennessee-Alabama move away from their annual format. Sure, new ones will be created, but the SEC thrives on its old rivalries between crossover division rivals. 

Eliminating a non-conference game (likely a guaranteed win) would put a huge dent in the bowl hopes of the bottom of the league. Sure, you can argue there are too many bowl games, but let’s also not forget the postseason has expanded because bowls benefit television networks in December/January. The Pac-12 plays nine conference games and nine teams were eligible for the postseason last year. The Big 12 had six bowl-eligible teams and failed to fill two of their spots (Pinstripe, Texas). Heading into 2014, the SEC has at least 11 bowl tie-ins. I’m not defending the bowl system, but do we really want a postseason where 5-7 or 4-8 teams are reaching the postseason? I didn’t think so.

While the playoff has encouraged tougher scheduling, are we really sure that is going to last? I could be wrong, but the beefy non-conference schedules programs are touting may be a short-term gain of the playoff. In 10-15 years, it could go back to a weak non-conference schedule, especially as teams get a better grasp of how the committee will handle the rankings.

If the SEC expands to nine conference games, one would think a two-loss team from this league would still have a good shot at being ranked among the top four teams in the final committee poll. However, we can’t say for sure. What if the league ends up with a handful of two loss teams every year in the top 10? Would a one-loss team from the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 rank ahead of the SEC? This is all hypothetical, but the SEC already has enough strength to stand on its own with eight conference games. Not to mention, check out the list of non-conference opponents SEC teams played during the 2013 regular season: Florida State, Miami, Washington State, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Clemson, TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas, North Carolina and Oregon.

If I were in charge of the SEC tomorrow, I’d encourage my teams to schedule one marquee non-conference game (similar to the opponents above) and try to use only FBS opponents for all of the out of league matchups.

If something works, even if it may not be perfect, why change it? In this case, the SEC already has the No. 1 ranking among conferences, schedules plenty of good non-conference games and would seem to have the inside track on getting at least two teams in the playoff every year. Perhaps one way of improving the SEC schedule is to eliminate some of the crossover games every year (South Carolina-Texas A&M, Mississippi State-Kentucky) to allow teams to play every other program in the league more often.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the lure of nine conference games. But the SEC doesn’t need nine conference games to improve its national standing. As the No. 1 conference in college football, the SEC can afford to sit back and see how the new playoff works before changing its scheduling principles.

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