Nine-game schedule for football comes up

sports@macon.comMay 2, 2013 

ATLANTA -- It still might be far from happening, but there is more sentiment in the SEC for a nine-game football conference schedule.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban came out in favor of that Thursday, and SEC commissioner Mike Slive said it needs to be discussed -- even if most of the other coaches are against it.

“The league will make a decision,” Slive said. “In light of the playoff, in light of changes, we oughta be discussing how we schedule. Whether we change it or not is another matter. This league didn’t get to be where it is without opening the door and looking at everything and making sure that we’re doing everything we need to do to be as good as we can be.”

The creation of an SEC Network has led to yet more discussion of the conference moving to a nine-game football schedule. It was a hot topic Thursday at the Hyatt Regency, with coaches once again voicing their opposition, and their commissioner essentially saying: We’ll see.

That doesn’t mean the conference will go to nine. But remember, two years ago most coaches (with the exception of Georgia’s Mark Richt) were against oversigning proposals. But they passed anyway, in large part because Slive favored them and got the presidents and athletics directors on his side.

So this will be discussed later this month at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla. And it may go beyond that.

Slive is at least hopeful for a shorter-term solution. Only the 2013 football schedule has been announced, so the conference needs to announce something soon on 2014 and beyond. Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said last week he expected a three-year schedule (2014-16) to be revealed soon.

“Soon, I hope,” Slive said. “Hopefully before (Destin).”

Those will be eight-game schedules in the 6-1-1 scheme -- six against divisional foes, one against a recurring cross-division rival and one against a rotating cross-division opponent. Any nine-game schedule will require larger debate -- and there will be debate.

“I’m for playing nine conference games; I was the only person that spoke out in favor of it last year,” Saban said. “If you increase the size of the league and the number of teams you have in the league then you’ve got to play more games.”

Auburn president Jay Gogue said, “I’d probably be one that would be supportive of it. There was discussion last year about it. Certainly no decision ... I think it will be discussed every year for a few years until there is some resolution, or we stay where we are.”

Some other coaches have said they’re open to it, including Richt and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier. But many more coaches are stridently opposed to anything but eight games.

“I’m not for a nine-game schedule. I don’t think it’s best for our league,” Florida’s Will Muschamp said. “It’s too challenging with the in-state rivalry we already play. You add a ninth game (in the SEC), it’s too difficult.”

Auburn first-year head coach Gus Malzahn wouldn’t weigh in on the subject.

“To be honest with you right now, I’m just focused on year by year,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got our hands full with next year and we’ll have discussions with the SEC commissioner and all that.”

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina each have an in-state non-conference rivalry with a BCS opponent. But South Carolina’s Spurrier is a bit more open than Muschamp.

“The three of us have a pretty tough game already,” Spurrier said. “But it could go to nine. Whatever they say is fine with me.”

The benefit of a nine-game schedule is it would allow more room for the three most heated permanent cross-division rivalries: Georgia-Auburn, Tennessee-Alabama and LSU-Florida.

Slive was asked if those needed to be protected. The commissioner thought for a second before answering.

“We have (protected them),” Slive said, smiling. “So far.”

Carolina on his mind?

One of the curiosities of the new SEC Network is that it will be headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., which happens to be outside the footprint of the SEC.

“Matter of fact I think it’s an advantage,” Slive said. “I’m delighted to have a presence in North Carolina.”

Slive was asked if he could elaborate on that.

“No. I don’t need to,” Slive said, smiling.

The SEC and the North Carolina schools have been rumored dancing partners for several years, but it only has been that -- rumors. And the ACC’s recent grant-of-rights agreement has led most observers to believe expansion is done for some time.

Still, the creation of the SEC Network will only further speculation about the conference trying to expand its footprint beyond its current 11 states. After all, the Big Ten has added three schools -- Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers -- since creating its network a few years ago.

But Slive, despite playing coy earlier, denied the SEC Network was created for that reason.

“This is not done with the idea that we’re going to expand,” Slive said. “This is not a precursor. This does not move the issue of expansion from the far back-burner to any burner further from it. I’m still working on trying to get a schedule put together for 2014.”

An SEC Network release indicated “ESPN already has a state-of-the-art facility in Charlotte that is easily accessible from across the SEC footprint.” Representatives from ESPN’s home in Bristol, Conn., will monitor the network and assist as necessary.

SEC with ESPN thru 2034

ESPN president John Skipper declared an extension of the network’s media rights contract with the SEC through 2034 -- 21 years from now. According to ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell, that’s the longest contract in all of television.

“There’s a lot of discussion about new competitors for ESPN, and I’m going to invite all my competitors to take out the actuarial tables and look at the year 2034,” Skipper said. “It speaks to the confidence that we have that the quality of the athletics in this conference will remain at the high level that it is.”

All about Saturday

The new network isn’t expected to coax the SEC into pushing more games to Thursday, a model the ACC, Big East and Pac-12 have adopted.

“We’re a Saturday league. It’s historically a Saturday league. That’s when our fans want us to play football,” Slive said. “We have agreed to play only two Thursday night football games annually. That won’t change.”

Conference pride

Tasked with guiding the SEC Network, former ESPN senior vice president Justin Connolly recalled a goosebumps moment in the third quarter of the BCS national championship game, when Alabama was thumping Notre Dame 42-14 and Crimson Tide fans broke out in the conference’s omnipresent “S-E-C!” cheer.

“There is not another conference in America where that sense of pride and that sense of belonging translates into such a public display,” Connolly said. “That SEC chant and the feeling it evokes, that would match or exceed the fight song or rallying call of any single institution, let alone any conference.”

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