MIRMAR BEACH, Fla. — We fell into a time machine Tuesday morning, and Nick Saban was discussing a nine-game SEC schedule again.
Saban, for a decade, has pounded the drum that the SEC should add an additional conference game. The league never embraced the Alabama coach’s suggestion.
Hopefully this week, it finally will.
The SEC’s future schedule format will be among the topics debated at the conference’s spring meetings here this week. Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC by 2025 means the conference must re-evaluate its alignment. One of the formats on the table is eliminating divisions and increasing to nine SEC games.
We know where Saban stands, and it’s the same place he’s stood since 2012.
If “it just means more,” as the SEC motto says, then that should mean more conference games, as well.
“I’ve always been for playing more conference games,” Saban said Tuesday, before heading to a meeting with his fellow SEC coaches.
“I’ve always been for improving the college schedule, trying to eliminate some of these games that we play that fans, players, supporters are not really interested in. I think the nine-game format is a start in that direction.”
Of course it is.
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Georgia coach Kirby Smart says the conference’s future schedule model foremost should consider the “student-athletes and their experience.”
If that’s the case, then the choice should be obvious.
SEC football players often say the opportunity to play against the best competition is one of the top draws to playing in this conference.
Players craving for SEC clashes mirrors that of fans and television executives.
Five of the top six highest-rated regular-season games broadcast during the 2021 season were conference matchups.
For all the handwringing from coaches and administrators about how name, image and likeness deals challenge the future of the sport, the bigger threat to college football’s standing would be the product going stale.
And it doesn’t get much duller than a non-conference game between Alabama and New Mexico State.
The main reason to continue with an eight-game SEC schedule is to protect struggling coaches and programs. Playing one fewer conference game affords the opportunity to insert another cupcake non-conference opponent.
But I hardly think helping mediocre programs reach six wins and the Birmingham Bowl should be the top scheduling motivation.
As for continuing its College Football Playoff dominance, the SEC might feel more comfortable expanding its conference schedule if the playoff field also grew. The penalty for losing a game wouldn’t be as stiff if the playoff featured 12 teams, compared to four.
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Nonetheless, the SEC has proof that playing more conference games doesn’t thwart its national championship pursuits.
The 2020 season is case in point. That year, the SEC featured a 10-game, conference-only schedule in response to the pandemic.
Alabama aced the test, went undefeated, and won the national championship. The way that Crimson Tide team held up across 11 SEC games, including the conference championship, resulted in it being celebrated as one of the best teams in college football history.
If Notre Dame or Ohio State had suffered a regular-season loss, then Texas A&M would have made the playoff that season, too.
Saban offered one caveat to his preference for a nine-game SEC schedule.
“Are other conferences doing the same thing?” Saban said Tuesday.
Well, the Big 12 has played a nine-game conference schedule since 2011.
The Big Ten has played a nine-game conference schedule since 2016, and Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said in February that conference does not plan to reduce its conference slate.
Also last season, seven Big Ten teams did not play an FCS foe, while every SEC team played an opponent from Division I’s lower tier.
The SEC should examine that next. First, though, it’s time to finally embrace Saban’s longstanding suggestion that more SEC games is for the best.