published Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Coaches remain divided on SEC scheduling

There are 14 programs in Southeastern Conference football, and there are nearly that many viewpoints when it comes to league scheduling.

The SEC announced Sunday that it will maintain the eight-game conference schedule containing six teams within the division, one permanent opponent from the opposite division and one rotating foe from the opposite division. The eight-game schedule was desired by every league coach except Alabama's Nick Saban, who wanted nine SEC games, but supporters of the 6-1-1 format had competition from coaches wanting a 6-0-2, which would have eliminated annual cross-divisional matchups such as Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee.

On Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference that wrapped up spring practice, the great divide was evident.

"The reason I thought the 6-0-2 was the best is because it's the most fair way to go," South Carolina's Steve Spurrier said. "We have one fixed permanent opponent, and it's Clemson University. If you ask our fans here at South Carolina, they would rather win that game than any conference game.

"We're a little bit different, and everybody is a little bit different, but the most fair way to do it is not the way our conference decided to do it."

Spurrier isn't even the most passionate about the SEC opting for status quo on league scheduling. LSU's Les Miles echoed the recent sentiments of Tigers athletic director Joe Alleva, who declared there always will be a greater imbalance in scheduling as long as the 6-1-1 is maintained.

LSU's cross-divisional foe is Florida, with those two programs having combined for four of the last eight SEC titles and four national championships since 2003.

"Several years ago, when we were playing Florida and Georgia in the regular season, I kept saying to myself, 'This will be fun, because I can't wait until the other guys get this,'" Miles said. "Well, there are only two teams in the West who get that, and it's LSU and Auburn. The schedule does not share opponents. Mississippi State plays Vanderbilt, and it would be difficult for them to see Florida and Georgia.

"The rotation of opponents can be the only fair and right way. It gives everybody the opportunity to see the entire conference every four years. To say this is the fairest way to pick a champion is flawed."

Alabama's cross-divisional foe is Tennessee, which ranks second behind the Crimson Tide in all-time SEC titles but has experienced an extended rough patch. The Volunteers have not had a winning season since 2009, and they've lost seven straight to Alabama, with the last four by more than 30 points.

Saban's solution of nine games would have maintained the cross-divisional rivalries and enhanced rotation within the league, but schools such as Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were adamant at staying with eight. The Gators, Bulldogs and Gamecocks have season-ending rivalries against in-state schools from the ACC, and Florida and Georgia meet each year at a neutral site.

"I've never had a problem with the schedule that we have," Saban said, "but I've been in favor of playing nine conference games and adding one more game against a big five conference. My primary reason is for the fans, so that we can be playing more good games.

"It was important for us to keep Tennessee rivalry, but I wish every player had the chance to play more teams on the other side."

Alabama and Georgia, who collided in a memorable 2012 SEC championship game, have not played in the regular season since 2008.

While LSU has been the most outspoken school against the 6-1-1, Florida has been rather quiet. Gators coach Will Muschamp said he would have been fine with the 6-1-1 or the 6-0-2 just as long as it stayed at eight games, which is a sentiment some other coaches shared.

"Having grown up in this league, the disappointing thing is not seeing the Florida-Auburn game continue on somewhat of a regular basis," Muschamp said. "In my first year at the spring meetings, Coach Spurrier told me what a great rivalry that's been over the years. Tennessee and Auburn hardly play any more, but there is no perfect answer to please everybody in our league. We all have a hidden agenda.

"I'm not sitting here telling you it's fair, but it's what the league has decided. I have embraced the LSU rivalry here at Florida, and I will embrace whatever other opponent they want us to have in a given year."

Maintaining the 6-1-1 was viewed as a victory for tradition. Auburn and Georgia comprise the Deep South's oldest rivalry, while Alabama and Tennessee have met every year since the SEC's inception in 1933 except 1943, when neither school fielded a team due to World War II.

Tennessee second-year coach Butch Jones was quick to embrace the importance of the Alabama rivalry, but other newcomers in the league don't have similar attachments.

"It doesn't really matter what I want, and I've learned that quickly," Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin said. "I'm one of the new guys in this league. I just listen and see what happens, and whatever happens, we play it. There is a lot of tradition that would have had to change had we gone with the 6-0-2 format, games that we don't understand.

"We don't understand a Tennessee-Alabama situation for their fans, and as new guys, we had a completely different agenda. We didn't have a dog in that fight as far as longstanding crossover rivalries."

The Pac-12 and Big 12 already employ nine-game conference schedules, with the Big Ten making the jump from eight to nine in 2016. The ACC is reportedly divided on whether to remain at eight league games or add a ninth.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who came from Wisconsin, believes what goes on among other leagues should have no bearing on SEC scheduling decisions.

"Of all my years in this profession, there is no doubt in my mind that the eight games we played last year on our conference schedule and the eight games we have scheduled this year -- I don't care if other conferences play 10 games," Bielema said. "It's not going to be to the magnitude of what it's like in the SEC."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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