Eight or Nine? This question is going to dog the SEC for at least the next few seasons, and perhaps for years and years to come.
The Pac-12 went to a nine game schedule when it expanded back in 2009. The shrunken Big XII did the same thing last year (although the fact that league is down to ten teams and, therefore, lost its championship game, practically compelled it to add an extra game). So with the Big Ten's announcement, that means the SEC and the ACC are the only major conferences that have not gone to a ninth game (nb - a year ago, Swofford & Co. announced a nine game slate for 2014, but then dropped the idea after it announced the five-game football deal with Notre Dame last October).
Back in 2011, our football-prolix President, Dr. Harrison Pastides, told us a nine game schedule was coming in 2012; even though that turned out to be inaccurate, it certainly demonstrated that the ninth-game concept was the subject of hot debate in the SEC halls of power. From press reports, we learn that the idea is still being debated even as we speak - including by the coaches, who reportedly disfavor it. Some of the usual suspects argue that the SEC should follow suit now
You can bet your bottom dollar that if the Southeastern Conference holds pat at eight games, it will be more fodder for SEC-haters.
Still, there are a number of cogent reasons why the SEC - and South Carolina - should fight like heck to keep us at eight league games for the foreseeable future. Here at the top ten:
1. If ain't broke, don't fix it. The SEC has won an unprecedented seven national championships in a row, and eight of the last ten. Unlike other conferences, every year we have 3-4 teams that have legitimate national title hopes - and running the table in the SEC is insanely difficult. As it is, one- and two-loss SEC schools already get skipped over for BCS games by other conference teams with lower BCS rankings. Why would we purposefully make it harder on ourselves? An extra league game probably means an extra league loss for a squad that otherwise might plan for the Crystal Ball - possibly us. Who cares what the other conferences do or say? I don't. We in the SEC have nothing to prove. It's the other conferences that have to prove something.
2. An SEC title game contender plays 9 league games already. During the past decade ('03-'12 seasons), the SEC was the only league that held a championship game for each season during that span [the Big XII dropped their CG after 2010]. With one exception (Bama in '11), the nine SEC teams that played for the BCS National title all logged nine league games by virtue of playing in - and winning - the pressure-cooker SECCG. That will likely be the case for the foreseeable future. If the johnny-come-lately's to the championship game concept whine that they will be playing ten league games, then see # 1 above. If they want to make it harder on themselves to prove something, fine by me.
3. And it really is harder in the SEC. No matter what the detractors or the computers may say, our internal strength of schedule numbers speak for themselves. Every team is "all in" in terms of coaching, infrastructure, recruiting, fan bases and will-to-win. Even Vandy is upgrading facilities and bringing in four-stars. Ole Miss inked the number 1 class last NSD. There are no off-weeks. And, unlike the other conferences, the SEC starts league games within the first two Saturdays of the season. We don't hold the whole of September as a tune-up month like the B1G and the Pac-12; no, Labor Day in the Southland means "game on." Every stadium is a snake-pit. Every road game is a death-match. Every program is fully invested. Sure, some teams will be up or down any given year, but the fact that five SEC teams finished in final top 10 after the 2012 season is Exhibit "A" that our conference has the highest bar. Again, like reasons ## 1 and 2, why make it harder on ourselves when its already hard enough as it is?
4. We're going to a 4 game NCAA Championship format in '14. If an SEC team (or two) gets selected for the football final four, that will means that squad will have played nine league games [eight regular season plus the SECCG], plus four out-of-conference games, plus a semi-final game ... and that is before the NCG. Getting to Cowboys Stadium next year would mean that an SEC national champion (or likely SEC runner-up) would play 15 games: at least nine against other SEC foes and perhaps ten if two SEC teams meet in the finals. Two SEC teams in the Football Final Four isn't some SEC-homer, pie-in-the-sky fantasy - it could easily happen next year. If this argument sounds like a broken record after ## 1, 2 and 3 - then maybe the point is being driven home.
5. We're likely headed to even more post-season football, too. Tout le monde knows that the NCAA will push the post-season bracket from four to at least eight, and possibly sixteen teams, in the coming years. If that happens, it's my belief that the NCAA will cut a regular season game (i.e., go back to the old "11 game" regular season). Why do we need a ninth league game in the regular season again?
6. Who wants an imbalanced league schedule? Since every SEC series is (or should be) based on "home-and-home" scheduling, then under a nine game schedule that means every other year you play five SEC games on the road. Think about that. With eight SEC regular season games - good or bad scheduling aside - you at least have as many chances to win at home as away; you lose that season-to-season, however, under a nine game format. If you have all-star talent at QB, RB, WR or DE - the kind of guy who may bolt early for the NFL - he may end up playing more SEC games away from home than at home; the other guy's superstar, on the other hand, may play more home games than your stud got a chance to play. That dog won't hunt.
7. You will lose a guaranteed home game every other year, too. I heard someone on talk radio advance a pro-nine game schedule argument by saying "Hey, some of these out-of-conference games don't fill your stadiums, while a big conference game will." That is true. Of course, if you accept the logic of # 6, then you see you are going to lose a right to at least one home game every other year if you go to a nine-game conference sked. True, some schools have scheduling commitments where they have already bargained away one of their non-conference home rights. But when you play nine games out of twelve against conference foes, then you've lost a gimme home game if you want one - and all the revenue that brings (even if the stands aren't completely full during these years of economic doldrums). It's actually a money loser every other year - for the school in terms of tickets and the local communities in terms of sports tourism dollars - since it likely won't be an incremental boost in TV revenue.
8. It's not fair to the teams with non-SEC in-state rivals. Georgia, Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina all have to play tough in-state rivals. True, the Dawgs have been trouncing the Yellow Jackets in recent memory, but UGA still has to prepare for Paul Johnson's cut-blocking triple option offense every fall whether they like it or not; as for the others - Louisville, Florida State and Clemson - these are all strong ACC clubs capable of beating their SEC rivals in any given year. The B1G, Big XII and Pac-12 (other than Southern Cal-Notre Dame) don't have anything remotely on par. In fact, notice how all the Big XII members dumped their long-standing rivalry games as quickly as they could once they no longer counted to league standings - e.g,, UT/A&M, KU/Mizzou; WVU/Pitt. A ninth SEC game means these four SEC clubs will play ten home-and-home games each year against power conference rivals, leaving only two open slots. If the Aggies and Horns renew their series, as well as Missouri and Kansas - as they both should - then half the SEC's teams will be in this boat. It's just untenable to add a ninth regular season game to this mix.
9. It will keep the SEC from playing more inter-sectional matchups. If you think the SEC doesn't play enough out of the South, or avoids inter-sectional regular season games as it is, then you should strongly disfavor a nine game SEC schedule. All the teams mentioned in # 8 are already committed to tough rivalry games; why should Georgia play Clemson, or South Carolina play North Carolina, or UK play IU (which all have, or will, play soon), when their SEC rivals can bring in another patsy instead? And why should Auburn, Bama, UT, LSU, Vandy or Arkansas - who have all been willing to play tough inter-sectional matchups in the past - schedule a long road trip when they have an extra conference game to play? The answer is obvious. A ninth SEC game will hinder regular season inter-sectional games, not help.
10. It's not in South Carolina's best interest. The eastern division has stiffened considerable over the last three seasons - Georgia and Florida are "back" and people now recognize that our recent success isn't a fluke. While Tennessee has fallen off a bit, the Vols are still dangerous. Vandy has made incredible strides under James Frankin. Gary Pinkel's Mizzou Tigers will be a tough-out once they find their feet in the SEC. Only UK is really "down" and Mark Stoops will do whatever he can to build up the 'Cats - plus they seem to play their best games against us for some reason. Since we already play all six of those East division foes, that means a ninth SEC game has to come against a Western team. Foolishly, we've dropped Arkansas for the sleeping giant of A&M - which appears to be waking. We've already lived through what it means to play Bama and LSU when our friends from the trans-Savannah don't have to; and they're going to find that out for themselves in 2013. Since our school is the farthest east geographically, should we really be so keen on scheduling an extra Western Division team? I think the answer is obvious. These next two Gamecock squads might be our best ever. We've never been the mountain top. Why do we want to add extra miles to the trail?
If you go to nine games, then under a "6-1-2" rotation, you will see all the Western Division opponents once every four years, instead of once every 7 under a "6-1-1" [someone check my math!].
True, that builds continuity in the league, which is a laudable goal. But the SEC solons decided to toss that to the wind when they fell for the siren song of TV revenue and added Mizzou and A&M. While knitting the league more closely together would be nice, it's not a good enough reason to add an extra game.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments!