ATHENS — Just to wrap up all this SEC football schedule chatter for a while (I hope), the league announced this past Sunday that it was essentially changing nothing, other than switching the permanent West “rivals” of Missouri (Arkansas) and South Carolina (Texas A&M) and requiring that every member schedule an opponent from one of the other four power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12), which most of them did anyway.
Yesterday, the SEC conducted its regular post-spring practice teleconference call with coaches and, as one might expect, the scheduling decisions dominated the discussions. Georgia and coach Mark Richt had been on record before about preferring that things stay the same — eight games, 6-1-1 format, Auburn as permanent West rival — and Richt reiterated that stance during Tuesday’s call.
“I had a pretty good feeling that was going to happen,” Rich said. “I didn’t know for sure, but I’m very comfortable with it. “I think the game with Auburn is important to our people, and I think it’s important to the South as far as rivalries go. I think it’s a big part of college football. So I’m fine with that. It really isn’t going to change much that we do. I think everybody is going to have a strong enough schedule. I think everyone is going to play enough tough opponents to not hurt anyone’s chances of playing in the Final Four.”
That was probably the most interesting aspect of Tuesday’s discussions, hearing the coaches talk about their belief that playing eight SEC games is plenty enough of a challenge regardless of what other conferences. I thought the most compelling points were made by coaches who remain somewhat new to the SEC after long tenures in other conferences.
Bret Bielema just endured his first season in the league after coming to Arkansas from Wisconsin and a long, successful tenure in the Big Ten.
“When I was in those conference meetings it was always about, what can we do to catch up with what was going on in the SEC?” said Bielema, whose 3-9 squad was winless in the SEC. “… In all of my years in this profession and as a head coach, there’s no doubt in my mind the eight games we played last year on our conference schedule and, just on paper, the eight games we have scheduled this year, I don’t care if other conferences play 10 games, it’s not going to be to the magnitude of what this possibly is for the SEC.”
Said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who coached in the Big 12 for part of 11 seasons before the Tigers joined the SEC: “The league is so tough, the league is so difficult, that I think that separates it by itself, in terms of quality of play each and every week. That’s so significant …When you play nine, as strong as our league is, that could knock one or two teams out of bowls .. and there’s also the possibility of knocking somebody out of the top four. So I was in favor of it.”
Coaches and administrators were instructed not to share how how each team voted in Sunday’s meeting. But we now know the presidents and chancellors voted 10-4 in favor of the 6-1-1 format over the 6-0-2 format, with Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee casting the dissenting votes. The 0-2 format would have eliminated permanent West rivals such as the Bulldogs have with Auburn but would have assured every school would play every other from the opposite division at least once over a four-year period.
LSU coach Les Miles, whose team retained Florida as its permanent East rival, has been the most outspoken critic.
“The scheduling did not go like I thought it should,” he said. “The rotation of opponents can only be the fair and right way. It gives everybody an opportunity to see the entire schedule, the entire conference, in four years. It removes annual inequity of scheduling. It’s a disparaging difference. To say that this is the fairest and ‘rightest’ way to pick a champion, I think that is flawed.”
Countered Florida’s Will Muschamp: “It isn’t all fair all the time and that’s part of it. When you’re in a league and you’ve got 14 universities being represented, that’s what Commissioner (Mike) Slive does. He and his staff make a decision on what’s best for the majority of the conference and whatever format they went with, eight games, I was going to be good with. We’ve got a great rivalry — and I’ve been on both sides of it — with Florida and LSU. It’s an exciting game, it’s a national game, and certainly a game that I know Les enjoys and I do as well.”
So that’s that. The question now is what happens out-of-conference scheduling going forward. And Georgia has been a leader in that regard.
The Bulldogs don’t generally get credit for their aggressive non-conference scheduling but they’re actually among the progressive. They’ve played two or more teams from another BCS conference in eight of the last nine years — including three in 2009. That’s been the case in 10 of the 13 seasons Richt has been head coach.
UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity said Wednesday he will continue to seek opponents beyond Georgia Tech from what they’re now calling the Power Conference Alliance in the future. Currently none are set beyond Clemson this season.
“We’ll look to schedule games like that periodically,” McGarity said. “It just depends on when it can work out. There are a lot of factors that have to be considered.”
Like most SEC coaches, Richt believes the league slate plus one major opponent offers plenty of challenge over a 14-week regular season.
“I think we have to be a little bit careful how we do it,” the Bulldogs’ coach said. ” You don’t want to have too many seasons where you only have six home games,” Richt said. “I haven’t really looked at it, (but) if you get too many of those types of games you could conceivably only have five home games. I think we should have six, seven, even eight home games at times. I know that’s s lot of times that’s not gonna happen that many times because we play Florida in Jacksonville.”
Actually, Georgia has played fewer than six home games only once in Richt’s tenure (2011). The Bulldogs have managed to schedule seven home games only twice, when they had seven in 2002 and 2006.
And while all that is important for UGA’s bottom line, that’s not what’s foremost on the minds of fans, who are being asked to fill stadiums and sign up for the new SEC Network on their cable and satellite TV packages. They want to see their teams play the like of Notre Dame, Texas and Southern Cal.
“I think there’ll be some of those coming down the road,” Richt said