by George Schroeder, USA TODAY Sports
DESTIN, Fla. - Alabama coach Nick Saban represents one side of the debate on whether the Southeastern Conference should play a nine-game conference football schedule. But his side is not a popular one. "I'm absolutely in the minority, no question about it," he said.
Vanderbilt's James Franklin, representing the other side, said he was "married to the eight-game schedule," calling it "the thing I'm pounding the table about."
SEC commissioner Mike Slive said Tuesday the discussion wouldn't be put to a vote here this week during the league's annual meetings, and said the league would retain its current eight-game schedule at least through the 2014 season.
But several factors have combined to force consideration of a change in the future. Those include the SEC's recent expansion to 14 teams, and the league's new deal with ESPN for the SEC Network, which will need inventory. But the most important factor might be the change in postseason format in 2014 to the four-team College Football Playoff - and to a playoff selection committee that will likely emphasize strength of schedule.
Although the SEC has won the past seven BCS national championships, the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine-game league schedules. The ACC plays only eight conference games, but will add Notre Dame for five games each season. There's impetus to have apples-to-apples comparisons for the selection committee.
Except, of course, that the SEC considers its apples to be bigger and better. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, who favors retaining the eight-game schedule, said, "They're chasing us. We're the leaders. I don't think we should be making changes solely because the Big Ten and Pac-12 have."
The issue gets even more complicated when discussion turns to interdivision play. There's disagreement on whether to retain the current format, which features one permanent cross-division rival and rotates the other opponents.
Several coaches voiced their opinion in interviews Tuesday - and then apparently did so again during their meeting with Slive - leading the commissioner to repeat a line that has quickly become a mantra: "The First Amendment is alive and well," he said after what he termed a "healthy discussion" in a meeting with the coaches.
"I think any coach, if he's speaking truthfully and honestly, you're gonna prefer the eight-(game schedule)," Arkansas' Bret Bielema said. "I understand the reason behind the nine-, but ... if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Franklin said the eight-game schedule "is in the best interest of the SEC and in the best interest of Vandy." But Saban disagreed, saying expansion to 14 schools made adding a game imperative to retain conference identity. He also touched indirectly on another agenda item for the week when he noted entertaining matchups were important to maintain fan interest.
In 2012, the SEC led the nation in average attendance for the 15th consecutive year. But the average (75,538) also dropped for the fourth consecutive year. The SEC has formed a working group to try to address the issue, and Saban said coaches should consider the issue in nonconference scheduling and when considering changes to the conference schedule.
"The biggest thing we all need to do in some of these decisions we're making about who we play and what we do is, 'What about the fans?' " Saban said. "One of these days they're going to quit coming to the games because they're going to stay at home and watch it on TV. Everybody's going to say, 'Why don't you come to the games?' Well, if you'd play somebody good, then we'd come to the games.
"That should be the first consideration. Nobody's considering them. They're just thinking about, 'How many games can I win? Can I get bowl-qualified? How many tough teams do I have to play?' "
Saban likened it to viewing the issue "through a straw," and said he's "trying to look at it from 1,000 feet."
"I shouldn't be for it," he said. "We'd have a better chance to be successful if we didn't do it - but I think it's best for the game and for the league."
But Franklin said a move to nine games would lessen schools' desire to schedule meaningful non-conference games. And then he went further, saying if the SEC moved to a nine-game schedule, "two years from now they're gonna say you probably ought to schedule an NFL team. ... When's it gonna end?"
Answer: Apparently not this week.
George Schroeder, a national college football reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter@GeorgeSchroeder.
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