LITTLE ROCK — Fascination with a nine-game conference schedule in the SEC and speculation about if and when that will become a reality will continue until there is an unequivocal yea or nay.
Talk of adding a game to the conference schedule peters out from time to time, but something always seems to happen to reinvigorate the conversation. Personally, the topic resurfaced with the Big Ten’s recent announcement of its nine-game conference schedules for 2016 and 2017.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive’s reiteration at SEC Media Days that the current 6-1-1 format will remain until at least 2016 was an accelerant. The review of the format “will include whether or not to play an eight- or nine-game conference schedule and whether or not to retain permanent non-divisional opponents,” Slive said.
His consistent stance that he wants what is the “long-term best interest” of the SEC comes with wiggle room.
If the SEC does come around to the nine-game schedule, the league would do well to look at the creative way the Big Ten handled rivalry games.
For starters, the Big Ten is shuffling the divisions. Last year, Michigan and Michigan State were in one division and Ohio State was in the other division. Until former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema arrived at Arkansas with three Rose Bowl teams on his resume, my image of Big Ten football was pretty much Ohio State vs. Michigan. Whether in Columbus or Ann Arbor, it is The Game and continuation of the rivalry was assured when Michigan and Ohio State were declared permanent cross-division rivals.
In the SEC, they would be the equivalent of Auburn-Georgia.
When the divisions were realigned to include Maryland and Rutgers for the 2016 season, the Buckeyes and the Wolverines were placed in the East Division.
In February, an article on ESPN.com said the Big Ten has some of the best rivalries in college sports and cited five that were “untouchable” — Michigan-Ohio State, Indiana-Purdue, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Michigan-Michigan State, and Iowa-Minnesota.
At the time, Minnesota and Wisconsin were in different divisions.
Come 2016, the Gophers and the Badgers will be in the West Division. The SEC could take the same approach to accommodate Auburn-Georgia, by moving Auburn to the East. If that happened, the West would need another team and Missouri is a natural candidate. Such a move would also eliminate the need to schedule Arkansas vs. Missouri, who are to become permanent cross-division rivals in 2014.
Instead of sticking with a permanent cross-division rival, the Big Ten decided that each team would play its six division opponents and three teams from the other division. As a result, every player will have a chance to face each of the other 13 conference teams during a four-year career. Good for the players; maybe even better for the fans.
But, what about Indiana in the East and Purdue in the West and the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket that began almost 100 years ago? The Big Ten simply decreed that Indiana-Purdue would be the only protected cross-division rivalry.
The SEC could do the same with Alabama vs. Auburn, if they were in separate divisions. Most of the games against a permanent opponent from the other division do not generate great passion and were simply established for scheduling purposes when Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC more than 20 years ago.
If the 2013 start-up of the SEC Network or CBS’ demand for more quality games or the strength of schedule issue proves pivotal in the upcoming College Football Playoffs, the SEC might have no choice but to override the wishes of the coaches and go to nine games.
In that case, accommodating rivalries is no excuse. Realigning divisions and exempting a specific game worked in the Big Ten. Thinking outside the box is the appropriate cliche.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.