Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Eight is enough for most in SEC
Alabama head coach Nick Saban watches his team prior to an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
FAYETTEVILLE - Alabama Coach Nick Saban has won four national championships in 12 seasons in the SEC and has been called the most powerful coach in sports by Forbes magazine, but he doesn’t always get his way.
The SEC will continue to play eight conference games, it was announced Sunday night, despite the fact Saban wanted to play nine.
Saban said during Wednesday’s SEC coaches spring teleconference he favored expanding the conference schedule because it would mean more quality games for fans.
“They’ll want to come to the stadiums and see the games, which I think should be a primary concern,” Saban said.
Saban said another plus to a nine-game conference schedule would be for players to face a larger variety of SEC teams during the course of their careers, but he added that keeping Tennessee as a permanent opponent for Alabama - with the teams in opposite divisions - was a primary concern.
The Alabama-Tennessee game, played annually since 1944 and dating to 1901, was protected by the SEC while maintaining the scheduling format of teams playing all six of their division rivals and having one permanent opponent from the other division and one on a rotating basis.
Alabama has won seven in a row against Tennessee, but Volunteers Coach Butch Jones said it was vital to continue playing the game on an annual basis.
“That’s in our DNA,” Jones said.
Saban said the only way for longtime SEC rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia to continue and rotate two cross-division opponents was to have nine games, which a majority of conference administrators and coaches opposed.
“Everybody has different issues and different problems when it comes to scheduling,” Saban said. “There are some people in the league concerned about playing the best quality of schedule. There are some people concerned about playing a schedule where they have the best opportunity to become bowl eligible.
“So it’s hard for everybody to have a common denominator. What is the best compromise to be reached?
“I think the conference, the presidents, our athletic directors, did a fantastic job of taking all that information and putting it together and trying to come up [with] the best solution that solved the most problems.”
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema, whose Razorbacks went 0-8 last season in his SEC debut, supported the conference schedule remaining at eight games, citing the fact SEC teams have played in the national title game each of the past eight seasons.
A four-game college football playoff will begin in 2014, replacing the Bowl Championship Series.
“I know that I came into this league with the expectation of having a better opportunity to put ourselves in position when the college football playoffs came about to get to those four spots,” said Bielema, who led Wisconsin to three consecutive Big Ten titles before taking the Arkansas job. “In my years [in the Big Ten] when we sat in those conference meetings, it was all about ‘What can we do to catch up with what was going on in the SEC?’ ”
Bielema said the SEC’s strength of schedule is second to none.
“In all of my years in this profession and all of my years as a head coach, there is 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 for 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 this possibly is for the SEC.”
Other SEC coaches agreed that an eight-game format also is best for the conference.
“The wear and tear in the league games, it takes a toll on you,” Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze said. “I think we beat each other up enough.”
LSU Coach Les Miles remained a vocal critic of teams having a permanent opponent from the opposite division - the Tigers play Florida - but said he favored eight games.
Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn endorsed the eight-game schedule and keeping the rivalry game with Georgia, a team the Tigers have faced 113 times and first played in 1892.
“Personally I like eight games,” said Malzahn, whose Tigers lost to Florida State 34-31 in the BCS title game last season. “I think our conference speaks for itself with the track record. We’ll learn a lot about this new playoff system, the selection and all that the next few years.”
In contrast to Miles’ complaints about playing Florida every season, Gators Coach Will Muschamp hasn’t been critical publicly of playing LSU. Muschamp has a good understanding of how the SEC works after playing at Georgia and being a defensive coordinator at LSU and Auburn before landing the Florida job.
“There’s no perfect answer to please everybody,” Muschamp said. “We all have a hidden agenda, whatever university we represent.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 05/01/2014