Emerson: The SEC football program will become more difficult for everyone. Get in line, Nick Saban.

It’s been three decades since the SEC added another game to its football schedule. Back then, with the expansion to a dozen teams, it was seven to eight games, and then-commissioner Roy Kramer often recounts how many of his football coaches were against it: “All of them. “

There’s more support this time around as the SEC nears an agreement on a nine-game schedule. Nick Saban, in fact, wouldn’t hesitate to play 10. Or all of them. But the details are now tripping him up, as he told SI.com this week:

“They give us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don’t know how they got there… We have three teams and two of them are in the top 10 and the other is in the top 10 a lot.

A few things to unpack here.

First, Saban makes some news by revealing that LSU will be Alabama’s third annual opponent. Auburn and Tennessee were obvious, and LSU makes sense when it comes to a recent rivalry, but Mississippi State is closer (about 90 minutes west) and a longer game. Maybe Saban is working the umpires, trying to demote LSU’s third team to Mississippi State, or maybe Sewanee. Or, more likely, Saban doesn’t have as much power with the SEC office as people think, it’s basically a done deal and he’s just blowing off steam.


Mailbag SEC: What delays schedules, how much is a 9-game setup worth?

Then Saban’s comments are the ultimate compliment to Tennessee, which has now seemingly firmly returned to national relevance after a very strong year. Or maybe we need to see. This goes to show how careful everyone has to be in judging the format of the schedule based on the quality of the opponents: it can be quite cyclical. History, tradition and geography are surer criteria on which to rely.

Additionally, the SEC can simply revisit the three fixed opponents after a four-year cycle. Hence the need to stop calling them “permanent” opponents. Nothing is permanent in the SEC, except fans who know their team is the only one that doesn’t cheat and coaches who complain about schedules.

Finally – and this comes from someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about stationary opponents – this is a bit of an overkill exercise. Fun to talk about. But in the end, Saban is basically in the same boat as all of his coaches: The nine-game schedule and format change will be great for the SEC, and good for college football, and will make life much, much harder for the coaches.

Let’s start with the current standard-bearer: Georgia, two-time defending national champions, has on paper the simplest schedule in college football history this season, the last with divisions. From 2024, the road becomes much more difficult. Finished annual games against Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky, finished six of its eight games each year against what has been the weakest division for most of the last 10 to 15 years. That’s not to say Georgia’s success is a product of that schedule, otherwise it would have been exposed in the playoffs. (Kirby Smart is 5-1 in college football playoff games, and this one was attractive close.) But Georgia also had an easier road to the SEC Championship, and now they’ll face all of those tougher teams in the West at least twice every four years.


What could be the SEC schedule format, opponent structure with Oklahoma, Texas?

This point being the key for everyone. As much kvetching as there is on the three fixed opponents, in this format everyone will play the rest of the conference at least twice every four years. Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas and others will all see each other once every two years, in essence. Everyone will have to play LSU in Death Valley once every four years. But LSU will also have to visit Sanford Stadium, Neyland Stadium and the Swamp, as well as visit the good people of Austin and Norman, at least once during a US presidential term. The higher level teams will not be strangers to each other and will likely spend a lot of time fighting each other.

Not that the rest of the conference gets off easily. Many of them didn’t want to go eight games initially, with Kentucky being the loudest. A good compromise may be that in exchange for going to nine, these schools shoot each other among the fixed opponents. Maybe it’s happening with Mississippi State not having Alabama as an opponent, assuming it holds up.

That would work for TV, especially if the SEC, trying to get ESPN more involved in a modified contract, could offer annual matchups of Alabama-LSU, Oklahoma-Florida, etc. Because, yeah, a lot of that is made for TV. That’s what pays a lot of the bills.

But it’s also made for the fans. Really. After too many years of clinging to the antiquated concept of divisions, the SEC (like most conferences) is abandoning them for better scheduling. And by better, it means harder, just in time for the expanded CFP to provide some room for error.

Good for the fans, good for the conference, not so good for the coaches. But they will live.


SEC must respect tradition but prioritize blockbuster games in new schedule with OU, Texas

(Top photo: Donald Page/Getty Images)

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