published Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Wiedmer: Is it time to go to nine league games in SEC?

The Beatles orchestrated it (Revolution No. ...). The Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, wore it on his back. Cats' lives supposedly total this.

But can the Southeastern Conference hope to run its consecutive number of BCS football championships from seven to nine two seasons from now -- assuming it captures its eighth straight this season -- if the league decides each team should play nine league games in 2014 instead of the current eight?

And you thought finding a solution to Washington's Sequester nightmare was difficult. Yet the nine-game argument almost certainly figures to be near the top of the agenda when the SEC begins its spring meetings in Destin, Fla., this week.

"Will it happen in our league?" Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart replied to a nine-game question a couple of weeks ago. "I hope that it will. ... I'm a proponent of nine games, period."

But asked on a Birmingham radio show when he thought it might begin, he said, "Maybe never."

The concept of "Never" for the SEC ended in 1992, when the league expanded from 10 to 12 schools and the eight-game league schedule began -- as well as the SEC championship game, which arguably did as much to change college football as the forward pass.

Then, as now, there was much concern that eight SEC games for each team would keep the league from again winning a national championship. Eleven years already had passed since Georgia had claimed the league's last title in 1980.

Instead, beginning with Alabama's 1992 crown, the SEC has finished on top of college football 11 times since going to an eight-game schedule.

Maybe tougher is better. Besides, both the Big 12 and Pac-12 already play nine league contests. The Big Ten -- which can't count much better than it wins football national titles these days given that its membership is about to grow to 14 -- is expected to move to a nine-game schedule soon.

So if imitating the SEC over the past 20 years has been the sincerest form of flattery from the rest of college football, perhaps the SEC should return the compliment now.

Especially since -- as our David Paschall writes elsewhere in this sports section -- attendance is down throughout much of the league, despite its global domination.

As Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity recently said, "Many SEC fans have a decision whether to come to our game or sit at home in front of their 60-inch HDTV. Would they be more likely to come to a conference game as opposed to a guaranteed [nonconference] game? I'd say probably yes."

Moreover, with ESPN recently committing huge money to the league through an SEC network, the ratings of those choosing to watch those 60-inch TVs never has been more important.

Yet new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn believes the nine-game debate could also impact schools such as UTC.

Having just arrived from Big Brother Tennessee, he realizes the wane in enthusiasm from Big Orange fans for FCS programs such as Austin Peay -- whom the Vols play this season -- or UTC, which is expected to be on UT's schedule in 2014.

However, he also knows how much more attractive the Mocs might be to future SEC opponents if they are forced to play nine of their 12 games each autumn against league foes.

"It could potentially help us," Blackburn said Friday. "At least I'd hope it would create more of a demand for FBS schools to play FCS schools at least occasionally."

Another idea that could help: Encourage BCS computer polls to toss out the weakest nonconference opponent score for every team as long as that foe is a Division I school. That way there's no potential harm to a superpower's potential championship aspirations for helping out the little guys.

Also because of that, the guaranteed money that now goes to a mid-major such as Middle Tennessee (roughly $900,000) could also go to a UTC, which usually earns around $500,000 for guaranteed games because of its lower stature.

Football's football. The games aren't shortened because UTC has fewer scholarships than Middle. The Mocs' paychecks shouldn't be, either. Especially when such money could do so much good.

"It would make sense," Blackburn said. "And it would certainly help us."

If college football keeps its 12-game regular-season schedule, a nine-game league slate certainly has its issues. Home and road games would be uneven from year to year. There's also the matter of those historically coveted nonconference rivalries: Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State.

Even bigger, there's the bowl issue. For SEC schools such as Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State, posting the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility often has hinged on four nonconference wins.

To that end, perhaps only half joking earlier this spring, Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams suggested he'd rather go to seven SEC games than nine.

"I understand both sides," said Chuck Smith, a former UT player and assistant coach who also played for the Atlanta Falcons. "You could create new rivalries in the league, or return to old ones, like Auburn-Tennessee.

"At the same time, if you go to nine games, you might never again see Florida play Miami or Alabama play Notre Dame. It might just make for too tough a schedule."

Or -- as the eight-game schedule proved in 1992 -- it might make the SEC so tough that it never surrenders its BCS supremacy again.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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