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The politics of SEC scheduling

Coaches turn into politicians this week as the SEC's spring meetings kick off Tuesday in Destin, Fla. This year's key issue: scheduling, and whether or not the league should keep intact its status quo of eight conference games or follow the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten with nine league games. While each of those leagues had their own issues to weigh, the debate is hottest in the SEC thanks to nearly half the SEC East carrying a longstanding non-conference rivalry and the existence of permanent cross-over games, some with more history than others. Oh, and how does the SEC Network fit into all this?

So now coaches have turned into senators, campaigning to gerrymander the conference's future to fit the best interest of their constituents. 

Here's what all the fuss is about: presently the SEC employs an eight-game scheduling model with one permanent crossover game and one rotating crossover game, most commonly referred to as the 6-1-1. The SEC could either remain with the status quo, stay at eight games and remove the crossover game, keep the crossover game and move to a nine-game schedule, or ditch the crossover game and move to a nine-game slate. I'm no political scientist, but options A and D seem like longshots. Options B and C feel like the safer bets, though only one thing is certain - there's nothing out there that will send everybody home happy.  

This stat from ESPN's Mark Schlabach highlights the competitive imbalance the SEC has been living with: since 2000, LSU has played Florida and Georgia (the winners of the SEC East a combined nine times in those 13 years) a total of 17 times. Auburn has played the pair 19 times. Alabama? Eight combined meetings. Thanks to the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, the league's schedule is even more imbalanced; this fall, Alabama gets Tennessee at home and a road trip to Kentucky as their SEC East foes (combined 2012 SEC record: 1-15), while LSU counters with a road trip to Georgia and a home date with Florida (combined 2012 SEC record: 14-2). The Bayou Bengals will effectively have to be two games better than Alabama to win the SEC West title. 

For what it's worth, most coaches are in favor of the eight-game schedule. Vanderbilt's James Franklin, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Florida's Will Muschamp have already spoken out in favor of the status quo. Les Miles wants a change, and if you read the above paragraph it's not hard to see why. Nick Saban, the biggest beneficiary of the unbalanced schedules, is a vocal proponent of a nine-game schedule.

Part of what's appealing about an extra conference game, Saban says, is the opportunity for every player to face each SEC foe at least once in his four-year career. In the current 6-1-1 model, it takes seven years for each of the conference's 14 teams to meet up on the field. In the Conference of Brotherly Love, how much kinship can you really feel with a school that visits your campus once every 14 years? 

Ultimately, the SEC must decide what is more valuable - Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn on an annual basis, or Alabama-Georgia and Florida-Auburn on a somewhat regular rotation. One thing's for sure - just like in politics, this is an issue in which everyone has an opinion, and good luck getting the other side to see things your way.

The SEC is expected to announce its 2014 schedule this week, and any final decisions on this issue will likely be put off for another day. While his coaches turn to their various pulpits to drum up support for the plan that suits their school best, commissioner Mike Slive must channel his inner Henry Clay and become the SEC's Great Compromiser. 

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