No 'perfect solution': SEC coaches divided over scheduling format

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comApril 30, 2014 

AUBURN, Ala. — Wednesday revealed just how much variation of opinion exists between coaches in the Southeastern Conference in regards to scheduling.

On Sunday, the SEC announced it would remain with an eight-game slate in a 6-1-1 format: six games against divisional opponents, one against a permanent rival in the other division and one versus a rotating cross-divisional foe. This decision kept both the Auburn/Georgia and Alabama/Tennessee rivalries intact. Not surprisingly, the coaches from each of those four teams were at least somewhat pleased with the outcome.

“I was for the eight games," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said during his time on Wednesday’s SEC football coaches teleconference. "Of course, we really enjoy our rivalry with Georgia that we've been playing for a long time. … That's a rivalry that is very important to the Auburn people and very important to the Georgia people. I liked the decision that was made to keep it like it is."

Mark Richt echoed his counterpart’s sentiment.

“I think it's important to the South as far as rivalries go,” Georgia’s coach said. “I think that's a big part of college football. And so I'm fine with that."

Malzahn added that he would have “been fine” regardless of what plan the SEC instituted, but believed the league’s run of success the past eight years — which saw the conference put a team in the BCS championship games every year and win seven national titles — proved the existing model works.

“Personally I liked eight games,” he said. “I think our conference speaks for itself with its track record.”

Tennessee’s Butch Jones was similarly relieved that his team’s rivalry with Alabama was protected.

“I was very excited we were able to maintain the Alabama-UT rivalry,” Jones said. “That’s in our DNA.”

Unlike some of the SEC's other coaches, Jones didn’t throw his support behind any format. Whether the SEC stuck with eight games or expanded to nine — and whether the league kept permanent cross-division rivalries in place — Jones knew finding a “perfect solution” to appease all 14 schools was impossible.

“We have to do what’s best for the conference, as we continue to move forward, and I support that,” he said. “The big thing for us is being able to maintain the rivalry with Alabama.”

Nick Saban begged to differ. Yes, Alabama's coach was "happy" the rivalry with Tennessee wasn't going away. But eight games wasn't what he wanted. At last spring’s SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., Saban was the lone coach to vote in favor of expanding to nine conference games.

He didn’t back down from that stance Wednesday, which didn’t surprise Steve Spurrier.

"If I was Alabama and did not have an in-state rival in another conference, I'd probably go for nine, too,” South Carolina’s coach said.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from Malzahn, Richt and Jones was Les Miles. LSU’s coach was not a fan of keeping the permanent cross-division rivalries, which has his team facing off against Florida every season.

"To say this is the fairest way to determine a champion, I'd say that's flawed,” Miles said.

He was simply backing up his athletic director, Joe Alleva. After the SEC’s scheduling announcement Sunday, Alleva blasted the decision, providing numbers to back up his criticism. Since 2000, he noted LSU has played Florida and Georgia a combined 19 times; during that same span, Alabama has squared off against the Eastern duo on just eight occasions.

"I'm disappointed in the fact that the leadership of our conference doesn't understand the competitive advantage permanent partners give to certain institutions," Alleva told NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune on Sunday. "I tried to bring that up very strongly at the meeting today. In our league we share the money and expenses equally but we don't share our opponents equally."

While not nearly as frustrated as Alleva and Miles, Will Muschamp wasn’t pleased with the scheduling format, either. He lamented the loss of Florida’s rivalry with Auburn. In their history, the Gators and Tigers have played 83 times, with Auburn holding a 43-38-2 lead. Their last meeting came in 2011, as Auburn won 17-6 in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The continuation of the 6-1-1 format, however, means the two will only play once every six years.

“Coach Spurrier, my first year in Destin, made the comment to me what a great rivalry it has been over the years,” Muschamp said. “You look at some of the games. Having been involved on both sides, I understand the importance of that.”

He added that the same went for another Eastern rival that was once a mainstay for the Tigers.

“Tennessee and Auburn hardly ever play any more because of the schedule,” Muschamp said. “There’s no perfect answer to please everybody. We did what was best for our league. We all have a hidden agenda whatever university we represent."

At least in Kevin Sumlin’s case, that wasn’t necessarily true. As one of the two newest members of the conference — along with Missouri, which also joined in 2012 — Texas A&M’s coach said he didn’t push for any specific scheduling configuration.

Those matters, he felt, were best left in the hands of the conference’s traditional powers.

“It doesn't really matter what I want,” Sumlin said. “I learned that quick. We're the new guys in the league.”

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