DESTIN, Fla. — DESTIN, Fla. — Alabama football coach Nick Saban wants a nine-game conference schedule. Vanderbilt’s James Franklin insists the league stick with eight. Georgia coach Mark Richt’s opinion depends on a handful of factors, and new Tennessee coach Butch Jones is just trying to figure everything out.
In the end, no decision was made on the first day of the Southeastern Conference meetings in Destin, Fla., nor is one expected to be made this week, but SEC commissioner Mike Slive said there was plenty of debate between coaches within the meeting.
“The first amendment is alive and well,” Slive joked. “We had a healthy discussion there. They’re going to continue that discussion tomorrow. We had a discussion with our (athletic directors) and we’re going to continue that discussion through the week.”
Slive said he didn’t expect to reach any closure on the future format during the meetings.
Currently, the league operates under a 6-1-1 format, in which teams play their six division opponents, one crossover rival and one rotating non-division team. The main options the league’s coaches and athletic directors are exploring are doing away with crossover rivals altogether or adding a ninth game, though Slive said all opinions are welcome.
“My hope is that everyone who has a view will weigh in on the discussion,” he said.
Richt said before the start of the meetings that complete consensus is likely out of the question.
“I don’t think there will ever be a consensus on (the schedule) with the coaches in the room, because there are coaches like myself who have an in-state rival who is out of the conference,” Richt said. “It affects each school a little bit differently.”
Perhaps the strongest opinion on Tuesday came from Saban, who reiterated his support for expanding the conference schedule.
“I just think if you increase the size of the league by 15 percent, you really need to increase the number of games,” he said. “I think there are people who want to keep their cross-division rivalry, but I think that every player should have an opportunity to play every school in his career. If you play two rotating teams on the other side, that doesn’t happen.”
Saban stressed that his opinion was not based on personal motives, but in the interests of the game as a whole.
“I shouldn’t be for it,” Saban said. “We’ve got a better chance to be successful if we don’t do it, but I think it’s best for the game and for the league.”
For Richt, the ultimate decision comes down to a number of different factors for each team.
In his case, Georgia has an in-state, out-of-conference rival, Georgia Tech, which will remain on the schedule for the foreseeable future. It also has a cross-division rival in Auburn that it has played for over 100 years. Whether the conference expands to nine games or not, Richt said he’d like to maintain the integrity of those rivalries.
“The one thing I will say I would vote on is to continue to have a rivalry game with Auburn,” Richt said. “Does that involve an eight-game, a nine-game? I don’t know. If (the Auburn game) goes away, then does an eight-game change in my mind compared to nine? I think one of the keys to this whole thing is whether the rivalry games stand. That can change how people think about the big picture.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was not available for comment on the issue on Tuesday, but is expected to speak to the media on Wednesday. Franklin, whose Commodores finished 9-4 in 2012, lost three games in conference play. The worry for Vanderbilt fans is that a larger (read: more difficult) conference schedule would negatively impact their team because of the potential for more losses.
“The thing I’m pounding the pavement about is eight games,” Franklin said on Tuesday. “Really, there’s no other discussion about eight games. That’s in the best interest of the SEC, and that’s in the best interest of Vanderbilt.”
Saban, however, said he didn’t think teams should be punished for more losses. The coach, whose Crimson Tide have won three of the past four national titles, says the conference deserves even more respect in the eyes of the selection committee that will begin setting the four-team playoff in 2014.
“There were six teams in the top 10 at the end of the (regular) season,” Saban said of the SEC. “All six of those teams could make some argument for playing in the national championship game. They really could. Now, did anybody give anybody enough credit for that? Georgia didn’t even get in a BCS game. How ridiculous is that? And we probably wouldn’t have gotten in one had they beaten us.”
While Slive said a format was not expected to come out of the meeting, they are “close” to finalizing the schedule for the 2014 season, which will be played under the 6-1-1 format.
“It’s possible we could be done by the time we leave here, but if not, then shortly thereafter,” he said.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.