ATLANTA - This much is clear: SEC football coaches by and large oppose going to a nine-game conference schedule. This much is also clear: They're not the end-all, be-all. If commissioner Mike Slive decides they need to go to nine games, they likely will go to nine games.
"The league will make a decision," Slive said. "In light of the playoff, in light of changes, we oughta be discussing how we schedule. Whether we change it or not is another matter. This league didn't get to be where it is without opening the door and looking at everything and making sure that we're doing everything we need to do to be as good as we can be."
The creation of an SEC Network has led to yet more discussion of the conference moving to a nine-game football schedule. It was a hot topic on Thursday at the Hyatt Regency, with coaches once again voicing their opposition, and their commissioner essentially saying: We'll see.
That doesn't mean the conference will go to nine. But remember, two years ago most coaches (with the exception of Georgia's Mark Richt) were against oversigning proposals. But they passed anyway, in large part because Slive favored them and got the presidents and athletics directors on his side.
So this will be discussed later this month at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla. And it may go beyond that.
Slive is at least hopeful for a shorter-term solution: Only the 2013 football schedule has been announced, so the conference needs to announce something soon on 2014 and beyond. Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said last week he expected a three-year schedule (2014-16) to be revealed soon.
"Soon, I hope," Slive said on Thursday. "Hopefully before (Destin)."
Those will be eight-game schedules. Any nine-game schedule will require larger debate - and there will be debate.
The only head coach who has gone on record preferring a nine-game schedule in Alabama's Nick Saban.
"I’m for playing nine conference games; I was the only person that spoke out in favor of it last year," Saban said on Thursday in Atlanta. "If you increase the size of the league and the number of teams you have in the league then you’ve got to play more games. There are those out there that say well we have fixed, tough conference rivalries outside of our conference that makes our schedule too difficult to play that many games, but my answer to that is if you take the fans into consideration, we should take th five best leagues, put them all together and everybody’s got to play everybody because strength of schedule is going to be a big part of what happens in the future. So let’s make everybody play everybody. And the fans really want to see good games."
Some other coaches have said they're open to it, including Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier. But many more coaches are stridently opposed to anything but eight games.
"I'm not for a nine-game schedule. I don't think it's best for our league," Florida's Will Muschamp said. "It's too challenging with the in-state rivalry we already play. You add a ninth game (in the SEC), it's too difficult."
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina each have an in-state non-conference rivalry. But South Carolina's Spurrier is a bit more open than Muschamp.
"The three of us have a pretty tough game already," Spurrier said. "But it could go to nine. Whatever they say is fine with me."
Vanderbilt's James Franklin described himself as a "huge believer" in keeping it at eight games. His reasoning is that it allows more flexibility for programs like his that are trying to rebuild, as well as the powerhouses trying to build up their playoff resume'.
"You go to nine games, and people are gonna be less likely to play the out-of-conference games, the big games out of conference that people are playing now," Franklin said. "Eight games allows everybody to solve their own problems, and what I mean by that is if you think you're in a position to play for a national championship and you want to schedule a tough out-of-conference schedule for strength of schedule, then go do that. If you're trying to build a program it allows you to do that as well. It's my belief that the stronger the conference is at the top to bottom, the better it is for everybody. And I think eight games creates flexibility for everybody to solve their own issues."
Georgia's Richt has also leaned towards eight games, but on Thursday he deferred to Slive.
"That's for our commissioner to decide.," Richt said "We have our meetings coming up. I mean just hearing him say that means we're gonna discuss that."
The benefit of a nine-game schedule is it would allow more room for the three most heated permanent cross-division rivalries: Georgia-Auburn, Tennessee-Alabama and Florida-LSU.
Slive was asked if those needed to be protected. The commissioner thought for a second before answering.
"We have (protected them)," Slive said, looking at this reporter, smiling, and adding: "So far."
In other words, the heated debate over scheduling at last year's meeting has not settled down. Those at schools with cross-division rivalries, like Georgia and Auburn, want to protect them and do so within an eight-game format. Those who don't have an arch-rivalry in another division would prefer mixing it up.
LSU's Les Miles, for instance, has suggested determining the non-division schedule by random computer generation. Saban has expressed concern that under the current 6-1-1 format (six division games, one permanent cross-division rival, one rotated cross-division rival) a team may only see another SEC team once every six years.
Getting rid of the permanent cross-division rivals would make it more flexible. But there's a lot of pressure to keep those rivalries.
"I'm sensitive as far as the history is concerned with Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn, so I understand that," said Muschamp, who played at Georgia. "I'll be honest with you, I'm really divided on the whole thing as far as that's concerned. And we've had some young men that'll sign with the University of Florida, they'll never play some opponents. Coach Spurrier, when we were at the head coaches meeting last year down in Destin told me what a great rivalry and he enjoyed playing and coaching in the Florida-Auburn game. That was a huge game. Again, there's good arguments on each side, and I'm good with whatever they decide other than a nine-game schedule."