Elegant Solution to 9 Conference SEC Slate: 8 Neutral-Site Games

A Twitter storm erupted this morning when South Carolina president Harris Pastides said that the SEC would be moving to nine conference games in 2012. The SEC immediately shot down Pastides’ comments, stating that there had been no discussion about moving to nine conference games. But Pastides didn’t make one errant comment. He also said the league had promised to reimburse schools for the loss of one non-conference game and even went so far as to say that one of South Carolina’s four scheduled non-conference games in 2012 wouldn’t be played. “Pastides only guaranteed USC would keep Clemson on the schedule but will break its contract with another nonconference team. In 2012, that means USC either won’t play Wofford, East Carolina or UAB as originally planned.”

Based on the detail of these comments, it seems unlikely that Pastides simply made all of this up. There has to at least be a discussion taking place about nine conference games. What’s more likely than a complete absence of discussion on nine conference games is that the SEC office is trying to keep word of a potential nine game conference slate from leaking publicly due to the universal opposition of coaches and ADs to the additional SEC game.  

Hell, in some seasons this could mean that the Florida Gators, for example, might play seven road/neutral SEC games (five road games, the Cocktail Party, and a potential SEC title game). It also calls into question the scheduling strategies of teams like Kentucky. The Wildcats have advanced to bowl games each of the past five years by buying three guaranteed wins and then beating Louisville. Then all Kentucky needs to do is get to 2-6 in conference and it’s bowl eligible.

The second-tier SEC teams are completely opposed to an additional conference game because it makes advancing to a bowl game nearly impossible for them.  

But aside from the money aspect, playing only eight conference games in a 14 team schedule makes it incredibly difficult for much divisional cross-pollination to ensue. That is, it’s hard to make the circuit around the SEC schools. If you play six divisional opponents, a one-game yearly rival from the other division — as we’ve told you for a couple of months Missouri to the east preserves all rivalries and is an elegant solution — and just one rotating opponent, it’s difficult to play very often. Assuming the SEC plays those games home-and-home, then it would take 12 years to play each team in the opposing division. That is, entire decades could pass before, say, Florida played Alabama again. That’s way too long. You could possibly cut this in half by eliminating home-and-home rivalries and playing six years in a row top to bottom against the opposing division — three of these would be home games and three would be road games — and then flipping it after six years.

That’s preferable, but is it ideal?

You could still go a decade without the chance to see your team play a rival on the road.

I don’t think that’s ideal either.  

But, on the other hand, an eight game SEC schedule makes lots of sense because every team gets equal home and away games. That’s important because playing five road games some years would be a tremendous competitive disadvantage. But, nine conference games increases the inventory that the SEC has to sell, which is a plum prize to have for an all new SEC Network with ESPN.  

So is there a way to play nine conference games fairly?

I think so and I’ve got an elegant solution — eight neutral site games in major metropolitan areas within the conference’s footprint.  

The model for this is simple since we already have two neutral site games on the schedule for 2012 — Florida and Georgia play in Jacksonville and Texas A&M and Arkansas play in Dallas. That means you only need five more neutral site games.

Here’s my handy guide:

Tennessee and Vandy play a yearly game at Nashville’s LP Field.

This makes a ton of sense because UT really needs to be reaching out to alums in the mid-state. I know Vandy’s in Nashville, but there are many more UT fans than Vandy fans in the city so it still classifies as a “neutral” game. This is a bigger venue than Vandy’s stadium

Ole Miss and Mississippi State return the Egg Bowl to Jackson (or Memphis).

For the vast majority of its history the Egg Bowl was played in Jackson. Returning it there doesn’t upset too many State or Ole Miss fans.

Alabama and Auburn return to Birmingham in Legion Field.

I know Legion Field is a piece of crap, but where else can you play in the state?

The Iron Bowl was a neutral site game for the vast majority of its history. Returning it to campus has been popular, but playing again in Birmingham wouldn’t be crushing to either fan base. It’s better than dealing with a situation where, God forbid, Alabama or Auburn gets five home games and the other school gets only four.   

South Carolina and Kentucky play in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

It’s an easy drive for both fan bases. That’s really all you can say for this game. It really wouldn’t be that big of a draw, but neither would any other potential game.

Missouri plays an alternating opponent in Kansas City and LSU plays an alternating opponent in New Orleans.

This is the toughest and most problematic of the neutral site rivalry games since these become de facto road games. But playing a neutral site game in Kansas City would help to placate Missouri politicians. Balancing it out with a rotating game in New Orleans would make everyone happy.

Now, the complexity here is that you could argue this gives Missouri and LSU five “home” games a year. The mitigating factor here would be that half of the tickets would be available for the visiting team. So you’d need to schedule a team that really travels well to play in these games.

Clearly there’s not a perfect way to end up with nine conference games, but if the SEC is really moving in this direction a neutral site compromise may make the most sense. Especially because it makes eight major cities in the SEC footprint incredibly happy.

What do you guys think? Again, these match-ups aren’t perfect, and you could adjust them as you see fit.

Could it work if the SEC moves to nine conference games? I think it could and I also think it’s the best option if a nine game SEC slate really has to happen.

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