Michaux: College football teams need to beef up schedules

College football has finally settled down – for the most part – into five major conferences. Those five might opt to rescue a team or two from the under-affiliated ranks, but for the near future there is relative reshuffling peace at last.

Now the expansion focus in our little corner of the football world turns inward instead of outward – namely whether or not to expand the conference football schedules to nine games to accommodate the added inventory. It is not a cut-and-dried decision by any means.

But it should be. With the pending influx of revenues from the coming playoff era, dedicated conference networks and the Southeastern Conference-Big 12 model for unaffiliated “bowl” unions, it’s time to stop kowtowing to outdated constraints and beef up the schedules.

This should be the era of pleasing the fans and not appeasing reluctant coaches. Going to a nine-game conference schedule should be just the starting point – limiting the games that don’t matter while increasing the ones that should.

“I’m not opposed to a different scheduling model,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said recently as the debate rumbles toward the conference’s upcoming spring meetings in Destin, Fla.

For the Pac-12, Big 12 and BIG Ten, the issue has been resolved. The Pac-12 already started doing it last year. For the 10-team Big 12, it was an easy choice as every team played each other, leaving no need for a championship game. The BIG Ten has announced it will go to nine by 2016 and is considering banning all patsy games against Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

That leaves the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference as the only remaining eight-game holdouts among the major players. That’s not a coincidence considering they have the most overlapping territory in the major football landscape.

The ACC was all set to embrace nine games until it complicated the matter with it’s partial arrangement with Notre Dame. With the Irish committing to only five ACC football matchups a year, the nine-game plan was revoked in October.

The SEC, of course, has its own problems – all of it concentrated in the East Division where Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky have historic fixed nonconference rivalry games with in-state ACC opponents Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. That wrinkle prompted Alabama’s Nick Saban to call his East brethren “whiners” as he endorsed the nine-game plan. It’s easy for him to say with all the latitude in the world for scheduling.

“There’s certain in-state rivals who are within the league, there’s certain coaches whose instate rivals
are out of the league,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said recently. “That’s why you get a mixture of thought as to what would be the healthiest thing to do.”

For once – don’t get used to it – I agree with Saban.

“I mean, strength of schedule is important, but also, how about the fans?” Saban said. “Don’t they want to see good games and all that?”

It’s time to think more about those fans who have been footing the bill for college athletics for too long with little say in the matter. With directors of athletics carping about the financial need for seven home games and coaches complaining about too many tough foes, fans have had to fork over money for creampuff games that nobody really wants to see. There’s generally two per season, not counting the annual conference doormats that rarely cause the better teams to trip.

With the SEC’s traditional 6-1-1 conference plan (one permanent division crossover and one rotating crossover game), Georgia and South Carolina fans will only get to face Alabama or Louisiana State or Texas A&M once home-and-home every 12 years. Entire classes of Bulldogs and Gamecocks will go without facing some marquee West Division programs.

Nine conference games would reduce that window to six years.

“It could go to nine,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Whatever they say is fine with me.”

That should be the attitude of all coaches. Instead of griping about a schedule that’s too tough, work on legislating a more level playing field with everybody. Pass conference rules that limit nonconference games against teams outside the five major conferences to two or even one.

Perhaps do as the BIG Ten is considering and ban playing FCS teams, ensuring strength-of-schedule won’t be an issue when the playoff selection committee starts weighing the conference elites.

That’s a little tougher for the ACC, which will have teams rotating games against Notre Dame. If there are only three nonconference opportunities, there would be seasons when Clemson would have only one option other than the Irish and Gamecocks.

From the perspective of the fan buying the tickets and paying the cable fees that produce all that revenue, would that really be a problem?

You think the players will be crying “When do we get a break? Bring on Buffalo.”

It would be even better if more schools would put aside petty squabbles and reestablish old traditional rivalries (Texas A&M-Texas, Missouri-Kansas, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Pitt-Penn State) or lock in new regional ones (Tennessee-Virginia Tech, Alabama-West Virginia, LSU-Texas Tech, Arkansas-Oklahoma State) that make the whole tapestry of college football even stronger.

Of course there will have to be some sacrifices made. Some seasons would only have six home games (Georgia-Florida would need to move to home stadiums). Ten-win seasons would be tougher to come by but more precious when accomplished. Coaches might be forced to feel a little more pressure to earn their $4 million salaries.

But with all the money the SEC and ACC will be making in this new college football era, it’s time to give something back to the fans and players who make the sport great in the first place.

After all the upheaval, it’s time to settle in to our new conference homes even more than ever.

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