LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas and Texas A&M playing a Southeastern Conference game at a neutral site will be the model for other league teams if the SEC goes to a nine-game schedule.
CBS’ demand that the SEC provide more quality games and the emphasis on strength of schedule in the upcoming four-team playoff are motivation enough to turn "if " into "when." And, playing an SEC game off campus is a simple fix to the argument that nine league games will be unfair to half the teams.
Adopted in June to accommodate A&M and Missouri, the current schedule calls for six games against division opponents and one each against a permanent opponent and a rotating opponent from the other division. That 6-1-1 format is supposed to be good for years, but SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has said it can be revisited at any time. When it is, nine league games will be a hot topic.
Opponents argue that the teams with five home games have an advantage. True in a home-and-home situation. A neutral site changes everything.
If a nine-game schedule was in effect, neither the Razorbacks nor the Aggies would ever play more than four games on the home field of an SEC opponent as long as they met each year at Jerry Jones’ stadium. The contract that begins in 2014 and extends through 2024 would put them one up on every SEC team except Florida and Georgia, which square off in Jacksonville, Fla., each year. The long-running Red River Rivalry in Dallas gives Texas and Oklahoma a similar advantage over other Big 12 schools that operate with the 5-4 format.
In the year that Arkansas was supposed to have five SEC games in state, the Razorbacks would be the home team in Arlington, play four in Arkansas, and four on the road. The next year, the Razorbacks would be the visitor in Arlington, play four SEC games on the road, and four at home.
Envious, others would scramble to emulate. Consider the possibilities. Just last week, both Auburn and Tennessee played non-conference opponents on back-to-back nights in Atlanta. The site of the SEC championship game, Atlanta was one of five cities that bid on the new Champions Bowl, so the assumption is that the city would be open to at least one SEC game — say the cross-division rivalry between Alabama and Tennessee. Tickets would be at a premium and attendance would be split down the middle.
Auburn and a Mississippi school could play in New Orleans. Nashville, site of the Music City Bowl, is less than 500 miles from the campuses of both Mississippi schools, Kentucky, even Missouri and South Carolina. Other cities in the South might do better at the gate with a regular-season SEC game than they do with a bowl game.
Asked about future SEC schedules earlier this year, Slive was noncommittal, but said, "For me, it will be what best positions us to maintain the success we’ve had as the postseason changes. It’s a matter of being open and flexible and dynamic and innovative, and we’ll continue to be in that frame of mind."
That statement carries extra weight when prefaced by BCS executive director Bill Hancock’s observation regarding the new playoff: "I think strength of schedule is going to be a very important part of this."
A nine-game schedule also means 15 more conference games to offer TV networks, who want more for their money than the current slew of routs vs. non-conference opponents.
Both the Pac-12 and the Big 12 play a nine-game conference schedule and the Atlantic Coast Conference is going to nine. The Big Ten thought about it, but settled for a game per team vs. the Pac-12.
From here, Arkansas vs. A&M at a neutral site looks like insightful, forward thinking.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.