LITTLE ROCK — The "B" word might be invoked once again when the SEC’s 2014 football schedule comes up early next month at the league meeting in Destin, Fla.
"Bridge" was used to describe the 2013 schedule when it was released. The previous year, the word was implied in the Southeastern Conference release that said, "the 2012 schedule is not based on any other previous or future scheduling formats." In other words, a one-year bridge to incorporate the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri.
This year, scheduling decisions are likely to be influenced by new factors — the College Football Playoff and the soon-to-be-announced SEC Channel.
Once the Bowl Championship Series was certifiably defunct and it was clear that a committee would be charged with picking the four participating teams in the new CFP, strength of schedule was cited as an important part of the criteria. Inevitably, the SEC’s relatively weak non-conference schedule, plus TV demand for high-quality games every week, has led to talk of expanding the conference schedule from eight games to nine.
More than likely, the SEC athletics directors will want to evaluate the new playoff system, which takes effect with the 2014 season, before making a decision on a nine-game schedule. To do so will require at least one more stop-gap schedule.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who spoke out last summer in favor of the nine-game conference schedule, said last week that more weight needs to be given to quality of schedule.
Along those lines, the Big Ten will begin playing a nine-game conference schedule in 2016 and stop playing Football Championship Subdivision schools after current contracts expire. "We think it’s good for the fans, we think it’s good for the players," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney told ESPN.com. "It strengthens our schedule from the perspective of the postseason …"
Agreed. FCS schools show up regularly on SEC schedules. This year, Arkansas plays FCS member Samford in Little Rock. Last year, the Razorbacks opened with Jacksonville State of the FCS.
Moving to a nine-game conference schedule, the Big Ten joins the Pac-12, and the Big 12. The Atlanta Coast Conference backed away from a plan to play a nine-game schedule when Notre Dame agreed to play five games a year against ACC teams.
In the Big Ten, each school will play three teams from the other division, meaning that every athlete will have the opportunity to play against every other team in the league at least once during a four-year period.
When a nine-game scheduled is debated in the SEC, detractors mention rivalries that must be maintained. The Big Ten circumvented that by decreeing Indiana-Purdue a protected game. Moving to nine games, the Pac-12 created North and South divisions, but jiggered the schedule to maintain rivalries among California schools.
Rearranging the East and West divisions in the SEC is unlikely, but the only rivalries that matter are Tennessee-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia.
Postponed a couple of weeks due to the Boston Marathon bombing, the SEC/ESPN announcement of an SEC channel is Thursday. With the creation of the channel comes the need for programming and it will take time to get the football schedule worked out long term to accommodate the channel and other broadcast partners.
For example, the Big Ten Network showed more than 40 games last fall, including triple-headers on the first three weekends of the 2012 season. The Big Ten’s relationship with ABC and the SEC’s contract with CBS may differ, but the Big Ten Network is more than a dumping ground for meaningless non-conference games. The BTN schedule included at least three conference games in 2012 and 14 prime-time games. The network also provides games to cable and satellite partners.
Unlike the theme of those popular kids-around-a-table commercials, the SEC football schedule is complicated.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.