Rabalais: Nine-game SEC schedule is a sure bet

You could say the TV networks will get their way. Or Mike Slive. Or even, if you are feeling conspiratorial enough, Nick Saban.

Whoever gets the credit, or the blame, take one thing to the bank:

The Southeastern Conference will go to a nine-game football schedule one day, and perhaps one day soon.

It’s as certain as the SEC winning another national championship in football.

SEC football coaches voted 13-1 Wednesday — Alabama’s Saban the noteworthy exception — to stay with an eight-game schedule. Vanderbilt’s James Franklin said he would pound the table to stay at eight. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said he was all about eight games.

Their words, while passionate, are as much window dressing as the view of the Gulf of Mexico during this week’s SEC Spring Meeting. And while this meeting is unlikely to produce any future schedules, the future seems clear indeed.

Here are three reasons eight games are not enough for the SEC long term:

1. The college football playoff: Strength of schedule will be a huge factor in filling the four-team playoff field come 2014 and beyond. Slive wants his schools to play 10 quality games. Playing nine SEC games makes getting to 10 so much easier.

The Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten (the latter by 2016) will play nine. The ACC will stick with eight games but will really have 81/2 since Notre Dame will start playing five ACC teams per year in 2014. Nine games gives the SEC a common baseline of comparison with other conferences for the CFP selection committee.

2. More quality inventory for TV: With the launch of the SEC Network in 2014, there will need to be more games to go around between CBS and the ESPN networks. ESPN’s Justin Connolly, who will run the SEC Network, said ESPN can live with eight, but you can bet it would be happier with nine higher-quality games.

3. Scratching two itches: LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M want to dispense with permanent opponents from opposite divisions, but athletic directors and coaches from all three schools know they don’t have the votes to get the rest of the SEC to trash tradition. That said, most SEC members aren’t thrilled with the idea that, in the 6-1-1 format (six divisional games, one permanent opponent, one rotating opponent), it takes six years to play everyone in the SEC.

With nine games, you can have a 6-2-1 format: six divisional opponents, two rotating opponents and keep the permanent opponent, preserving rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia and, yes, LSU-Florida. Under such a format, everyone in the SEC would play each other at least once in a three-year span.

Nine games with a 6-2-1 format won’t make everyone happy, but nothing will. Picking a new scheduling model has been incredibly contentious for the SEC, which didn’t have this much trouble when it expanded to 12 teams with Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992.

There was an ESPN report this week quoting SEC transition consultant and former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, who said the SEC is moving forward with a 6-1-1 format through 2026. Slive said Thursday it is merely a proactive move to begin planning for the future because 6-1-1 is the current format.

But 6-1-1 isn’t set in stone, and it won’t be. The winning bet is for some sort of nine-game format — and soon.