SEC coaches uncertain on schedule

Over static on his phone, Georgia coach Mark Fox’s voice lofted out a Southeastern Conference scheduling proposal potentially bordering on the absurd.

Or at least with tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

“There’s a part of me that thinks we should play 26 league games,” Fox said Monday during the SEC coaches’ teleconference. “Just have it out.”

Put another way, the fourth-year Bulldogs coach pitched a true round-robin format, where each league-member had 13 home-and-home arrangements with SEC brethren.

Fox, whose team opens up hosting potential favorite Florida on Wednesday, knows the idea would never get traction. Yet, his colleagues view the SEC’s 18-game conference tepidly and with a measure of uncertainty.

At its spring meetings, the SEC unveiled a new format after the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri spelled an end to a stable 16-game model: Home and road games against division foes, while splitting six cross division games.

Now with 14 members, SEC officials moved to a model that can be confounding upon first glance.

The schedule features one permanent rival for each member and play two games against them annually. In LSU’s case, that means annual treks to College Station to face Texas A&M, and vice versa.

Next, SEC teams will have 12 rotating opponents. But this is where it gets tricky: They will play four of those teams twice, and other eight only once and rotate those games between home and away.

“It’s going to be a first for everybody,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “That’s what happens when you have expansion. Everybody’s got to sacrifice a little bit. We’re going to play some teams twice this year that we normally would not.”

The tweaks don’t ensure a SEC member avoids playing conference favorites — each team plays No. 10 Missouri, No. 11 Florida, and talent-rich Kentucky either three or four times.

The only quibble could emerge in the balance of home and road games against weaker teams in the league. Ten schools will face the group of Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Auburn and — programs picked in the bottom third of the preseason — up to six times, but the number varies based on the slate.

“The league is doing the best it can to create a competitive, fair, (and) balanced schedule as it can,” Donovan said. “It will be interesting to see how this goes considering this is our first time dealing with the expansion.”

But it’s a possibility that had Fox sounding glib but raising a critical point in his jest: Without true balanced schedules, at least in a division, might a team have an easier path to a regular season SEC title?

“Now, we don’t have that. That’s what makes the double round-robin appealing, but no one would ever go for that,” Fox said. “The schedules are very skewed, and there’s no way around that.”

Asked by a Kentucky reporter whether it was his method determining a true champion, Fox stopped short of an outright endorsement.

“Your readers are never going to go for that,” Fox said. “And John (Calipari) would never go for that.

The moves also spell changes to interdivision rivalries. LSU coach Johnny Jones lamented the Tigers might not make pilgrimages to Arkansas and Bud Walton Arena during some schedule cycles.

“It’s always great when you have something like built-in rivalries,” Jones said. “That makes it a little bit tougher, but because of the number of teams in the league right now and the way it’s set up for the next couple years, it’s going to be challenging. At the same time, you’ve got to go out and play those teams.”

There’s also a practical matter: Two more conference games means another week in the grind of practice, travel and exhausting play to shepherd already worn-down players through at the end of the season.

“ Obviously when you add two more league games to your schedule, you’re going to add two more league opponents and two more exciting atmospheres,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.

Granted, a shift to an 18-game schedule comes with a benefit: Inflating RPI ratings.

In an era when BCS conference programs are leery to leave campus, and don’t secure as many high profile non-conference match ups outside of early season tournaments, more victories in conference play could help make up for facing lower rated teams in the RPI.

After a non conference season where SEC members suffered what might be considered poor defeats, the extra victories might help patch over holes on NCAA tournament résumés.

“Our league is extremely tough, and it will definitely help us getting an additional home game,” Jones said. “That’s going to be great for our fanbase.”

Yet Kennedy was more dubious on that point.

“It is so fluid as it relates to RPI and numbers, and it’s going to be fluid for the next six to eight weeks,” Kennedy said.

Regardless, Fox has come to one point of certainty.

“You don’t know about it until you do it,” he said.