HOOVER, Ala. — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn created a buzz at SEC Media Days with their debate over no-huddle offense on Wednesday.
One day later, two of the league’s longest-tenured and most successful coaches disagreed over one of the conference’s other hot topics: scheduling.
LSU’s Les Miles and Alabama’s Nick Saban helped close the three-day event with their thoughts on scheduling, which has generated plenty of opinions since the league announced its plans to expand to 14 teams before the 2012 season.
Miles rekindled the public debate when asked about the fairness of the current 6-1-1 format, which schedules games against each division opponent, one permanent cross-division opponent, and another rotating opponent. Miles said it’s clear the setup can make one school’s road to a division title more difficult than another.
“A key piece to every conference is that we’d be able to describe the path to a championship in an equal and direct manner,” Miles said. “In fact, scheduling should not in any way decide championships repeatedly or throughout.”
Miles didn’t reference Alabama specifically, but was asked about the program’s conference schedule. The Crimson Tide will play Tennessee and Kentucky in 2013, teams that combined to go 1-15 in conference games last season.
By comparison, Arkansas’ two SEC East opponents (South Carolina and Florida) went 13-3. LSU’s two opponents (Florida and Georgia) went a combined 14-2.
“We play Georgia and Florida for the seventh time this year,” Miles said Thursday morning. “I’d have to say there’s some other schools that have not played Georgia and Florida in the same year in my entire time here or since 2000.
“I’d have to say there’s a repeated scheduling advantage and disadvantage for certain teams in this conference based on tradition and traditional matchups.”
Saban didn’t jump on board with Miles’ argument, though, saying there’s only one way to ensure an equal path to SEC Championship Game: everyone plays each other.
The 10-team Big 12 does it. But it’s impossible in the 13-team SEC.
“Everybody doesn’t play everybody in the NFL,” Saban said. “You rotate the schedule. We have to rotate the schedule. … I understand where Les Miles is coming from. I coached at LSU. We played Florida every year, too. So if anybody understands it, I understand it. You understand?”
Finding a solution was discussed at length during the SEC’s spring meetings in May, but no decision about long-term schedules was made.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said earlier this week SEC commissioner Mike Slive “has his schedule,” but agreed with Miles that it’s not always fair. He said one suggestion batted around was the idea that only division games would decide the division winner. Out-of-division games could serve as tie-breakers.
“It’s not always fair. We know that,” Spurrier said. “We know that last year Alabama, Georgia played for the conference championship. Alabama did not play the three top teams in the east and Georgia did not play the three top teams in the west.
“Scheduling does make a difference. How to make it fair, we’re not all exactly sure how to do it. But LSU and Florida I think have the most legitimate gripe of all of us.”
The other key point, of course, is whether the SEC will maintain its eight-game format or move to nine with college football moving toward a four-team playoff.
Saban has been a vocal supporter of the nine-game schedule, but doesn’t have much backing from other coaches. Still, he said one important concern is seeing traditions like Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn are “respected.”
It’s something a nine-game schedule can help ensure.
“Do other coaches understand our circumstance?” Saban said. “Do they understand Auburn/Georgia circumstance? Do they understand the other teams in our league that do have rivalries that are cherished by the fans?”
Only one thing is certain for now: Slive said Tuesday the conference will continue to operate under a 6-1-1 schedule for the time being as it conducts a “review of our scheduling format in anticipation of the 2016 season.”
The review will include “whether or not to play an eight- or nine-game conference schedule and whether or not to retain permanent non-divisional opponents.”
So it means the SEC’s football scheduling debate will continue.
“I can understand some teams have a lot tougher schedule year in and year out than other schools,” Spurrier said. “For the sake of fairness, whatever is the best way to do it is the way we would like to do it as coaches.”