Mark Story: Barnhart says Kentucky is against 9-game SEC football schedule

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 6, 2013 

Kentucky running back Raymond Sanders (4) cut upfield past Tennessee defenders last November in Knoxville. Sanders gained 669 yards last season, scoring five touchdowns, and expects to get action in the "Air Raid" offense.

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A keen (albeit fictional) observer of American life, Don Draper, once observed that change is neither good nor bad, it just is.

Some things never change, however. Any time there is talk of expanding the number of league football games that Southeastern Conference teams are required to play each season, the University of Kentucky can be counted upon to take the same position:

No, no, no, in the name of Bear Bryant, please, no.

Now that two of the masters of the sports universe, ESPN and the SEC, are in business together on the soon-to-launch SEC Network, the feeling is the TV company will soon compel the league to go from eight league football contests a year to nine.

Starting in 2014, the new 24/7/365 SEC Network will show 45 SEC football games live each year. More SEC-vs.-SEC games would make for better TV programming, which should lead to more profits.

Yet for Kentucky, which has seven winning league records in 80 seasons of SEC football, adding another conference game to the schedule sounds, literally, like a losing proposition.

"Nine (league) games is not something we favor," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "I do not think a nine-game schedule would serve Kentucky well."

If that sounds like an argument you have heard a UK AD make before, it is. In 1990, as part of the expansion that was bringing Arkansas and South Carolina into the league, the SEC was debating whether to go from seven to eight league games. At that time, C.M. Newton said, "I'm sure (an additional league game) is not the best thing for Kentucky."

Nevertheless, the eighth league game was adopted starting in 1992.

Going to nine SEC games a year would make it more challenging for UK to get enough wins (six) to become bowl eligible. Barnhart says the physical impact on Kentucky's players also factors into his stance.

"History says it's very difficult for us to have the level of depth, the second, third, fourth lines of players, that some of the other schools in our league have just as a means of their in-state recruiting situations," Barnhart said. "When we have to play a long line of league games, it's a grind, our teams can get beaten up physically. It's better for us, for our players, when the schedule allows us to have some so-called breathers, so that our kids can sort of restore themselves physically in-season."

Hopefully, the new UK coaching staff of Mark Stoops, with its recruiting ties to the talent-rich states of Ohio and Florida, will help Kentucky elevate its depth of talent closer to the SEC norm. But the war of attrition that is Southeastern Conference football is never going to be easy for UK. A ninth league game would only make that challenge more daunting.

Kentucky is one of four SEC schools that plays in a high-level, intrastate rivalry game each season. Florida annually plays Florida State; South Carolina faces Clemson; Georgia takes on Georgia Tech; and UK battles Louisville.

It's hard to imagine political pressure in those states allowing those rivalries to end. But for UK, 10 games a year against major-conference foes is a massive challenge.

Even beyond the fact that adding an additional league game would be more lucrative for the TV rights holders, there are other factors that argue for it. In an age when the costs of major college-football tickets — and the "donations" required to buy them — are ever escalating, nine SEC games would give the ticket-buying public another attractive date each season.

Three other major leagues, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the Big 12, have already adopted nine-game league schedules.

Still, strictly from a position of UK's self interest, Barnhart is right to oppose the ninth SEC football game. If they are smart, the administrations at schools such as Mississippi, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and even South Carolina will fight it, too. For all but the SEC schools with the most bountiful in-state recruiting bases, adding another conference game will ultimately be an anchor on their programs' success.

After Sports Business Daily reported that ESPN will own the SEC Network outright but share profits with the league 50-50, this much seems certain:

If ESPN wants a ninth league game on SEC football schedules, it's going to get it.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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