John Clay: SEC football schedule lacks flexibility fans will demand

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 20, 2014 

Kentucky's Jojo Kemp (3) was chased down by the Mississippi defense in the fourth quarter of the Kentucky at Mississippi State football game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss.,, on Oct. 24, 2013. Mississippi State beat Kentucky 28-22. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

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In this day and age of conference expansion, it sure feels like SEC football is undergoing a contraction.

The league released the non-divisional football schedule through 2025 on Monday and you could hear groans through the South and beyond.

Alabama and South Carolina won't meet again until 2019. Alabama won't play at Florida until 2021. Texas A&M doesn't come to Tennessee until 2025. LSU doesn't go back to Georgia until 2025.

Look at Kentucky's schedule down the long road. Alabama doesn't return to Commonwealth Stadium until 2023. LSU fans won't get another chance to see Keeneland until 2021. Texas A&M won't make its first appearance in Lexington until 2025.

It's like those teams aren't even in the same conference.

The culprits are (a) the stubborn avoidance of a nine-game conference schedule and (b) the 6-1-1 format. That means six games, or one each, against divisional opponents, one game against a "permanent" non-divisional opponent plus one game against a rotating non-divisional opponent.

The "permanent partner" concept protects such non-divisional rivalries as Georgia-Auburn and Tennessee-Alabama. The problem is it does so at the expense of most everyone else.

LSU Coach Les Miles has long complained his Tigers get the short end of the "permanent" stick since the Tigers must play Florida every year. And, you know, before the days of Will Muschamp, the Gators used to be really, really good.

Meanwhile, Miles points out that Alabama got to play Tennessee every year, the same Tennessee that has gone from Phil Fulmer to Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley to now Butch Jones as coach in the past five seasons. Not much "permanent" about that.

The answer would be to follow the example set by the Pac-12, the Big 12 and (soon) the Big Ten and adopt a nine-game conference schedule. Then teams could play six games inside the division, one regular non-divisional foe and two rotating divisional foes.

Instead, the SEC announced it would stick with the eight league games, but mandate that each member play at least one non-conference game against one opponent from any of the other big five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.

The coaches are against the nine-game league schedule, of course. It's too hard, they cry. Coaches were also against the 85-scholarship limit, the 20-hour practice rule and the league championship game. All were implemented and somehow the SEC not only survived, it thrived.

Of course, you don't hear SEC coaches, athletics directors or presidents crying down at the bank when cashing that big fat annual check they get from the league office. Last year, that averaged out at a cool $20.7 million per school.

There's a fly in the ointment, however. Football attendance has been declining for the past few years. Turns out even the ridiculously rabid football fans of the SEC don't have a lot of interest in seeing Arkansas-Samford or Auburn-Western Carolina.

You wonder if they will grow bored with witnessing primarily the same conference schedule year after year.

Consider that in even-numbered years, Kentucky's SEC home schedule will be exactly the same — Vanderbilt, Georgia, South Carolina and "permanent partner" Mississippi State.

Consider, too, that UK will not play Alabama from 2017 through 2022. That means a Kentucky football freshman playing his first game in 2017, 2018 or 2019 will not have the opportunity to play the Crimson Tide in a regular-season SEC game during his four-year conference career.

Future child: "Dad, did you ever play Alabama in college?"

Dad: "No, we didn't."

Future child: "But I thought you played football in the SEC?"

Dad: "I played football in the SEC East."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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