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SEC football begins movement toward nine-game schedule

Alabama coach Nick Saban is among those in favor of a nine-game football SEC schedule.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is among those in favor of a nine-game football SEC schedule.

ATLANTA — It still may be far from happening, but there is sentiment building in the SEC for a nine-game football conference schedule.

Alabama coach Nick Saban came out in favor recently, and SEC commissioner Mike Slive said it needs to be discussed — even if most of the other coaches are against it.

“The league will make a decision,” Slive said. “In light of the (recent addition of a college football) playoff, in light of changes, we ought to be discussing how we schedule. Whether we change it or not is another matter. This league didn't get to be where it is without opening the door and looking at everything and making sure that we're doing everything we need to do to be as good as we can be.”

The creation of an SEC Network has led to yet more discussion of the conference moving to a nine-game football schedule. It was a hot topic recently at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, with coaches once again voicing their opposition, and their commissioner essentially saying: We'll see.

That doesn't mean the conference will go to nine. But remember, two years ago most coaches (with the exception of Georgia's Mark Richt) were against oversigning proposals. But they passed anyway, in large part because Slive favored them and got the presidents and athletic directors on his side.

So this will be discussed later this month at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., And it may go beyond that.

Slive is at least hopeful for a shorter-term solution: Only the 2013 football schedule has been announced, so the conference needs to announce something soon on 2014 and beyond. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said last week he expected a three-year schedule (2014-16) to be revealed soon.

Those will be eight-game schedules in the 6-1-1 scheme — six against divisional foes, one against a recurring interdivision rival and one against a rotating interdivision opponent. Any nine-game schedule will require larger debate — and there will be debate.

“I'm for playing nine conference games; I was the only person that spoke out in favor of it last year,” Saban said. “If you increase the size of the league and the number of teams you have in the league, then you've got to play more games.”

Added Auburn president Jay Gogue, one of the spearheads of the SEC Network's creation: “I'd probably be one that would be supportive of it. There was discussion last year about it. Certainly no decision ... I think it will be discussed every year for a few years until there is some resolution, or we stay where we are.”

Some other coaches have said they're open to it, including Richt and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. But many more coaches are stridently opposed to anything but eight games.

“I'm not for a nine-game schedule. I don't think it's best for our league,” Florida's Will Muschamp said. “It's too challenging with the in-state rivalry we already play. You add a ninth game (in the SEC), it's too difficult.”

Auburn first-year head coach Gus Malzahn wouldn't weigh in on the subject.

“To be honest with you right now, I'm just focused on year by year,” Malzahn said. “We've got our hands full with next year and we'll have discussions with the SEC commissioner and all that.”

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina each have an in-state non-conference rivalry with a BCS opponent. But South Carolina's Spurrier is a bit more open than Muschamp.

“The three of us have a pretty tough game already,” Spurrier said. “But it could go to nine. Whatever they say is fine with me.”

The benefit of a nine-game schedule is it would allow more room for the three most heated permanent cross-division rivalries: Georgia-Auburn, Tennessee-Alabama and LSU-Florida.

Slive was asked if those needed to be protected. The commissioner thought for a second before answering.

“We have (protected them),” Slive said, smiling, before adding: “So far.”

Carolina on his mind?: One of the curiosities of the new SEC Network is that it will be headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., which happens to be outside the footprint of the SEC.

“Matter of fact I think it's an advantage,” Slive said. “I'm delighted to have a presence in North Carolina.”

The SEC and the North Carolina schools have been rumored dancing partners for several years, but it's only been that: rumors. And the ACC's recent grant-of-rights agreement has led most observers to believe expansion is done for awhile.

Still, the creation of the SEC Network will only further speculation about the conference trying to expand its footprint beyond its current 11 states. After all, the Big Ten has added three schools — Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers — since creating its network a few years ago.

But Slive, despite playing coy earlier, denied the SEC Network was created for that reason.

“This is not done with the idea that we're going to expand,” Slive said. “This is not a precursor. This does not move the issue of expansion from the far back-burner to any burner further from it. I'm still working on trying to get a schedule put together for 2014.”

An SEC Network release indicated the following: “ESPN already has a state-of-the-art facility in Charlotte that is easily accessible from across the SEC footprint.” Representatives from ESPN's home in Bristol, Conn. will monitor the network and assist as necessary.

SEC with ESPN thru '34: ESPN president John Skipper declared an extension of the network's media rights contract with the SEC through 2034 — 21 years from now. According to ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell, that's the longest contract in all of television.

“There's a lot of discussion about new competitors for ESPN, and I'm going to invite all my competitors to take out the actuarial tables and look at the year 2034,” Skipper said. “It speaks to the confidence that we have that the quality of the athletics in this conference will remain at the high level that it is.”

All about Saturday: The new network isn't expected to coax the SEC into pushing more games to Thursday, a model the ACC, Big East and Pac-12 has adopted.

“We're a Saturday league. It's historically a Saturday league. That's when our fans want us to play football,” Slive said. “We have agreed to play only two Thursday night football games annually. That won't change.”

Conference pride: Tasked with guiding SEC Network, former ESPN senior vice president Justin Connolly recalled a goose bumps moment in the third quarter of the BCS National Championship game, when Alabama was thumping Notre Dame, 42-14, and Crimson Tide broke out in the league's omnipresent “S-E-C!” cheer.

“There is not another conference in America where that sense of pride and that sense of belonging translates into such a public display,” Connolly said. “That SEC chant and the feeling it evokes, that would match or exceed the fight song or rallying call of any single institution, let alone any conference.”