SEC MEETINGS: Saban: Give SEC fans what they want — nine-game schedules

DESTIN, Fla. — The SEC should adopt nine-game league schedules in football before fans get so fed up with lightweight non-conference opponents that they stay home, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Saban made a spirited argument to enlarge league schedules from eight games to nine as the SEC convened for its annual spring meetings, where football scheduling is front and center.

“The biggest thing I think we need to do in some of these decisions ... is (ask), ‘What about the fans?’ Because one of these days they’re going to quit coming to the games,” Saban said. “They’re going to stay home and watch on TV, and everybody’s going to say, ‘Why aren’t you coming to the games?’ ‘Well, if you played somebody good, we’d come to the game.’

“Nobody’s considering (the fan). They’re thinking about, ‘How many games can I win? Can I get bowl-qualified? How tough of teams do I have to play?’ ”

Saban added that “there’s no question” his position on the matter is in the minority among SEC coaches. Among those lined up on the other side: Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, both of whom argued forcefully for the status quo.

“For me, when you add a ninth game, that’s seven more losses for our conference,” Freeze said. “We want to fill all our bowl slots.”

The divergent views are no surprise to Georgia coach Mark Richt, attending the SEC’s spring meetings for the 13th time.

“I don’t think there will ever be a consensus on (scheduling) with the coaches in the room,” Richt said. “Because there are coaches, like myself, who have an in-state rival who’s out of the conference, and there are some schools who have an in-state rival that is in conference. So it affects each school differently.

“I think the bottom line is everybody will get a chance to say what they’ve got to say, but in the end commissioner (Mike) Slive is going to have to decide what to do.”

Pressed on his preference between eight or nine games, Richt said: “I don’t know.”

As for the commissioner’s preference, Slive said: “I’ve been open-minded about what we ought to do, and for the moment, until all the dialogue is complete, I want to stay there.”

The SEC voted last year to keep eight-game league schedules and a 6-1-1 format — six games against division opponents, one game against a permanent cross-division opponent and one against a rotating cross-division opponent — through at least 2014. The league had expected to announce the 2014 schedule this week, but work continued even this very week on the intricacies of it.

“It’s possible it could be done by the time we leave here, but if not very shortly after,” said Slive, who reiterated the 6-1-1 format will remain in place for 2014.

The larger question is a format for the longer term, with the upcoming College Football Playoff, which will consider strength of schedule in selecting the field, an impetus for the renewed debate.

“I certainly don’t think we’ll come to any closure (on a long-term solution) this week, but my hope is that everybody who has a view will weigh in,” Slive said. “We’ll see where we are by Friday as to what the next step is.”

Whatever the ultimate decision on eight games or nine, Richt wants the format to preserve traditional cross-division rivalries — specifically, Georgia’s annual game against Auburn.

“I vote for us to continue to play Auburn,” Richt said. “We’ve played them for over 100 years.”

Saban agrees with keeping permanent cross-division opponents — Tennessee in Alabama’s case — but LSU coach Les Miles advocates dropping that concept and rotating all cross-division opponents.

Basketball developments: SEC athletic directors voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize the conference to explore a “primary” site for its men’s basketball tournament, which has moved around.

“We have been very successful with our permanent site in football in Atlanta and with our permanent site in baseball in Hoover (Ala.),” Slive said. “So the ADs felt it was time for us to explore the possibility of a primary site for the men’s basketball tournament. We will begin that exploration shortly.”

Slive wouldn’t tip his hand on a likely site, saying negotiations must be held.

Also, as part of an effort to place more SEC men’s basketball teams in the NCAA tournament, Slive said schools will submit their proposed non-conference schedules to the conference office for review.