Emerson: SEC football schedule will get tougher for everyone. Get in line, Nick Saban

It has been three decades since the SEC added another game to the football schedule. Back then, with the expansion to a dozen teams, it went from seven to eight games, and then-commissioner Roy Kramer often says how many of his football coaches were against doing it: “All of them.”

There’s more support this time as the SEC moves closer to agreeing on a nine-game schedule. Nick Saban actually wouldn’t mind playing 10. Or all of them. But the information is tripping him up now, as he told SI.com this week:

“They give us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don’t know how they do it … We have three teams and two of them are in the top 10 and the other one is very much in the top 10.”

A few things to unpack here.

First, Saban drops some news by revealing that LSU would be Alabama’s third annual opponent. Auburn and Tennessee were obvious, and LSU makes sense as a recent rivalry, but Mississippi State is closer (about 90 minutes to the west) and a more long-standing matchup. Maybe Saban works with the refs and tries to get the third team downgraded from LSU to Mississippi State, or possibly Sewanee. Or, more likely, Saban doesn’t have as much power with the SEC office as people think he does, this is basically a done deal and he’s just venting.

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Subsequently, Saban’s comments are the ultimate compliment to Tennessee, which is now clearly back to national relevance after a very good year. Or maybe we’ll have to see. It just goes to show how carefully everyone has to be in judging the schedule format on the quality of their opponents: It can be quite cyclical. History, tradition and geography are safer criteria to rely on.

In addition, the SEC can only visit the three regular opponents after a four-year cycle. Hence the need to stop referring to them as “permanent” opponents. Nothing is permanent in the SEC, other than fans knowing their team is the only one that doesn’t cheat, and coaches complaining about schedules.

Finally – and this is coming from someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the regular opponents – it’s a bit of an overkill exercise. Fun to talk about. But in the end, Saban is basically in the same boat as all of his coaches: The nine-game schedule and format change will be great for the SEC, and great for college football, and make life much, much harder for coaches.

Start with the current standard bearer: Georgia, the two-time defending national champion, has on paper the easiest schedule in college football history this season, the last with divisions. From 2024 onwards, the road will be much tougher. No more annual games against Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky, no more playing six of their eight games each year against what has been the weaker division for most of the last 10 to 15 years. This is not to say that Georgia’s success is a product of that schedule, or it would have been exposed in the postseason. (Kirby Smart is 5-1 in College Football Playoff games, and that one was pretty close.) But Georgia has also clearly had an easier path to the SEC Championship, and now it will face all the tougher teams from the West at least twice every four years.

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What might the SEC schedule format, opponent structure be with Oklahoma, Texas?

That point is key for everyone. As much kvetching as there is about the three regular opponents, in this format everyone will play the rest of the conference at least twice every four years. Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas, et al., will all see each other once every two years, essentially. Everyone has to play LSU in Death Valley once every four years. But LSU will also have to go to Sanford Stadium, Neyland Stadium and the Swamp, in addition to visiting the nice folks of Austin and Norman, at least once in an American presidency. The teams in the upper tier will not be strangers to each other and will probably spend a lot of time beating each other.

Not that the rest of the conference will be easy. Many of them didn’t want to move up from eight games in the first place, Kentucky being the most vocal. A good compromise might be that in exchange for going to nine, those schools draw each other among the regular opponents. Maybe that’s what happens with Mississippi State not getting Alabama as an opponent, assuming it keeps score.

It would work for TV, especially if the SEC, in trying to get ESPN to pony up more in a modified contract, could offer annual matchups of Alabama-LSU, Oklahoma-Florida, etc. Because, yes, a lot of this is being done for television. It’s what pays a lot of the bills.

But it is also done for the fans. Actually. After too many years of being tied to the antiquated concept of divisions, the SEC (like most conferences) is dropping them so the schedules improve. And better, meaning harder, just in time for the expanded CFP to provide some margin for error.

Good for the fans, good for the conference, not so good for the coaches. But they will live.

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SEC must respect traditions but prioritize blockbuster games in new schedule with OU, Texas

(Top photo: Donald Page/Getty Images)

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