Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News did some great reporting on the upcoming SEC athletic directors meeting where future scheduling will be discussed at length. Seven of the 14 ADs declined to be interviewed, but the ones who did agree had some interesting things to say. I encourage you to hit the link and read the whole thing.
The biggest two topics seem to be whether to have an eight- or nine-game schedule and whether to change division alignments. Here is a brief summary of where those on record stand:
- Arkansas AD Jeff Long: Wasn't interviewed for the article but said last November he'd like Missouri in the West.
- Georgia AD Greg McGarity: Open to discussing a nine-game schedule because they're a bigger draw for fans than cupcakes are, but acknowledges that would make it tough for those with non-conference rivalries to schedule other big non-conference games. Preserving Georgia-Auburn series is a priority.
- Ole Miss AD Pete Boone: Prefers eight games with no permanent rivalries but expects a permanent rivalry system to stay in place.
- Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin: Opposes nine-game schedule as it would make it tougher for MSU to make a bowl. Is open to discussing an end to round robin divisional scheduling (and changing the NCAA rule requiring round robin divisional play for holding a conference title game). Also open to discussing scheduling based on the previous year's standings.
- Missouri Senior Associate AD Mark Alnutt: Prefers eight game schedule with a rivalry with Texas A&M because so many Mizzou students and athletes come from Texas. Is willing to play in either division and would be interested in a series with Arkansas.
- South Carolina AD Eric Hyman: Is willing to listen to arguments for a nine-game schedule but says "somebody would have to convince me" of the merits.
- Tennessee AD Dave Hart: Wants to put a nine-game schedule on the table. Preserving Tennessee-Alabama is a priority.
- Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Athletics David Williams: Staunchly in favor of eight-game schedule; says he'd rather go to seven games than nine. Doesn't think it would be fair for some schools to have permanent rivals and some not to have them.
If Missouri was going to be moved to the West, it would almost certainly bring about the long-discussed move of Auburn to the East. It's the eastern-most school in the West division, it would preserve the Auburn-Georgia rivalry, and it would re-start the Auburn-Florida rivalry (which had been an annual affair before the end of double permanent rivalries). Of course, it would still necessitate some kind of permanent rival system to preserve the Iron Bowl.
On the nine-game schedule front, it's not surprising that the two ADs who sound the most receptive to it are the ones who have a vested interest in keeping permanent rivalries around. If the SEC goes with an eight game schedule and retains permanent rivalries, then it would take schools 12 years to complete a home-and-home cycle with everyone from the other division. The SEC went with only a single rotating game between the divisions in 1992, but that ended after a decade. The league might once again find having a single rotating game untenable.
My best guess is that the conference will end up with a 6-1-1 format for the near term. Making this decision prior to the post-expansion round of TV negotiations will probably give us the most conservative solution. After all, Vanderbilt's Williams said, "There are harder decisions we'll have to make [than the one about permanent rivals]. We brought in two new teams. How do we keep the revenue stream going?"
The SEC will keep the revenue stream going by doing what CBS and ESPN tells them will get them the biggest annual payout. I have a feeling that the networks will want a nine-game schedule with permanent rivalries. Conference games get better ratings than cupcake games do, and big time rivalries whether ancient (UT-Bama, UGA-AU) or modern (UF-LSU) are bankable properties.
The real question for the long term then is whether the TV networks will pay up to compensate the schools for the loss of a lucrative cupcake game. Even that might not be enough for some like Stricklin who are worried about bowl eligibility, especially when the bar for bowl eligibility could soon be raised to seven wins instead of six. However money drove the expansion process, and it will continue driving the bus through the schedule negotiations.