Reportedly, the SEC will release its 2014 football schedule later today. It is the third consecutive schedule that the league office has hand-crafted. That's at least one too many.
Having the 2012 schedule be custom made all kinds of sense. Texas A&M and Missouri came aboard in the fall of 2011, which didn't leave a lot of time to go over schedules, think of possible alternatives for the future, and craft a rotation that works for the conference's new reality. I don't think anyone had a problem with that. Even having the 2013 slate be hand made is forgivable, given the high importance of scheduling and the SEC's normal deliberate pace for making decisions.
This upcoming 2014 schedule being custom built feels like it's really pushing it. We're getting the point here where it's no longer a deliberate process and it's a severe case of indecision. The sticking point is no secret either.
It's all about whether the conference will move to a nine-game conference schedule in football. Ever since A&M joined, it's been a hot topic. South Carolina's president erroneously reported the advent of a nine-game schedule in the fall of 2011, Mike Slive wouldn't rule it out in 2012, and Nick Saban has been the lone coach voice in favor of it for more than a year. Outside the league, people from former commissioner Roy Kramer to Washington AD Scott Woodward (a former LSU employee) have at the least encouraged the league to look a a nine-game slate if not predict one outright. More recent developments like the playoff, for boosting strength of schedule, and the SEC Network, to increase good TV inventory, have served as potential incentives to expand the league schedule as well.
I will be looking to see if the SEC announces a schedule rotation for 2015 and forward today. If it doesn't, it could be a signal that they still have not decided whether to go to a nine-game schedule or not.
It would not shock me at all to find out that the '15 schedule will once again be hand-made and not be a part of a rotation. The one concern that Slive has spoken about definitively is the one about the playoff. Each extra team from the league that makes it into the playoff or one of its associated bowls will bring a tremendous amount of money. That's one reason the league went for its deal with the Orange Bowl: to get an extra three guaranteed spots. Getting teams into the top tier of bowls matters a lot, and depending on how the deal with ESPN for the SECN works, it might be the single most important financial factor for the conference in the near future.
I suspect that the league brass will want to see a season with the playoff before making final decision on eight or nine games. They probably want to see if the selection committee will penalize SEC teams with the eight-game schedule before moving to a nine-game slate.
If that's the case, then we'll probably have the eight-game schedule for a while longer. That schedule didn't prevent the SEC from having the first single-conference BCS title game matchup, after all. Plus if you look at schedule strength ratings, from an official BCS computer poll to more independent rankings to the NCAA's dumb system, SEC schools do just fine the way things are.
Of course, that's just supposing that the playoff is all that matters. The SEC Network and the hypothetical "Division 4" might push the conference in the direction of a nine-game schedule. So might a desire to have everyone play everyone else more often.
Either way, it would be nice if the SEC just made a decision and stuck with it. These hand-made schedules are nothing if not breeding grounds for complaints and conspiracy theories. Even if a panel of disinterested parties make them honestly, there's no way around the appearance of shadowy figures pulling levers behind the scenes.
The conference knows that it needs to make and release a rotation, but it probably won't just yet.
UPDATE: The new schedule is out, and the 2015 schedule indeed will be hand made again.