The debate on whether the SEC should go to a nine-game conference schedule has been one of the most hotly-contested discussions over the last couple of offseasons.
Thanks to two consecutive bridge schedules and a reluctance to commit to a long-term schedule format beyond the 2015 season, that debate will rage on this offseason.
When it does, remember this weekend, because the slate of SEC games in Week 13 leaves a lot to be desired.
Florida hosts Georgia Southern, South Carolina hosts Coastal Carolina, and Alabama hosts Chattanooga in the penultimate weekend of the regular season. The Gamecocks and Gators have wrapped up their entire SEC conference schedule, and we're still two weeks away from the end of the regular season.
|Mississippi State||at Arkansas||Noon|
|Coastal Carolina||at South Carolina||1:00|
|Georgia Southern||at Florida||2:00|
|Texas A&M||at LSU||3:30|
|Missouri||at Ole Miss||7:45|
Non-Conference Games Highlighed
That should be unacceptable now and is going to be unacceptable in the new world order of the SEC.
The SEC isn't a college athletic conference anymore. It's a production company that is very much in the programming business, thanks to deals with ESPN and CBS that allow the product to be distributed across the world, but starting in 2014, will send three games per week to its own cable network on most fall weekends.
So how do you fix it?
A nine-game conference schedule would be a good start, especially with a stipulation that nonconference games are forbidden in the next-to-last weekend of the season. The conference can't control the way teams schedule out of conference, and a nine-game schedule will likely eliminate most of the big-time out-of-conference games.
There's nothing that can be done about that. But if you move to a nine-game schedule and ensure a full slate of conference games in the next-to-last weekend of the season, it will give the SEC's television partners and its own network plenty of compelling matchups.
The SEC's coaches voted 13-1 in favor of keeping an eight-game schedule in June according to USA Today.
Who was that one coach? Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
"It's important to the fans that we play the quality games," Saban told AL.com's Andrew Gribble in October. "I think it's important that we keep the games that the fans are really interested in as natural rivalries."
In addition to providing the SEC's television partners with compelling inventory to sell to advertisers, it would help on the bottom line. Imagine, instead of Alabama playing Chattanooga, the Crimson Tide hosting South Carolina in a game that would have major implications in the SEC and national title races.
"I know there's issues with it and I understand the opposition to it, but I think we all need to think of the fans first," Saban told Gribble in October. "You've got to have games that people are interested in coming to see. You want to fill the stadium, and I think that's where it all starts."
The second-to-last weekend of the SEC's season isn't supposed to be an afterthought.
Should the SEC go to a nine-game conference schedule for the 2016 season?
It should be the opening act to the best weekend of the year and, in the cases of the programs that have an out-of-conference in-state rivalry to close out the regular season or a deal like South Carolina to play an FCS school within the state, a meaningful weekend where conference titles and bowl positioning hang in the balance.
It's coming. A nine-game conference schedule in the SEC is inevitable, even if 13 of the SEC's 14 coaches go in kicking and screaming.
For proof, look no further than the Week 13 schedule.
The SEC could, should and will do better.