Commentary: Like Pac-12 football coaches say, SEC needs to play 9 conference games

2014-05-04T06:00:00Z Commentary: Like Pac-12 football coaches say, SEC needs to play 9 conference gamesBy STEVE GRESS, Corvallis Gazette-Times Lebanon Express

David Shaw didn’t hold back any punches on Thursday when asked about the Southeastern Conference’s decision to stick with playing just eight conference games per season instead of upping that to nine like the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12.

“Don’t back down from playing your own conference,” Stanford’s fourth-year coach said on a conference call with reporters. “It’s one thing if you back down from playing somebody else.”

“There’s no taking away anything that LSU, Alabama and Auburn, recently, have accomplished, they’ve been phenomenal,” Shaw said later. “My take is to say the rest of us are playing our conference. We’re playing nine out of (11) teams in our conference, why can’t you do the same thing? You can’t color it, you can’t try to explain it away, you’re not doing what the rest of us are doing.”

The majority of the Pac-12 coaches were in agreement.

So why do Pac-12 coaches care so much? Well, when it comes to the new playoff system this year that will include four teams instead of the old BCS system that ended last January, they want equality.

As they should.

“When you have that discussion that everybody’s having about having a real national champion and how to get there the best way and playoffs and all those ingredients that go into it, the equity of how you get there is really important to always keep in mind and address,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said.

The Pac-12 has played nine conference games since the 2006 season. Until the conference expanded to 12 teams for the 2011 season, each team played each conference team. Now, the teams miss two from the other division each year.

The SEC, which has 14 teams, plays all six in its division, and two others from the other division, meaning they miss five teams each year.

That also allows the SEC to schedule nonconference games — typically Football Championship Subdivision teams — late in the season while other major conferences remain in the grind of conference play.

So while the SEC has a glorified bye, the Pac-12 teams could be playing a top-ranked team. A loss there could hurt the Pac-12’s chances of getting a team in the final four.

“It just adds to the obvious depth of competition throughout the season that is going to at some point have diminishing returns for somebody no matter how good you are,” Riley said. “When you’re playing all that kind of strength in the conference and you’re getting to the point in our conference where I think the sign of the times was last year when anybody could win at any time. I think we just beat ourselves up and with the new structure for playoffs it hurts you and I think there should be some equity in there.”

It’s hard to argue with the SEC’s decision — at least for now — as it certainly benefits the conference’s teams. And several Pac-12 coaches understand that.

Ten of the 14 teams were eligible for bowl games last year thanks in part to having four nonconference games against lesser opponents. Win those four and all you need to do is go 2-6 in conference to meet the required six wins to be eligible for postseason play.

Two of the SEC’s bowl teams were 4-4 and two more 3-5 in conference play.

In comparison, three of the Pac-12’s nine bowl teams had 4-5 records, but take away a conference loss and replace it with a nonconference patsy a la the SEC, and, well, you get my point.

“Obviously the scheme is you’re in the best position to go to bowl games which that’s not a bad idea,” Washington State’s Mike Leach said of the SEC’s decision. “One of those games they typically play late as the conference starts to heat up late in the season, one of the nonconference games is awful late. I can’t say it’s a bad strategy. I’m certainly not against it.”

Added Utah's Kyle Whittingham: “I think most coaches in power conferences, if you asked them, the consensus would probably be to play eight conference games and give you one more opportunity to play a game that may not be as taxing in that extra slot.”

Still, Shaw and others said they hope the committee takes into account the strength of schedule and not just the win/loss record. Shaw’s Stanford team lost twice last year, but still wound up being ranked ahead of several one-loss teams.

“Look who we played,” Shaw said. “We played nine straight conference games and seven of them were ranked opponents. You throw Notre Dame in there and you go back and play Arizona State again (in the Pac-12 title game), another great conference opponent. Our strength of schedule was off the charts. Nobody in the SEC plays the strength of schedule like we played, like Oregon played, like USC played last year.”

Added Whittingham: “Hopefully with the way the system is in place and the human element is really the prevailing factor … hopefully those people will be knowledgeable enough which I’m sure they will, to understand that maybe one extra loss for a team that played a nine conference-game schedule would be factored into the equation. Not just wins or losses.”

Let’s hope the committee makes the right decision and rewards teams who play a tougher strength of schedule. Besides, we the fans are the ones who are hurt. We want to see some of the top teams face off in the regular season.

Arizona State coach Todd Graham said Sun Devils fans had a lot to be excited about last year when ASU played Notre Dame and Wisconsin in two of its three nonconference games.

“They like to see that extra conference game because that’s a completely different atmosphere and a completely different opponent than playing another mid-major or (FCS) team,” Graham said. “Traditionally the Pac-12 has schedule extremely difficult games and that’s something I know our players want to play in, I want to coach in. We played Notre Dame and Wisconsin last year and I really think it made us a better football team because we played them.”

Shaw said that will always be the goal for him at Stanford.

“We want to play tough, physical games and win them,” he said. “We want great games for people to come see. We think that is the right thing to do.”

Apparently, the SEC disagrees.

And that’s unfortunate for college football fans.

Steve Gress is the sports editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times. He can be reached at steve.gress@lee.net.

Copyright 2015 Lebanon Express. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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