It was obvious from the conversations that Alabama Coach Nick Saban had been the one advocate of a nine-game conference schedule. It was also a bit of a surprise that the four teams who wanted to keep a traditional opponent from the opposite division had enough support in the vote by SEC presidents earlier this week to preserve that aspect of the schedule.
Saban got more questions on the subject and had a substantive argument for his plan, but he agreed that there are problems with any format in keeping everyone happy. On at least three fronts, he was pleased, and he also said that he was in favor of that which is best for the league.
One area in which he was pleased was to have the schedule issue out of the way. He said, "Now we can go on and schedule for 2016 and beyond, which has been an issue for us." Teams had been a bit in limbo in future scheduling (the new format goes into effect in 2016) because they did not know how many games they would be able to schedule.
Obviously, too, he was happy that the permanent extradivision rivalries were kept. "For us, it was important to keep our rivalry with Tennessee, which means a lot to our fans," he said.
Saban did come out a winner on one issue in the new SEC format. He had lobbied not only for nine conference games, but also for each SEC team to play at least one game per year against a high-profile opponent.
"I've never had problem with the schedule that we have," Saban said. "I think everyone knows that I/ve been in favor of playing nine conference games and adding one more game from what is now being called one of the Big Five conferences so that everybody plays 10 quality opponents. My primary reason for that was for the fans so we are playing more good games and there is more fan interest, so they'll want to come to the stadiums and see the games, which I think should be a primary concern. Secondly, for the players, that they have more opportunities to play more teams in our conference. I do think in what we decided to do we've taken a step in that direction so that everyone will play nine quality games.
"I just wish our players could have a better chance to play more teams on the other side. If we rotated two opponents, which could only be done – for us to keep our Tennessee and rotate two teams – we'd have to play nine games. And that's why I was for that."
Saban added, "Everybody has different issues and different problems when it comes to scheduling. Some people in the league that are concerned about playing the best quality of schedule, there are some people who are concerned about playing the best schedule to become bowl eligible. So it's hard for everybody to have a common denominator. Some of us have really, really long time traditional rivalries that important to the fan base – Auburn vs. Georgia, Alabama vs. Tennessee. Some people respect that and some people can't.
"All these things are different issues and problems we all have. So what is the best compromise to be reached?
"There are issues with playing nine games, because you have a 5-4 home and away format so you'd have to be able to complement a fifth home game with a good opponent. There are issues and problems with every scenario in terms of scheduling.
"I think that's why it was a difficult decision. I think the conference, the presidents, out athletics directors did a fantastic job of taking all that information, putting it together, and trying to come up with the best solution to solve the most problems.
"I can't say that this is it, but I do have a lot of faith, trust, and confidence in them, and I'm pleased with what we are doing in the future because we are going to be able to keep our rivalry with Tennessee. I wish we could play more people on the other side from the players' standpoint, but that's not possible staying with eight games.
"You have to give and take a little bit, a sacrifice we all have to make in what is overall best for our league."
As for Alabama's plan going forward on the non-conference non-cupcake game, Saban said it would be a combination of the neutral site games that Alabama has played in recent years in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, and Dallas, and home-and-home games.
"I think we'll do both to try to get the best quality opponents we can," he said. "There are some really good opportunities for us to continue to do the neutral site games.
If you look back, when we played Clemson in Atlanta the second year we were here (2008, a 34-10 Tide win), that sort of ignited the program because there is so much national interest in those games. So we'll continue to play those games.
"Penn State home and home was great for us.
"So, however we can get the best quality opponents is the philosophy we will use.
"In 2016 and 2017 we have some really good opportunities to play neutral site games."
No other SEC coach expressed any interest in a nine-game conference schedule. A few pointed out that they were already in compliance with the power out-of-conference game owing to natural rivalries against non-conference teams. Those are Florida vs. Florida State, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, South Carolina vs. Clemson, and Kentucky vs. Louisville. Louisville is moving into the ACC and the other three already are ACC members.
Both LSU Coach Les Miles and South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said that it would be more fair to have two rotating opponents from the opposing division. Both noted that it is unfair for LSU to play Florida every year, although Florida Coach Will Muschamp said he "embraced" the LSU game for the Gators.
Spurrier also pointed out the difficulty of having Clemson as a rival as being a good reason to not have a ninth SEC game. "If I was Alabama and did not have an in-state rival out of the conference I might be for nine, too," he said.
Spurrier said the new mandate on non-conference games might put two historic rivalries back together. When Texas A&M went to the SEC, Texas dropped the Aggies from their schedule. Kansas did the same thing to Missouri. "Maybe Texas and Texas A&M will be getting back together, and Missouri and Kansas," Spurrier said.
Butch Jones at Tennessee said he was "grateful to keep our rivalry with Alabama. I don't think there is any perfect solution. It was a big thing being able to maintain our game with Alabama. Part of building this program back is having a challenging schedule."
Auburn Coach Guss Malzahn said, "I was for the eight games and of course we really enjoy our rivalry with Georgia that we have been playing for a long time. I like the decision that was made. I would have done whatever they had decided."
Mark Richt of Georgia said he was "very comfortable with it. Our game with Auburn is important to our people and in the South as far as rivalries go."
Second-year coaches Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M and Mark Stoops of Kentucky both said that even though they had not been in the league a long time, they had respect for the traditional rivalries.
Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel nailed a problem many have with the Saban plan of an additional conference game. "Our league is so tough, that separates it [from other conferences that play nine league games: Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12]. Eight games is good whether it's [with one rotating or two rotating extradivisional]. Play nine and we might knock one or two teams out of bowl games and there is also the possibility of knocking someone out of the top four."
This year begins the four-team playoff for the national championship and there is some concern that the SEC playing one less conference game than in other leagues might hurt the SEC in making that four-team field.
That doesn't carry weight with Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "I don't care if other conferences play 10 games, it's not going to be to the magnitude of what we (SEC playing eight games) have." He said the eight-game format "made the most sense for us at Arkansas and is best for the SEC."