April 28, 2014 10:37:53 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State has tried recently to assemble football schedules that give its teams a chance to play in bowl games in December and January.
The Southeastern Conference added a wrinkle Sunday at a special meeting in Atlanta that likely will bolster the strength of all of its member schools' football schedules.
SEC presidents and chancellors approved the so-called 6-1-1 format that will allow league teams to continue to play each of their six division rivals, one permanent crossover rivalry game, and a non-divisional opponent that will rotate. In addition, starting in 2016 all SEC schools will have to play a school from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Big Ten Conference, or the Pacific-12 Conference every year.
"The concept of strength of schedule is based on an entire 12-game schedule, a combination of both conference games together with non-conference games," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said Sunday in a statement.
Nearly four years ago, MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin was clear about his school's goals when it compiled a football schedule.
"My hope is we play a really good high-profile non-conference opponent every December or January," Stricklin said in May 2010, referencing a bowl game. "I want to schedule in a way that allows us the opportunity to do that."
Stricklin made that statement before MSU agreed to play nationally ranked Big 12 Conference opponent Oklahoma State in Reliant Stadium in Houston in Texas Kickoff Classic to open the 2013 season. The game, which was brokered by ABC/ESPN, provided MSU with a payout of at least $1 million. However, hours after MSU lost to Oklahoma State 21-3, Stricklin took to Twitter and apologized to Bulldogs fans for scheduling such a difficult opening game to the season.
"I believe this @HailStateFBall team is good," Stricklin tweeted after the loss. "Tough foe in game one (that's on me). Thank you fans for the support. See you at #DavisWade!"
Months later, Stricklin appeared to be in favor of a move that could make it more difficult for MSU to assure itself four near non-conference victories that make it easier for it to earn six wins and become bowl eligible.
"I like our position after this. I really do," Stricklin said. "By 2017, we are very flexible with our football schedule, so I'm confident we can find things that will make sense for us and work."
MSU, Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn, and Alabama are the SEC schools that don't have an agreement in place for 2016 to play a non-conference game against a team from the four power conferences.
Four SEC members in the Eastern Division -- South Carolina (Clemson), Georgia (Georgia Tech), Florida (Florida State), and Kentucky (Louisville) -- already play annual games against ACC schools.
In 2016, MSU has scheduled non-conference games against South Alabama and Tulane at home and against Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La.
"It's not like going to grocery store if you're not one of those schools that does it every year," Stricklin said. "You must find a brand that wants you, too."
A possible short-term solution for Stricklin and MSU is to call former MSU Director of Athletics Greg Byrne, who left MSU for the same position at Arizona, and schedule a home-and-home series against the Wildcats. When Byrne announced he would take the job in early 2010, he campaigned to schedule MSU in many sports, but he understood football could be difficult "because the schedules are done so far in advance." Arizona, coached by former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, has BYU and Football Championship Subdivision member Grambling State on its 2016 schedule. In 2017, Arizona has signed deals to play Houston and UTEP.
As far as the permanent opponent from the Eastern Division of the SEC, MSU will continue to draw Kentucky. Stricklin said he saw this agreement as a better compromise for MSU than the approval of a ninth SEC game to future schedules.
"I certainly like the eight-game schedule and feel it has served our league pretty well by the amount of national championships and title game appearances in the last decade," Stricklin said. "I would want to add another SEC game to our schedule because I didn't see the benefit of such a move."
The decision to maintain an eight-game conference schedule allows all SEC teams to have an equal number of home and away conference games.
"The existing strength of the SEC was a significant factor in the decision to play eight games," Slive said. "Just last year, five of our schools comprised the top five toughest schedules in the nation according to the NCAA, and nine ranked in the top 20."
Other athletics directors from the SEC weren't as content with what Stricklin called "a compromise" that reportedly was agreed upon in a 10-4 vote. LSU Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Joe Alleva expressed his discontent with the vote about cross divisional opponents (LSU plays Florida) due to what he called "the competitive disadvantage" for his school.
"I'm disappointed the leadership of our conference doesn't understand the competitive advantage permanent partners give to certain institutions," Alleva said to The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. "I tried to bring that up very strongly at the meeting. In our league, we share the money and expenses equally but we don't share our opponents equally."
Alleva chided other schools for acting in their own "self interest."
"If I'm Ole Miss and I'm playing Vanderbilt, I'll vote to play Vanderbilt," Alleva said. "If I'm Mississippi State and I'm playing Kentucky, I'm going to vote to play Kentucky. People voted their own self interest instead of what is in the best interest of competitive balance."
Slive said tradition was the main reason for staying with the permanent cross-division setup and SEC strength of schedule was a deciding factor in staying with eight games.
"Tradition matters in the SEC, and there is no denying that tradition was a significant factor in this decision because it protects several long-standing cross-division conference rivalries," Slive said. "It has been a hallmark of the SEC over our history to be able to make continued progress while also maintaining traditions important to our institutions."
From 2006 through games scheduled in 2015, SEC teams will play 132 games against schools from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12. More than half of the SEC schools have played two or more teams from those conferences in a season at least once in that period, and several schools have done it in multiple seasons. Since 2008, MSU is 0-3 against teams from power conferences. In 2008 and 2009, MSU played in a home-and-home series against Georgia Tech.
This season Ole Miss, MSU, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt don't play non-conference games against another Big 5 school. Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Kentucky didn't play a Big 5 non-conference game last year.
"Given the strength of our conference schedule supplemented by at least one major non-conference game, our teams will boast of a strong resume of opponents each and every year," Stricklin said.
Reports from The Associated Press were included in this report.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.