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March 8, 2012
SEC to use 24-game schedule in softball
The No. 1-ranked University of Alabama softball team arrives in Lexington, Ky., today to begin a two-month, 28-game odyssey in defense of its back-to-back Southeastern Conference championships.
The Crimson Tide, as it has every season since SEC softball play began in 1997, will play each team in the league at least twice. While the conference will expand next season with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, the league schedule will contract. The Tuscaloosa News has learned that the SEC will cut back to a 24-game league schedule in 2013, with each school playing only eight of the 12 other teams in the SEC.
Leslie Claybrook, SEC assistant commissioner, worked with coaches and administrators to create the new format. The 2013 league schedule will be given to coaches today.
"It's already in place," Claybrook said. "I'm sending it out."
Under the new format, teams will not be facing a consistent lineup of conference opponents each season. That means Alabama won't play rivals Auburn, Tennessee, LSU and Florida in some seasons - and it's possible in some season that Alabama won't play any of those four. The idea of schools keeping one or more permanent opponents - to preserve Alabama vs. Auburn every year, for instance - was debated.
"There was that conversation, but it's going to be straight, random (selection of eight opponents for each school) initially and then rotate," said Marie Robbins, UA senior women's administrator.
SEC school senior women's athletics administrators have worked, with input from coaches, on a scheduling solution since the announcement last year that Texas A&M and Missouri will be joining the league. Over the course of several meetings and conference calls, the league settled on the four home and four away three-game sets, with each team getting one weekend free of conference play due to the odd number of softball-playing schools (Vanderbilt does not field a softball team). The new format also limits conference play to weekends only.
"There has been a growing discomfort with midweek conference series for a lot of reasons," Robbins said. "There was that component and the will of the group, both coaches and (administrators), to make sure we balanced being able to develop a strong non-conference slate. You didn't want to reduce those weeks (available for out-of-conference play)."
Any solution would have meant some sort of change.
"Something had to give," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "You can't play all 12 opponents, you can't play 36 games. It would be tough to play (even) a doubleheader against each because you'd run out of weekends. You'd miss class, you'd miss too much.
"I think they did the best that they could do."
The rotating schedule means some teams will have an easier league slate, and thus an easier chance to win the SEC championship, every year.
"When you don't play everybody, you could presumably have a conference champion that doesn't play the next four best teams," Robbins said. "That's going to happen sometime."
Said Murphy, "It's like football and any other sport, it's just luck of the draw."
SEC play next season will start the weekend of March 8, which allows teams to keep previously-scheduled out-of-conference games intact.
The league will also expand the league tournament from an eight-team field to 10 teams starting next season. Kentucky will host the event in 2013.
"Certainly our television partner (ESPN) was interested in keeping the SEC Tournament," Claybrook said. "That's one of the highest-rated pieces in our inventory in the conference."