Is eight enough? Or is it time for nine?
That’s the overriding question facing Southeastern Conference administrators and coaches at this week’s annual Spring Meeting in Destin, Fla., when it comes to future regular-season league football games.
As SEC commissioner Greg Sankey noted last week in an interview about upcoming football scheduling: “We have to make a decision and if we don’t make a decision is that the be all, end all? No. But at some point we have to land the proverbial airplane.
I think we’re ready to do that.”
He’s almost certainly right. With the SEC expanding to 16 schools with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas for the 2024 season, it’s worth wondering if the current eight-game conference slate is still enough, or is a ninth league game warranted to fairly determine a champion.
For the past 30 years _ or ever since the league expanded to 12 teams prior to the 1991-92 school year with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina _ SEC programs have played an eight-game league schedule. Before Missouri and Texas A&M came aboard for the 2012 season to move the conference to 14 schools, the eight-game, two-division format was almost perfect.
You played every other team in your six-team division every year. You played three opponents from outside your division each season, including two permanent foes and one rotating one. Over a span of a few years, you would face everyone in the conference.
When Mizzou and A&M came aboard, the frequency of rotating foes changed, though one common non-division opponent held in order to keep storied rivalries such as UT-Bama and Georgia-Auburn intact With the addition of Texas and Oklahoma and the ending of divisions, it would appear that UT-Bama and Georgia-Auburn _ the league’s oldest rivalry _ could be finished, at least on a yearly basis.
Ah, the power of money.
But shouldn’t there be a way to keep those classic rivalry games the fans all love while accommodating the additions of Oklahoma and Texas? Perhaps, but consider this from a coaching perspective: With the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams in 2024, the expectation to make those playoffs for schools such as Alabama and Georgia and Oklahoma will be higher than ever.
Coaching careers will be on the line. And NIL deals, since those boosters funding those deals will want a return on their investment. No restaurant chain, for instance, wants to fund Tommy Touchdown a couple of million dollars a year to carry his team to the Birmingham Bowl. Boosters want to be in that 12-team playoff. They’ll speak with their pocket books when they do and when they don’t.
In many ways, going to a nine-game SEC schedule could threaten that, even as it would surely sweeten the television money. For proof, Sankey said this past weekend in an interview with the SEC Network that one need only return to the COVID-19 season _ when the league played an SEC-only, 10-game schedule.
“The interest is high in our (conference) games,” he said. “The viewership on our network that year was at a record level because we weren’t playing the same kind of games that don’t draw the passion that a conference game does. I also know that when you look at economics _ the ticket pricing around high-level conference games is very different than a FCS or Group of Five game.”
In other words, the nine-game schedule is on the horizon because ESPN/ABC, which will own exclusive SEC broadcast rights beginning in 2024, may all but demand it in order to attempt to prop up their financial sinking ship.
(Sidenote: For schools such as Vandy and Kentucky who wish to keep the eight -game format, going to nine games will give you something new to blame on COVID-19.)
Yet other than what is sure to be an increase in season-ticket costs, fans at most schools should quickly embrace the nine-game conference slate. There will certainly be more good games, and for those athletic directors and coaches who are already bemoaning the fact that every other season you’ll have four home league games and five road tests, you’ll also have five home league games every other year.
No, the problem for also-ran schools such as Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Ole Miss _ who have never reached a single SEC title game _ is that facing nine SEC foes each year instead of eight makes their pipe dream to ever reach that game even tougher to realize.
Beyond that, there’s the very real prospect of a losing season for those schools that currently max out at six or seven wins a season, which makes them eligible for minor bowls. Finishing 6-6 with a holiday bowl to look forward to is very different than going 5-7 and watching a bowl on your television that you missed out on because you had to play nine SEC games instead of eight.
And even the big boys of the league, perhaps especially the big boys of the league are worried about which schools would be their common opponents in a nine-game schedule. Under the most popular nine-game format, each school would apparently have three permanent opponents and six rotating ones.
Yet even Alabama coach Nick Saban _ who has long endorsed a nine-game schedule _ is unhappy with who his three permanent foes are believed to be.
“I’ve always been an advocate of playing more (conference) games,” Saban told Sports Illustrated. “But if you play more games, I think you have to get the three fixed (opponents), right? They’re giving us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don’t know how they come to that.”
Perhaps this falls under the old adage “To much is given, much is expected.” And if Georgia winds up with Auburn, Florida and Oklahoma, Saban shouldn’t be upset about his own schedule difficulty. But in a 16-team league with so many strong programs, someone, maybe multiple someones, will always be upset. There’s not a computer or AI program in the world that can create a perfectly fair formula for SEC football.
And the last time I checked, no one in the league, not even Vanderbilt, was making noise about taking its program elsewhere. Love it or loathe it, SEC membership has its privilege, including banking ridiculously large revenue-sharing paychecks. Last year’s total was $49.9 million per school. This year’s should move north of $50 million. In these stressful financial times, who could possibly afford to leave that?
So what should the league do? How about this: Go to the nine-game schedule. Keep two traditional conference rivals per school. For Alabama it could be Tennessee and Auburn. For Georgia it could be Auburn and Florida. For Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State (its common West opponent since 1991). For Tennessee, Bama and Florida. For Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. For Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. For Mississippi, Miss State and LSU. Etc.
Then rotate the other seven games each year from a pool of 13 schools with the goal to play a home-and-home against each of those 13 every eight to 10 years.
Sure, it makes it a little tougher on everyone. But the general feeling is that a 12-team playoff would allow SEC schools to lose twice within the league and still get in the playoff. If that’s true, it could be a win-win for both the league and its television providers.
Scheduling is not the only issue that will be discussed at the league meetings. With Alabama recently forced to fire its baseball coach over a gambling issue and a recent study showing as much as 60 percent of college students are betting online, gambling should draw much attention, as will NIL. Fans storming the field or court after big wins is also expected to be discussed.
But because football drives the SEC financial engine, whether to keep eight conference games or move to nine is at the center of everything.
For those reading the tea leaves, the following quote from Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork may be all that’s needed to know the answer to eight versus nine:
“We want nine for sure at A&M,” Bjork told the Associated Press last week. “We expanded for a reason. And people want more SEC content, right? Clearly, there’s a demand for it, especially football.”
And where there’s a demand for more college football, no one better supplies it at its most elite level than the SEC.