MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — When presented with two choices — one sensible and exciting and the other downright silly — the debate shouldn’t last long. The silly choice should be discarded and the sensible and exciting idea should be embraced.
With the picks narrowed down to two, the discussion of potential SEC regular-season scheduling options once Oklahoma and Texas join the league (in 2025 at the latest) should have taken about five seconds. Yet SEC athletic directors are still debating which model is better after two days of discussions. In any profession, it’s always possible to get so far into the weeds that the obvious decision doesn’t seem so obvious. This is what is happening this week on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
The SEC presidents and chancellors will join the ADs on Thursday. These people have a lot more to worry about. So hopefully they are less likely to get lost in the details. And I hope they make the right decision.
I bet if I spell out the options without identifying which is right and which is dumber, you’ll choose the best one without batting an eyelid. Let’s try.
• One option would be an eight-game non-split conference program that includes a fixed opponent for each school while rotating the other seven games throughout the rest of the 16 conference teams (coming soon). This plan would protect Alabama-Auburn (the Iron Bowl) but not Auburn-Georgia (the Deep South’s oldest rivalry) or Alabama-Tennessee (the third Saturday in October). Florida and Georgia would play every year, but Florida and Tennessee would not. Oklahoma and Texas would play every year. Texas and Texas A&M would not.
• The other option is a nine-game non-split conference schedule that features three fixed opponents for each school while rotating the other six games for the remainder of the conference. This would allow Alabama-Auburn, Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee, Oklahoma-Texas, and Texas-Texas A&M to be played each year. It could also stoke the fires of a few emerging rivalries such as LSU-Texas A&M. It could also create new ones. For example, it’s a little weird that Arkansas and Oklahoma – flagship universities in border states – have only played 15 times since 1899 and only three times since 1978. Maybe each could be part of the trio the other.
Did you spot the stupid one? Of course you did. This is model 1-7. If a group of supposedly smart people got together and decided that Texas and Texas A&M — or Georgia and Auburn or Alabama and Tennessee — shouldn’t play every year when a reasonable possibility exists, then whoever voted to adopt this model should find a new line of work. They don’t have the common sense to sell football games for a living, which also challenges their decision-making in all other areas. The Big Ten are likely set to change their planning model in the near future. Can you imagine the leaders of this league saying “We don’t need Michigan and Michigan State to play EVERY year?” Of course not.
The 3-6 model is the only logical choice. So why is anyone fighting it?
The resistance is double. Some schools would rather take a short-term view than make a choice that will ultimately sell more subscription packages on their campuses and earn them more money from future SEC media rights deals.
Some of the opposition comes from leaders at some schools who fear the zero-sum nature of adding conference play. That means half the league is guaranteed one more loss per season. With non-conference games, schools at the bottom of the standings can try to fight their way to six wins and a bowling game in a near-empty stadium in a mid-size city. Another conference game means these schools have to work even harder to reach .500. These schools are so afraid that their teams aren’t mediocre enough that they try to block a model that embraces both progress and tradition.
But that’s not the only losing thought that keeps you from improving, with more interesting games to watch on TV during the regular season. Some league members worry that if the college football playoffs don’t expand, the move to nine conference games could hurt the SEC’s chances of continuing to produce national champions. It’s silly. First, the odds of the CFP staying at four are slim because the only league that even likes four is the SEC. An early expansion was stalled in part because the SEC’s acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas spooked the leaders of a few other leagues, but after a cooling-off period, those leagues will return to where they were before the news. from Oklahoma and Texas. broken. Most of them need expansion. And if you’ve read this space, you know the SEC wants either an eight-best format or a 12-team format with six automatic qualifying spots for conference champions. Either would leave plenty of room for SEC programs with some scheduling flaws to do the groundwork. And in the unlikely event that the CFP remains at four beyond the 2025 season, a nine-game schedule probably won’t reduce the SEC’s chances of producing a national champion in most years. If anything, it would likely increase the likelihood of a two-game losing team being admitted to a four-team system – something that has yet to happen in the CFP’s eight-season history.
The good news on that front is that the SEC doesn’t have to make a decision this week. He can push this a bit longer and wait to see if some clarity emerges on the next CFP format. The new schedule format should be in place when Oklahoma and Texas arrive. It’s 2025 at the latest. We’ll refrain from any speculation as to whether these two could buy their way out of the Big 12 early; so far, there is no indication that they can. But the SEC might also want the new format ready for 2024, when the league’s new media rights deal with ESPN begins. That would likely require a decision on a model by late 2022 or early 2023. Pushing to 2025 would buy another year. “We can set our own schedule here,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday.
For schools looking for bowling eligibility, it would be wise to remember that schools set NCAA rules. So these schools might just be pushing to change the bowl eligibility rule. They would likely find many allies in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12. The Group of 5 leagues would understandably be strongly opposed to lowering the bowl eligibility standard. But answer this question honestly: Which Boca Raton bowl would you rather watch while wrapping gifts/casually betting on second-half totals? Do you want Western Kentucky-Appalachian State or Mississippi-Minnesota State?
And please don’t even start with arguments about the need for balls to be a reward for a great season. It was true when there were eight bowls. It’s laughable when there are over 40. They’re television’s inventory for our entertainment, and our viewing habits suggest that adding a few more could make ESPN more money.
Proponents of the 3-6 model would also likely extend an olive branch to these schools by eliminating the requirement to reserve at least one Power 5 school in the non-conference schedule. So Georgia could continue to schedule Georgia Tech every year and a Clemson/Florida State type most years — which it would do even with a nine-game SEC schedule — and Arkansas could schedule Rice instead of Oklahoma. State or Notre Dame. I don’t think that would make Arkansas fans happy. I also don’t think it would entice them to buy more tickets. But that would make 5-7 much less likely. (The odd thing about all of this is that Arkansas and Mississippi State’s schedules would generally be easier without being in the meat grinder that is the current SEC West.)
For years, fans of the Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 schools assumed that the SEC would always stick to eight conference games to minimize the possibility of losses for PCP purposes. The group within the SEC that wants to move to nine conference games doesn’t care about any outside pressure to homogenize scheduling models across conferences. This is market driven. The current model — eight conference games in two seven-team divisions and a permanent crossover opponent — has made home schedules obsolete. This has resulted in lower season ticket sales at some schools and no-shows at places that still sell out all of their season tickets. (No-shows eventually turn into no-sales.) Texas A&M has been in the league for 10 seasons and played football at Georgia once. The Bulldogs still haven’t played an SEC game at Kyle Field.
Interestingly, the outdated calendar was the result of the SEC trying too hard to protect tradition. Keeping Alabama-Tennessee an annual game was the primary reason the two interdivisional adversaries did not rotate every year. Now the SEC has a chance to protect that tradition and create more variety.
If its headteachers can go out of their own way and make the obvious choice.
(Photo of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young rushing for a first down against Tennessee: Gary Cosby Jr./USA Today)