MIRAMAR BEACH – The SEC’s schedule debate is over—at least for now.
At their annual spring meetings within the Hilton Sandestin, league administrators agreed to continue playing eight conference games when Texas and Oklahoma arrive in 2024, eschewing a nine-game format in a move that is likely to draw criticism from the rest of the college football world.
In a debate that has raged for more than a year, officials finally agreed to a compromise. They will remain at eight games in what many refer to as a temporary or short-term model with a pathway to an eventual move to a nine-game format, something that SI reported earlier this week. Commissioner Greg Sankey announced the news Thursday, the third day of the four-day meetings.
A majority vote of the 14 league schools was needed to change the scheduling model from eight games. Only five programs publicly expressed their support for a nine-game format: LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida and Missouri. Texas and Oklahoma do not get a vote because they do not become full voting members until July of 2024.
The 2024 schedules were not released, though the league is expected to preserve primary and secondary rivalries. For instance, Alabama’s primary is Auburn and its secondary is Tennessee. Georgia’s primary is Florida and its secondary is Auburn. New member Texas has a primary in Oklahoma and a secondary in Texas A&M. Mississippi State and Ole Miss play one another in the Egg Bowl each season, and Arkansas and Missouri have an annual rivalry clash as well.
However, if the eight-game model continues beyond one year, secondary rivalries could be lost. In the format, each team would play one permanent opponent and rotate seven new teams every other year. This allows the league to play every other team—home and away—in a four-year span. But it also would turn annual secondary rivalries into bi-annual matchups.
A nine-game schedule—with three permanents and six rotational—is more conducive to retaining those games.
Yet, the league passed on nine, electing instead to go to a placeholder type format.
At least nine member schools supported remaining at eight games for a variety of reasons, most notably that ESPN is, for now, not providing any additional revenue. Other concerns include 1) the uncertainty on the selection process in an expanded CFP and 2) future scheduling problems. Some programs have scheduled Power 5 nonconference games out for a decade. Some even have two Power 5 opponents in a single season expecting to continue playing eight league games. Moving to a ninth league game would give programs 11 Power 5 games in a season, and many athletic directors would prefer to then cancel one of those. In some cases, breaking nonconference game contracts is a seven-figure cost.
The future scheduling discussion has lingered over the conference as a somewhat divisive issue, mostly splitting the league along revenue-generating lines. However, there are bigger budget schools that, for now, support eight, such as Alabama and Auburn.
In an interview with SI in March, Alabama coach Nick Saban threw his weight behind an eight-game schedule that, he says, will create more balance. He did this while expressing his dissatisfaction for the three permanent opponents that the Tide would play annually (Auburn, Tennessee and LSU).
“I think [the SEC] has a better chance to get the parity right doing the eight games,” Saban told SI. “I’m talking about the balance of who has who.”
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said Wednesday that he does not have enough information to vote on a long-term scheduling format—the most obvious clue yet that officials were working toward a short-term deal.
Some refer to this plan as a “temporary” solution until concerns over the CFP, additional TV revenue and future nonconference scheduling subside.
On the ESPN front, now is not the time for the network to announce that it’s giving the SEC millions more dollars to play an extra ninth game. The SEC’s sole broadcasting partner starting in 2024, ESPN is in the midst of several rounds of layoffs and has been public about its plan to be more selective in the future with spending.
The network is also involved or is soon to be involved in bidding for several other deals involving an expanded CFP, the NBA, the WWE and UFC. A short-term plan provides more time for the network to sift through its current predicament and avoid the public look of tossing around cash bags while cutting employees.
Questions linger about the selection process with the 12-team CFP. A move to nine games would result in eight more losses to conference members. That could mean the difference in a team making a bowl game and not. More importantly, it could mean the difference in a team advancing to the expanded CFP.
“My biggest question I would have is, how does the playoff look at it?” asks Auburn coach Hugh Freeze. “If you’re an SEC team and you’re really of quality and won a lot of good games but you drop two to top teams, or a third one, do you still get in? All of those are unknown.”
The SEC may be one of the few Power 5 leagues sticking with an eight-game format. Sankey is unmoved by such a prospect. He doesn’t care if the league faces criticism.
“I’m pretty sure the last game of the season was 65–7,” Sankey said on the Paul Finebaum Show of Georgia’s win over TCU in January’s title game. “If the indictment is that we don’t play the highest level of football, then someone isn’t watching the games.”
Sankey has not publicly expressed his support for either model, but he has suggested that the league continue to improve its value. “A league at the forefront of college athletics doesn't stand still. This is a league at the forefront of college athletics,” he said Monday in a gathering with reporters.
Sankey has multiple times inferred that extra cash from ESPN is not and will not be the driving reason behind a decision on the scheduling. “[If] all you do is chase money, you make really bad decisions and I'm watching that in college sports right now,” he said. “We won't do that here."
That said, his membership sometimes sings a different tune. Many school officials in the eight-game camp ask a legitimate question: Why would we give extra content without extra revenue?
In the end, they did not.