SEC scheduling: Why 9-game model best suits conference’s future

SEC scheduling: Why 9-game model best suits conference’s future

The SEC schedule is going to change soon. 

The conference will conduct its spring meetings this week in Destin, Fla., and the future of conference scheduling could be decided. Sports Illustrated reported the league appears split on the issue of adding a game to the conference schedule. 

Will eight be enough in the future? Or is nine the new life for the SEC when Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in 2025?

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The nine-game model is the best answer. Here are nine reasons why it makes sense for the SEC to move to that model:

The 10-game season worked fine

The SEC had a 10-game conference-only schedule in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s hard to argue with the results. Alabama won the national championship. Texas A&M nearly made the College Football Playoff with a 9-1 record. The SEC championship game was a 52-46 thriller between the Crimson Tide and Florida.

Seven teams finished with a record of .500 or better and the conference finished 7-2 in bowl play. That was with more than nine conference games. 

Divisions are no longer necessary 

SI reported that “most (SEC) officials feel divisions are likely gone.” That’s also going to be an implementation that makes sense when the Longhorns and Sooners arrive. 

Why? Let’s walk through just one scenario. Texas and Oklahoma likely would want to be in the same division. Texas A&M might not want to be in the same division as Texas. Do you put Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC East? If so, then who do you move? 

Eliminating divisions eliminates all that hypothetical nonsense. 

Look at the last eight years. Alabama has won the SEC six times, and LSU and Georgia have won champoionship apiece. The division setup isn’t a malfunction, but it’s better to guarantee that the top two teams get in the champioship game. That could prove more difficult with two eight-team divisions, especially with the SEC West being the stronger division right now.

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The 3-6 model makes sense

If the conference stays at eight conference games, then the preferred scheduling notion is one protected game and seven games that rotate every other year. The problem with this is several SEC teams have more than one rival. 

Which Alabama rivalry do you take off the schedule? Tennessee? LSU? For the Crimson Tide, it makes sense to play Auburn, Tennessee and LSU every season. Then, within the 3-6 model, where you have three permanent opponents and six rotating, they play every non-rival home and away every other year. Georgia has played in Tuscaloosa three times in the 21st century. You get that matchup guaranteed once every four years. 

It’s not just about the big boys either. Florida and Auburn have played each other one time since the College Football Playoff era started. It brings back some of those classic rivalries and it puts Texas and Oklahoma in every stadium every other year.

It’s better than the 1-7 model. 

Protect rivalries with ACC

The ACC is inching closer to the same model, and that would keep these two Power 5 conferences on the same page and make it easier to keep those cross-conference rivalries that exist between the two conferences. 

Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Kentucky-Louisville and South Carolina-Clemson are four traditional rivalries that should be protected, and if both conferences are playing the same number of conference games that makes sense. 

The SEC team is 9-3 in those four rivalry games since 2018. USC plays nine conference games in the Pac-12 and still plays Notre Dame every year. These schools can do the same thing. 

A chance to eliminate FCS opponents 

Every SEC school played one FCS opponent last season. The combined score of those games was 577-184; an average score of 48-15. Vanderbilt lost 23-3 to East Tennessee State, and Kentucky narrowly beat Chattanooga 28-23. Unless you were glued to that 70-52 shootout between Florida and Samford, there is not much value for these games from a competition standpoint. 

With the onset of NIL and what is sure to be a continued separation between the Power 5, Group of 5 and FCS, it’s time for the SEC to ditch this practice. Replacing a “paycheck game” with an additional SEC game would get a thumbs-up from 99 percent of fans. 

Unless, of course, Alabama really does want to schedule Jackson State and Deion Sanders. We would watch that at least once. 

Force everyone to get better 

SI points to the split in the potential voting for the eight-game and nine-game models by the belief that there is top-half and bottom-half in the hierarchy of the conference: “the top half of Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida and the bottom would be Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri.” 

That checks out when you look at the records of each team in the CFP era.

Win-loss records since 2014

1 Alabama 104 10
2 Oklahoma 86 19
3 Georgia 86 21
4 LSU 70 31
5 Texas A&M 65 35
6 Florida 65 36
7 Auburn 62 41
8 Mississippi State 59 43
9 Kentucky 57 43
10 Ole Miss 54 43
11 Texas 53 46
12(t) Tennessee 52 47
12(t) Missouri 52 47
14 South Carolina 54 45
15 Arkansas 42 56
16 Vanderbilt 29 66

By record, Mississippi State would be in that top half and Texas would be in the bottom half. Eight conference games would theoretically give that bottom half an “easy” game on the non-conference schedule to have a winning record. A total of 11 SEC schools have a winning record since 2014; the most of any Power 5 conference.

Is 6-6 really the standard at Tennessee and Ole Miss? It’s on those programs to keep up in the new-look conference. South Carolina and Arkansas, two of the losing schools since 2014, have re-energized their programs with new coaches Shane Beamer and Sam Pittman. 

Three league wins (instead of two) becomes the minimum to make a bowl. Is there something wrong with that?

Future tweaks on the table

Here is the other wrinkle SEC commissioner Greg Sankey could explore with that schedule. Make it subject to review/changes every eight years. 

Perhaps some of the protected games could be changed. You could balance the six-opponent rotation based on strength of record within that eight-year period. It’s not a soccer-like relegation system, but it would account for programs that over-achieved in those eight-year periods like Kentucky and Mississippi State and those that have under-achieved like Tennessee and Texas. 

It also could allow for old rivalries to bloom and new rivalries to re-emerge. Remember, LSU-Alabama wasn’t the national rivalry it is now before Saban.

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Prepare for CFP expansion

There is no question the SEC has dominated the BCS and College Football Playoff eras. The conference went 9-2 in BCS championship games. Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn and Tennessee all won national titles. That has continued in the CFP era. Alabama, LSU and Georgia are a combined 5-4 in the CFP championship game, and two of those matchups were head-to-head games between the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs.

That’s 14 national championships since 1998, and if the CFP does expand, the SEC will carry even more weight if the conference adds an extra game. It doesn’t matter if it’s 12 or 16 teams. The SEC will be in the best position to grab at-large bids even if a few teams have that extra loss on their schedule. You can always chalk that up to conference play. 

If all the other Power 5 conferences adopt a nine-game schedule, then the SEC doesn’t want to be the only one hurting its at-large opportunities. 

Flex like the NFL 

In 2025, the SEC will be the only major conference with 16 teams. What are the other two major conferences with 16 teams? The AFC and NFC. 

The SEC is going to be its own NFL Lite, and that’s why there are hypothetical discussions about the conference doing its own four-team playoff. That doesn’t need to happen. 

A nine-game schedule with similar rotation to the NFL schedule, which rotates divisional and conference opponents each year and uses metrics based on the previous year’s standings, added a 17th game in 2021. It made the playoff races more exciting, and it put NFC teams in AFC venues more often. That’s what the nine-game plan will do for the SEC, which has the opportunity to lead the way into CFP expansion, which could come a year after the Longhorns and Sooners join the ride. 

It’s thinking about the future, which is not so far away.