8 or 9 conference games? SEC heads to spring meetings still debating scheduling formats

Southeastern Conference leaders have been debating what to do with their football schedule for more than a year.

Play eight conference games each season including one opponent or go to nine league games with three?

Whether ESPN is willing to pay to broadcast more SEC games will factor into the decision, though it’s unclear by how much. As SEC officials head to the Florida Panhandle for spring meetings next week, there is still no deadline to make a call on a format that will take effect next year.

“We have to make a decision, and if we don’t make a decision, is it over, are we done with it? No,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in an interview. “But at some point we have to land the proverbial plane. I think we’re ready to do that.”

Among the other items on the agenda for the Destin, Florida, meetings: gambling, on the heels of Alabama firing its baseball coach amid an investigation into suspicious gambling at a Crimson Tide game; how to best prevent, or at least discourage, raids on the field and court by fans after games; and, of course, compensation for the name, image and likeness of the athletes.

The football calendar is the headliner.

The SEC currently plays an eight-game conference schedule with 14 members in two divisions. Each team has an annual cross-division rival. In 2024 Texas and Oklahoma arrive to make the SEC a 16-team conference, and there will be no more divisions.

Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida, schools that hope to perennially compete for playoff spots and compete for national championships, prefer nine league games each season.

“We want nine for sure at A&M,” Aggies athletic director Ross Bjork said. “We expanded for a reason. And people want more SEC content, right? Clearly there’s a demand, especially for football.”

For some schools with more modest goals, where national titles are aspirational but not expected, playing an extra game within the nation’s toughest soccer conference isn’t ideal.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart has publicly endorsed eight. Auburn AD John Cohen noted his support for eight while at Mississippi State; it is not clear if changing jobs has changed his mind.

There are concerns in the conference about playing five away league games every other season instead of the current four per year. Home games are worth millions in revenue.

ESPN could possibly help make up for that. The SEC’s latest media rights deal with ESPN/ABC begins in 2024 and makes the network the exclusive home of the conference. Replace non-conference games with SEC vs. SEC should provide more value to the network.

Sankey said the decision doesn’t come down to how much the network could spend to make it worthwhile for SEC schools to play each other more: “That’s oversimplifying the matter.”

One of Sankey’s bosses had a slightly different message this week.

“I may be saying more than Commissioner Sankey would want me to say, but obviously if you go to a nine-game schedule, you have to be compensated for going to a nine-game schedule,” Georgia president Jere Morehead said. to The Athletic. week. “There are still some dynamics that need to be played out with our media partners.”

The SEC is more clear on the schedule than it was a year ago, when it operated on the assumption that Texas and Oklahoma would join in 2025. Officials from Texas and Oklahoma will attend next week’s meetings, but still don’t have voting privileges. . .

The expansion of the college football playoffs was also in the air a year ago. That’s already settled: the CFP will expand from four to 12 teams in 2024.

Picking annual opponents won’t be an easy discussion with a nine-team format, either.

“I’ve always been a proponent of playing more (conference) games,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “But if you play more games, I think you have to fix all three (opponents), right? They’re giving us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don’t know how they got there.”

There is no guarantee that a vote on a new time model will take place in Destin, Sankey said. A majority vote is all it takes to decide on a model, but ideally the SEC would like to get everyone on board with the final decision.

Sankey recalled that former Tennessee AD Doug Dickey once told Sankey’s predecessor, the late Mike Slive, that in the SEC, even close votes had to be unanimous after they left the room.

“People will express their perspective, share their points of difference and then we will vote and life will move on and we will schedule football games and play them,” Sankey said.