The SEC holds its spring meetings early next month, and the hope is to come out of those sessions with a makeover of the league’s football scheduling model, timed for the expected arrival of Oklahoma and Texas in 2025.
That could mean a nine-game conference schedule. It could also mean the elimination of divisions. And it would mean a concerted effort to make sure teams in the new 16-team superconference are not strangers to each other.
That was a goal even before expansion, and why eliminating divisions was already on the table. But now it’s an emphasis, with a goal of every school visiting each of the other 15 schools at least once every four years.
“I look at it as an opportunity, and have from the beginning of the conversation last August,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said this week on what impact adding Oklahoma and Texas would have on scheduling. “Let’s look at everything. So I had two anchor points. One, let’s engage in blue-sky thinking. And what is meant to be conveyed by that is kind of, (let’s) detach from reality for a bit and look at all of the possibilities. And the second is how do we rotate teams through our (league’s) campuses more frequently?”
In the current format — an eight-game SEC schedule and two divisions — there are too many examples of cross-division matchups happening rarely: Georgia and Texas A&M have only played once since the Aggies joined the league, and Georgia has yet to visit College Station.
“So this once-every-12-year approach, we would have turned the page on that whether we expanded or not,” Sankey said. “What probably is not understood as we were in the beginning of a scheduling review in 2019. We actually we’re bringing a report to our presidents in March of 2020… we were bringing in analysis to that meeting to think about what a future 14 -team schedule looks like. And then, you know, the pandemic was so full-time plus, just trying to sustain competition, that we had just put that aside. And then we came back to 16. So this is almost a natural conversation. The impact of new rivalries on existing rivalries, those things are real. What I’m really encouraged about is the opportunity in different models to see everybody with some level of frequency. And we’ll move towards a decision-making point sooner rather than later.”
A nine-game conference schedule is much more likely than it was pre-expansion. The SEC for years resisted expanding beyond eight conference games, instead encouraging teams to schedule marquee nonconference matchups. But with Texas and Oklahoma joining the league, it makes more sense to go to nine games, especially since those two schools already had series scheduled with SEC teams. (Georgia and Alabama had series planned with both and Tennessee with Oklahoma.)
Two of the league’s most prominent coaches — Nick Saban and Kirby Smart — have long called for a nine-game SEC schedule, but other programs have resisted with hesitancy about what effect nine conference games would have on their ability to reach bowl eligibility. Currently, a team must win six games (including no more than one against an FCS opponent) to be bowl eligible, although there have been exceptions made. But the time may have finally come to expand from eight to nine games with the addition of the Sooners and Longhorns.
The SEC has not settled on doing away with divisions, but it still seems the most likely scenario. When Texas and Oklahoma join, something would have to give, with the most discussed option being putting those two schools in the West, moving Alabama and Auburn to the East, then shifting Missouri to the West, the more geographical fit anyway.
But that would not solve the main problem in scheduling, which is schools seeing each other enough.
They’ve discussed a scenario where they do four divisions of four each, but one source didn’t think that had enough traction. The attraction there would be that lack of stigma for finishing 16th in a 16-team league, but their basketball counterparts could tell them they’ve been dealing with that since 2012.
Pods have also long been discussed, which essentially would be unofficial divisions of four each for scheduling purposes, but the standings would be determined 1-through-16.
“We still have some time based on a July 1, 2025 entry date, but it’s really been a healthy opportunity to look at how do we keep things fresh and new by moving teams through? Whether it’s divisions, single division, we’ll keep pods alive for conversation purposes today, but it’s really been an interesting conversation,” Sankey said.
That leaves a “3-6” scheduling arrangement, where each school has three permanent opponents, then rotates the other six. It could also become “4-5”, with one source not believing it would go beyond four permanent opponents. How many permanent opponents, three or four, evidently remains a big part of the discussion. Multiple sources told The Athletic that multiple options are on the table. Regardless of what option emerges, the SEC Championship Game isn’t going to go away with broadcast partners seeing such value from a game that annually yields high ratings, including 17.9 million viewers for last year’s game between Alabama and Georgia, the highest-rated non -bowl game of the 2021 season.
The goal is to come out of SEC meetings next month with a plan. That’s not a hard deadline, but at some point, schools need to know what the plan will be as they schedule for 2025 and beyond: Do they definitely only have three nonconference games? Will there be divisions or not? And everything else that is impacted by major scheduling changes. There are logistics that need to be ironed out between now and the start of the 2025 season.
Part of the scheduling debate will certainly be how it affects entry to the College Football Playoff. The SEC is the only conference to have at least one team in each CFP, which began in 2014. Twice, in 2017 and 2021, the conference had both participants in the national championship game. With no agreement on CFP expansion, Sankey is content to remain at four teams.
“I’ll say it clearly today: We can stay at four,” Sankey said. “This conference will thrive at four. Period.”
However, if the conference goes to nine league games and with adding two blueblood programs, accounting for a rise in degree of difficulty also means protecting the SEC in CFP expansion talks. The number of automatic qualifiers against at-large bids will be major sticking point for the conference.
Regardless, change appears on the horizon for SEC teams and their scheduling, and fans who’ve been clamoring for better schedules are primed to be the big winners.
(Top pic: Lance King/Getty Images)