Will realignment prompt the SEC to switch to a 9-game conference schedule? Let's discuss
Mark Stoops took the podium at his 9th SEC Media Days. It was, however, the first time that the Kentucky coach had looked back on a season that included a 10-game conference schedule. The COVID pandemic forced the SEC into a conference-only slate, and for Stoops, going from 8 to 10 SEC games took its toll.
That’s why when he was asked about the idea of moving to a 9-game conference schedule, he gave a pretty direct answer.
“I wondered if people watched last year,” Stoops said last week in Hoover. “The league, there was quite a few people that struggled, if anybody took notice of that. So that’s how I feel.”
Stoops said that last week in Hoover. More specifically, that was last Tuesday. As in, that was a day before it was reported that Oklahoma and Texas reached out to the SEC about joining the conference.
A million things would be impacted by that move (only a slight exaggeration?). One of those lost-in-the-shuffle things would be the future of the conference schedule. Would a 9-game conference schedule be a possibility in the SEC moving forward?
That question is worth asking because the majority of the logical scheduling models include a 9-game conference slate.
Want to make 2 divisions? Fine. Eight-team divisions would mean 7 division games and 2 crossovers. If you think the SEC is going from 2 crossovers down to 1, you missed the part where Dan Mullen voiced his frustration about the annual crossover limiting the cross-division matchup frequency. Mullen isn’t alone. Technically, even keeping it at 2 crossover games per year with the annual rivalry would actually mean non-division SEC teams would go even longer without meeting if divisions went from 7 to 8.
What about the 4-team pod model? Look at the one laid out by SDS’ own Michael Bratton:
Here’s how the SEC should adjust after Texas and Oklahoma join the league:
🏈9-game conference schedule
🏈Play every team in your division annually, 2 other teams from remaining divisions; rotate those annually
🏈2 teams with best SEC records meet in Atlanta pic.twitter.com/a9ine7KrC9
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) July 25, 2021
You would create a format that would open things up while maintaining plenty of historical rivalries.
Who says no to that?
Er, well, I suppose Stoops and a few others would have a tough time with that. But then again, money talks.
A 9-game conference schedule would be a major selling point when the SEC negotiates that next TV deal, which will inevitably shatter all sorts of records if Texas and Oklahoma are part of it. Getting that extra game in there would make that TV deal that much more lucrative.
So can’t the SEC stick at 8 conference games and still rake in absurd TV money? It could. The league is a few months removed from announcing a new deal with ESPN/ABC worth $3 billion. That was under the premise that the league would still be at 8 conference games.
Here’s the thing, though. While the SEC was smart to hold on to the 8-game conference schedule through the 4-team Playoff era — unlike the Big Ten, which switched to the 9-game conference schedule and cried about it when the ACC and SEC didn’t — the 12-team Playoff will demand a different scheduling philosophy. It’s no longer a system that is only going to reward 1-loss or unbeaten teams. You can go 9-3 or maybe even 8-4 and still make the Playoff. It’s all about quality wins.
That explains why contenders like Alabama, Florida and Georgia have already loaded up on multiple Power 5 nonconference opponents beginning in 2025. That wouldn’t have made a ton of sense in the 4-team Playoff system. After all, it’s the SEC. The selection committee never held it against the conference that it only played 8 conference games and in most years, SEC contenders only played 9 regular-season games against Power 5 competition.
What does that mean? It means the SEC is willing to make its own conference schedule more grueling because there’s more margin for error than ever. And if you’re the SEC, you win the conference supremacy argument every year. That’s preseason, that’s midseason, that’s postseason. It’s yours, and there’s not a thing anybody else can do about it.
Sure, play the 9-game conference schedule. Which 8-4 or 9-3 teams will the selection committee give the benefit of the doubt to? The teams that survived the SEC’s gauntlet.
And sure, there are casualties. The Kentuckys and Mississippi States of the world who have historically struggled in SEC play — they have 1 winning season apiece in SEC play in the 21st century — will have a significantly tougher path to 7 or 8 wins. That could be the new benchmark for making a bowl game if the new 12-team Playoff forces a reduction in postseason games.
With all due respect to those programs, they won’t make or break a decision of this magnitude. It’ll be Playoff-driven, just as it has always been.
At this point, it would be a surprise if the SEC expanded and stayed at 8 conference games. That is, unless Dabo Swinney gets his wish and the schedule is reduced to 11 regular-season games, which seems like a long shot given the capitalist nature of the current changes. The path of least resistance would actually be the 9-game conference schedule. Staying at 8 could include some weird scenario in which the 4-team pod format included 3 intra-pod (?) games, 2 games in another pod, 2 in another and then 1 in another.
That, however, seems unnecessary, especially with all those aforementioned factors for the 12-team Playoff. If the thinking is already to load up on Power 5 foes, getting to 9 in conference play carries a different significance.
The SEC’s interest in Oklahoma and Texas suggests that it isn’t worried about cannibalizing its Playoff chances. It suggests that the competition can get cranked up to another level, and if there’s anyone who will embrace it, it’s the SEC.
When Greg Sankey addressed the masses at the start of SEC Media Days last week, he tapped into his inner-Bob Dylan when he said “the times they are a-changin’.” Little did anyone in that room know just how accurate those words would prove to be.
Expansion would yield a whole different era for the SEC. And if playing an extra conference game comes with it, well, nobody should be surprised.