'They ain't played no one, Pawl!' Why that'll be a dated take for the anti-SEC crowd in the 2020s
If you’re in the anti-SEC crowd, I hate to break it you, but the 2020s might not be your decade.
I know. That’s a bummer.
The problem for the “they ain’t played no one, Paaaaaaaawl!” crowd, is that, well, the SEC contenders are indeed playing someone in nonconference play. And don’t call me “Pawl.”
I’ll be honest, it took Alabama setting up a home-and-home with Arizona for that reality to sink in. That matchup, ironically enough, is not in the 2020s. Mark your calendars for 2032 and 2033, Alabama fans. We all know 81-year old Nick Saban will have the Crimson Tide fired up for that cross-country trip to Tucson.
That speaks to a trend that’ll be obvious in the 2020s. That is, the SEC contenders are loading up their nonconference schedules, and not just with neutral-site matchups. In fact, there are hardly any of those. Home-and-homes outside the region are going to be the new norm. In a few short years, it’ll be nothing but quality home-and-homes for SEC contenders in nonconference play.
Good. It was a legitimate gripe that others had about the SEC, which only has 8 conference games and has often been criticized for staying within an arms reach in nonconference play.
Why? It’s not hard to understand.
Georgia playing Notre Dame in South Bend in 2017 marked the Dawgs’ first trip north of the Mason-Dixon Line for a nonconference game since 1965 (excluding the Colorado game in 2010). Florida hasn’t left the state for a true nonconference road game since 1991. Eight of the 10 seasons in the 2010s, LSU played in a neutral-site nonconference game. During the 2010s, Alabama only played Power 5 teams neutral-site games in nonconference play after finishing up its home-and-home with Penn State in 2011 (and the Crimson Tide canceled a home-and-home with Michigan State).
See what I’m saying? Even though Texas A&M and Auburn both recently had a home-and-home with Clemson while LSU is in the midst of its home-and-home with Texas, there’s still enough evidence to show that the SEC contenders’ nonconference schedules in the 2010s didn’t exactly scream “we’re getting out of our comfort zone.”
In the 2020s, they absolutely will. Here are the nonconference matchups for the SEC’s top 4 contenders (right now) that are either against a Power 5 team or a true road game:
- Alabama — vs. USC (in Dallas)
- Florida — at Florida State
- Georgia — vs. Virginia (in Atlanta), vs. Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. Texas
- Alabama — vs. Miami (in Atlanta)
- Florida — at USF, vs. FSU
- Georgia — vs. Clemson (in Charlotte), at Georgia Tech
- LSU — at UCLA
- Alabama — at Texas
- Florida — vs. Utah, at FSU
- Georgia —vs. Oregon (in Atlanta), vs. Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. FSU (in New Orleans)
- Alabama — vs. Texas, at USF
- Florida — at Utah, vs. FSU
- Georgia — at Oklahoma, at Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. FSU (in Orlando)
Wait a minute. Didn’t I say that neutral-site games were in the past? Yes. Starting now for the rest of the decade, they are for the SEC contenders. And hey, look at the positive. In 2023, 3 of those 4 contenders are playing 2 nonconference games that are either against Power 5 competition or on the road.
- Alabama — at Wisconsin
- Florida — vs. Miami, at FSU
- Georgia — vs. Clemson (in Atlanta), vs. Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. UCLA
Just kidding. That’s the last one. I swear.
- Alabama — at Florida State, vs. Wisconsin
- Florida — at Miami, vs. FSU
- Georgia — at UCLA, at Georgia Tech
- LSU — at Clemson
- Alabama — at West Virginia, vs. FSU
- Florida — vs. California, at FSU
- Georgia — vs. UCLA, vs. Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. Clemson
- Alabama — vs. West Virginia
- Florida — at California, vs. FSU
- Georgia — at FSU, at Georgia Tech
- LSU — at Oklahoma
- Alabama — at Notre Dame
- Florida — vs. Colorado, at Arizona State, at FSU
- Georgia — at Texas, vs. FSU, vs. Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. Oklahoma
- Alabama — vs. Notre Dame
- Florida — at Colorado, vs. FSU
- Georgia — vs. Texas, at FSU, at Georgia Tech
- LSU — vs. ASU
(By the way, if you don’t check out FBSchedules.com on a regular basis, you should. Maybe not as much as I do, but you definitely should get on that.)
Some quick stats on that.
There are a total of 65 nonconference matchups listed there that fall under the “vs. a Power 5 team or a true road game” criteria. Only 7 of those 65 games will be played at a neutral site, with the last one coming in 2024. From 2025-29, there are 20 nonconference schedules we’re looking at (4 teams and 5 years means that 4 x 5 = 20). Of those 20 instances, 12 of them (60%) will feature an SEC team playing multiple nonconference games that are part of home-and-homes. The 8 instances with only 1 Power 5 nonconference game feature home-and-homes with Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona State.
Actually, there are 3 instances in that 2025-29 stretch (2 from Georgia and 1 from Florida) in which an SEC contender will play 3 nonconference games (!) that are part of home-and-homes. That means those teams will face as many as 11 Power 5 teams in the regular season, which is a stunning number in the SEC.
So why is this going to become the norm?
The expectation is that the Playoff will expand once the current 4-team contract concludes at the end of the 2025 season. Expansion suggests that an 8-team field would allow for what’ll be considered “at-large bids.” In other words, there’s more room for error. Teams with 2 losses figure to have a much clearer path to make the field. That is, as long as they don’t have a weak nonconference schedule.
That’s why those SEC contenders already loaded up their schedules from 2025-29.
In case you were wondering, Auburn has a home-and-home scheduled every year from 2021-28 while A&M is set to continue that trend, which the Aggies started doing in 2016, through 2029.
Tennessee is really the only SEC contender who hasn’t fully loaded up the future schedule, though the Vols do have home-and-homes outside of the SEC footprint with Oklahoma, Nebraska and Pitt in the 2020s. That makes sense considering Tennessee didn’t take any sort of Playoff hopes into November since this postseason system began in 2014. Perhaps an improved 2020 season would prompt Phillip Fulmer to make some more nonconference matchup calls a la Scott Stricklin after Florida’s 2018 resurgence under Dan Mullen.
Hopefully, the promise of expansion would motivate everyone to want to take this approach. Imagine having more games like Notre Dame-Georgia or Texas-LSU. As fun as the neutral-site game trend was at first, there’s nothing that can get the juices flowing in September like a massive nonconference showdown on a college campus.
Besides, it’s hard to pick apart the contenders who schedule home-and-homes. Even when Alabama faced quality foes in neutral-site matchups during the 2010s, it still was subject to criticism.
Was some of that a product of the Crimson Tide dominating those neutral-site games on an annual basis? Absolutely. But was some of it rooted in the fact that Alabama didn’t play in true road games when it didn’t have to? For sure. Soon, though, that’ll no longer be the case.
And soon, the anti-SEC crowd will be out of material, Pawl.