Under the current timetable, the SEC still has three more football seasons to play until Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in 2025.
But figuring out how the league’s schedule will change upon their arrival from the Big 12 is one of the main topics of this week’s SEC meetings, with commissioner Greg Sankey not ruling out a vote by the time school representatives leave Destin, Florida on Friday.
“We could wait until, like, December of ’24,” Sankey said. “Nobody is looking for that.”
The SEC studied a few dozen scheduling concepts but has narrowed the two main options, as The Athletic and Sports Illustrated reported last month, to an eight-game schedule with one permanent opponent and a nine-game schedule with three permanent opponents.
For Alabama, what hangs in the balance is the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry game with Tennessee, which has been played 104 times and held every year since 1944. An eight-game schedule with one permanent opponent would almost certainly pair Alabama with Auburn , relegating the Vols to the pool of 14 teams that Alabama would play every other year as part of its seven rotating opponents.
That would mean Alabama fans would only have a chance to smoke victory cigars in Bryant-Denny Stadium against Tennessee once every four years, with the Tide making the trip to Neyland Stadium once in the same time frame. Under the current scheduling model, Tennessee is Alabama’s permanent cross-division opponent alongside its six-year SEC West opponents and rotating SEC East opponent.
But the current model has meant long gaps between trips to venues in the opposite division. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin noted Wednesday how Alabama’s game in Gainesville last September was its first in 10 years, and how a point of emphasis in both new scheduling models would be cycling each team through each SEC venue at least once every four years.
“How do we move teams collectively through campuses on a more frequent basis is on our minds as well,” Sankey said.
A nine-game model with three permanent opponents would almost certainly preserve Alabama’s annual game against Tennessee. Along with Auburn, logical options for a third permanent opponent would be Mississippi State or LSU.
As for how permanent opponents would be decided, Sankey responded Thursday with simply, “We’ll see.”
Competitive balance is likely part of the discussion in deciding those opponents, and playing a nine-game schedule would also raise the issue of uneven home and road games. Half of the conference’s 16 teams – once Texas and Oklahoma join – would play four home games one season and five home games the next. Sankey noted those “oddities” in saying in 2020 of a nine-game schedule at the time, “I don’t know that that’s really ever really been a great focus.” But that no longer seems to be a stumbling block, and at the professional level, the NFL last year moved to a 17-game schedule that features an uneven number of home and road games.
No matter which format is adopted, the expectation is divisions would be eliminated. The idea of having four-team “pods” also has not gained traction.
“We’ve been in divisions now for 30 years,” Sankey said. “Just walking away from divisions – it takes some time to get comfortable with that.”
Saban has long advocated for playing more conference games and, as he said Tuesday, “trying to eliminate some of these games that you play that fans, players, supporters are not really interested in.” However, the SEC could scrap its requirement for schools to play a non-conference, Power 5 opponent if it moves to a nine-game conference schedule, so three games against non-Power 5 teams could still complete a 12-game slate.
Jimbo Fisher, the chairperson of this week’s coaches meetings, believed Texas A&M would still play its non-conference Power 5 opponent under a nine-game model. But he also advocated Tuesday for SEC schools to continue playing lower levels of competition, including an FCS opponent.
“I think you have to trickle the wealth down to those schools so they can make a budget and I-AA can play a Division II, because if you don’t – and those schools have to fold up because they can’t get the money for their programs, where do the high school kids get scholarships? ” he said. “We have to let that wealth drain all the way through football, Division II, III, I-AA, the non-Power 5s, whatever. I think you have to do that for the betterment of this game. ”
Although they declined to offer direct opinions on which schedule model they would prefer, Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz and South Carolina’s Shame Beamer both gave some hints that maintaining an eight-game system would help those programs from being bruised too badly by superior SEC competition.
“I don’t know if there’s a school in the country that has a tougher schedule year-in and year-out than what we face already at South Carolina,” Beamer said. “The fact that we play in the [SEC] East with Georgia. Our crossover team is Texas A&M right now. And then our in-state rival is Clemson. So right away, you look at our schedule in 2022. You guys are the experts – the preseason rankings that you guys put out, I would imagine three of those teams are going to be in the top six teams in the country, and that’s been pretty consistent for a while. ”
Added Drinkwitz: “Obviously this is the most difficult conference in college football, and so adding another game to that is obviously a challenge, especially when you’re at the University of Missouri.”
Even at the top of the conference’s standings, support for a nine-game schedule might not be universal.
“There’s nothing wrong with a nine-game schedule, but that may not be the best thing for the conference right now,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I think it’s a lot more about who you play in those other games than necessarily a nine-game schedule. We’ve been very aggressive in terms of scheduling and trying to schedule opponents out in the future that make great match-ups, because I want the University of Georgia to play in big games. So whether that’s an extra SEC game or another Power 5 opponent that attracts our fan base and excites our fan base, then so be it. I don’t have a stance in terms of this is what’s best or what’s best, because it changes as our conference changes. “
One variable that seems to be affecting the schedule debates this week has been the potential expansion of the College Football Playoff, or as ESPN reported last month, the SEC staging its own multi-week playoff in December.
“Things are a little bit more difficult to answer because you have such an unforeseen future on a number of these things,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said.
Sankey acknowledged the challenges surrounding the uncertain future of the CFP format, but added, “We’re going to know more information, but at some point you’re going to have to make a judgment decision.”
Oklahoma and Texas have provided input to the SEC on the models but are not voting members and not present at this week’s meetings. Sankey will present an update on schedule talks to the 14 current school presidents late this week and did not entirely close the door on a vote.
The SEC’s goal when it began schedule analysis in August was to have a decision made by this week’s meetings, but an immediate resolution seems unlikely at this point.
“Got more work to do in some of those areas,” Sankey said. “Where we can complete decision-making, we will to the extent that the time is right where we need some more information and some more time to think through possibilities, we’re going to use that time because we get to set our timeline on this.
“Every time we’ve visited, the desire for maybe a few more answers, a few more points of perspective, a little bit more of information.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.