MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — The Southeastern Conference is the biggest and baddest bully on the college football block. That is long-established, indisputable fact. And the league’s member schools and fans will reinforce that truth at every chest-beating, “S-E-C!”-chanting opportunity.
So why are the SEC schools now afraid of internal competition? Why is it too hard, too unfair, to add a ninth league game? Why should the SEC remain at eight games when every other power conference is playing nine? Why can’t the conference give the people—and its TV network, ESPN—what they want, which is more SEC football?
Amazingly, we are still asking these questions and having this debate a year after it was supposed to have been resolved. At the 2022 SEC spring meetings, the league was widely expected to vote to increase its schedule from eight games to nine—then walked it back in the 11th hour, with the member schools split roughly in half on the subject. Twelve months later we’re back at the same Florida panhandle locale—waves rolling, sun shining, sugary beaches beckoning … and SEC leaders still dithering over what to do.
The current stumbling block is primarily related to ESPN’s apparent unwillingness to fork over more cash for more SEC league inventory. The Worldwide Leader is immersed in a well-publicized staffing purge, which makes this an inopportune time for even a special partner like the SEC to pass along its Venmo account and ask for a deposit.
The financial underpinning of this dilemma has been cloaked by obfuscation, since college athletics leaders are incapable of admitting any decision is about the money. Kentucky president Eli Capilouto gave this gem of an explanation to my colleague Ross Dellenger in a story that was published Monday:
“It is very fair to say that it is not just about the money. As we focus more on student-athlete well-being, one has to understand the implications of this in light of new [CFP] formats and length of the season. What does it all mean in a bigger context is what we should consider. What does it mean for bowl participation and length of season? All those things come first.”
Now student-athlete well-being and season length are a concern? When the expanded, 12-team playoff was being approved last year, meaning more games for more teams and more weeks of competition and practice, those concerns were somehow sublimated in favor of a geyser of new revenue. And are they really saying that replacing one non-conference game with a conference matchup is that much more deleterious to athlete well-being?
Beyond money, the two areas of concern for SEC schools that don’t want a ninth league game are playoff viability and becoming bowl-eligible after Texas and Oklahoma arrive in 2024, bloating membership to 16. Obviously, adding an extra league contest means that the SEC is going 8–8 that week, whereas scheduling the likes of Citadel, Youngstown State and Central Arkansas is usually a ticket to a 16–0 mark.
In the four-team College Football Playoff era, win-loss record has tended to outweigh strength of schedule. For a conference that will have designs on three or more bids in the 12-team era, there is an understandable desire for quality of competition to become the dominant metric with the CFP selection committee.
“If you drop two games to top teams, or maybe a third one, do you still get in?” Auburn coach Hugh Freeze asked.
As for bowl eligibility: If going 6–6 and earning the right to lose money going to the Gasparilla Bowl is that important, well, godspeed. That is the kind of participation trophy mindset that coaches otherwise love to decry.
The additional cost of an eight-game schedule in the post-divisional era is that it would lock teams into a single annual rival with seven rotating opponents. Given the plethora of rivals in the SEC, that would mean losing the yearly November spectacle of LSU-Alabama—because the Crimson Tide would be locked into Auburn as its primary rival. Tigers coach Brian Kelly was asked Tuesday whether he wants Bama every season. “Heck yeah,” he responds.
Texas’s arrival presents an opportunity for the annual resumption of the rivalry with Texas A&M—but not in an eight game format that has a single dedicated rival. For the Longhorns, that would be fellow 2024 newcomer Oklahoma, not the Aggies. “When Texas comes in, of course you want Texas,” says A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, before noting that his school has enjoyed the rivalry with LSU as well. “Listen, we’re not going to live our life worrying about Texas. We’re going to live our life worrying about A&M.”
The SEC leaders could vote to kick this dented can a little further down Highway 30A, staying with an eight-game format for another year (or two) to wait out ESPN’s financial situation and get a better read on what it takes to make the 12-team playoff come 2025. The better move would be to act like the alpha dog it is, step up its scheduling, play more big games and dare the rest of the sport to catch up.
Schedule nine league games. Keep more rivalry games intact. Keep the current precedent of playing at least one power-conference non-league game. That’s a minimum of 10 high-level opponents, leaving two guarantee games that bring in home revenue, almost always result in victories and allow more players to see action. That’s enough creampuffs (or even one too many).
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey isn’t publicly politicking for his preferred outcome in this quagmire, but he’s also not completely disguising what he thinks is the best strategy. “A league at the forefront of college athletics doesn’t stand still,” he told reporters here Monday. “This is a league at the forefront of college athletics. … I have allowed intentionally the conversation to play out without taking a position. I’ve made clear what I think should happen inside the room.”
What happens inside the meeting rooms here this week will be fascinating, and ultimately perhaps infuriating. If the SEC punts on definitive action and votes to temporarily stay at eight league games, the biggest bully on the college football block will be taking the easy way out instead of a clear path forward. The money—which we’re told isn’t the guiding force—will be there further down the path, even if it isn’t available immediately.