The SEC has a tall task for scheduling after being nearly last with its plan

To hear Scott Stricklin tell it, the SEC was not caught flatfooted by the ACC’s 10+1 scheduling arrangement. In his press conference yesterday evening, he revealed that the conference was leaning towards its ten-conference-games-only plan prior to the ACC’s announcement.

The reasons were, well, reasonable. The conference wanted to push the start of the season back to late September. It still wanted the championship game in December. It also wanted an off week during the season so teams don’t have to play ten games in ten weeks, provided playing all ten games is possible.

There are only so many Saturdays between the end of September and middle of December, so non-conference games had to go. Stricklin was pretty matter-of-fact on that regard. He didn’t say it, but it probably didn’t help the cause of squeezing in the Florida-FSU game somewhere that only four conference teams have ongoing non-conference rivalries and compared to ten who do not.

It’s not entirely surprising that the SEC was later than most of its power conference peers in making its scheduling decision known. Only the famously dysfunctional Big 12 has yet to make a scheduling plan known.

The SEC was once on the forefront of major changes. It was the first conference to expand to 12 members to stage a football championship game, and joined in on the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance postseason structures in the ’90s without the laggard Big Ten and Pac-10. The same commissioner who expanded to 12, Roy Kramer, was the father of the BCS. Mike Slive was pushing for a playoff structure years before the CFP as we know it came to be.

The conference has changed in stature, though. It’s easy to push forward when you’re a scrappy underdog. The SEC wasn’t exactly as such back in the ’90s and early 2000s, but the national championship streak from 2006-12 really put the conference at the top of the college football. It remains there now.

Once you’ve gotten to the top, there’s a tendency to move slower. There’s only one place to go, right?

The SEC was not the first major conference to make a TV network; the Big Ten was. When the SEC did go for a network, it elected to go with a lower-risk deal in which ESPN owns the entire thing lock, stock, and barrel. The Big Ten owns half of the BTN, and the Pac-12 owns all equity in its networks. The SEC also was a follower in the conference realignment saga of a decade ago, even if it was the first power conference to go to more than 12 members. It probably had to expand in order to reopen its TV deals and get its belated network.

The SEC was the only league to expand solely at the expense of its P5 brethren. The Pac-12 and Big 12 each added a Mountain West team (TCU had announced a move to the Big East first, but it was still in the MW when it went to the Big 12), and the Big Ten and ACC each added a team from the non-power-level wreckage of the Big East that became the American Athletic Conference. The SEC flexed its muscles in that way, but it was not close to really leading the way.

And so now we have the SEC waiting almost to last to make up its mind on how to adjust things in light of COVID-19. I absolutely believed Stricklin when he said the SEC was closing in on its plan when the ACC announced; I had expected it, frankly. The conference moves slowly these days, so of course it was working on something already.

It’s notable in a sense that the SEC didn’t follow the ACC’s lead in allowing for a non-conference game, but it’s also mainly following what the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced about three weeks prior. I don’t begrudge the delay, as the information environment changes frequently. Waiting so as to make better decisions is prudent.

I do note the SEC footprint was in far worse shape virus-wise than the Big Ten and Pac-12 footprints were, with California a big exception, when those leagues made their calls. And choosing who was being aggressive and who was being conservative here — is calling off the non-conference season early a sign of progressive leadership or an exercise in extreme caution? — is a Rorschach test.

The decision has been made, and now the conference will wade into the murky depths of ad-hoc scheduling. If there’s one thing that’s consistent across the ages in the Southeastern Conference, it’s conspiracy theories about scheduling.

Alabama will get a sweetheart deal from Birmingham. That’s what 13 different fan bases will attest to, anyway. If the conference comes through on keeping strength of schedule balanced, Georgia will have to get a lighter additional load since it’s already set to face Bama and Auburn from the West. Fans of Florida and South Carolina will protest, I expect, and Tennessee partisans will claim that Alabama and UGA always get what they want. LSU will claim the league office has it out for them regardless of what happens.

And the off weeks. Oh, the off weeks. Folks who have been in the SEC argument trenches before know that off weeks are the place where the hidden scheduling shenanigans happen. Some teams will get convenient ones, and some will get useless ones before playing Arkansas or Vandy.

I don’t envy the Greg Sankey and his lieutenants, in other words, because there’s no way to make everyone happy. Nothing is perfect right now. Choosing from among bad options has been the rule of the day for months.

We’ll all pick apart and parse the schedule because we’re desperate for some real sports happenings. We’ll try not to think about how it’ll be a minor miracle if anyone plays more than about three games. Eventually people will stop talking about how the ACC put one over on the SEC by announcing its schedule first.

Or maybe they won’t. This is college football, after all, where people have long memories and arguing is woven into the fabric of the game.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2