What to make of 16-team SEC’s plans for eight-game schedule

Ross Dellenger at Sports Illustrated reported that the SEC is considering continuing with an eight-game football schedule after Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. Nearly everyone, myself included, expected the conference to go with a nine-game schedule, so what gives?

First of all, it’s being phrased as a temporary one-year deal. It’s a stopgap, in other words, not (yet) a longterm plan.

We’ve been here before. When the SEC expanded to 14 teams in 2012, the first two years’ of schedules were bespoke creations. The official rotation that teams have been playing ever since didn’t begin until 2014. The league has done ad hoc schedules while getting its house in order before, and it sounds like it may do it again.

What might cause the delay this time? Money. From Dellenger’s report:

“Without the incentive of additional revenue from the network, more than half of the league is in support of remaining at eight games in the first year that Texas and Oklahoma begin play in 2024. The expectation is that ESPN, in the midst of layoffs, will not commit to additional revenue for a ninth game—at least not now.”

The whole reason the SEC hasn’t expanded to nine games already is largely that there is a significant chunk of the league membership that is concerned about its chances of making a bowl each year. Those teams also tend to be the ones that don’t have multiple dealbreaker rivalries on their slates.

Take the Mississippi schools. In a divisionless 1-7 arrangement, they’re going to get each other as the one. That said, they both have played more than a hundred games against LSU, and, from an outsider’s perspective, the Ole Miss series in particular seems to have some appreciable amount of juice. The Rebels-Tigers series has a name, the Magnolia Bowl, and I’ve seen LSU fans post vintage “Go to Hell Ole Miss” paraphernalia around when the teams play in various sports.

Would not playing those series annually be a loss? Sure, from a certain historic standpoint. However, are the Rebels and Bulldogs willing to weaken their annual postseason chances for a potential opportunity to keep playing a series that neither wins even 40% of the time? Probably not, especially since there’s no guarantee in the 3-6 setup that they’d even have LSU in their threes.

Or, take Kentucky. The Wildcats have no heated SEC football rivalries, but they do have one out of conference against Louisville. Even as UK has done quite well by its own standards under current management, Mark Stoops has finished above .500 in SEC play just twice in ten years. He’s gotten to exactly .500 twice more, and that’s been in the weaker half of the conference. The upcoming division-free arrangement, whether 1-7 or 3-6, means more games against teams that now play in the tougher West division.

There is literally no way to make it in Kentucky’s interest to vote for a nine-game schedule absent extra money from ESPN.

It’s not hard to game out which programs would probably prefer to stay in the eight-game schedule: Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt all jump out. LSU, lacking a natural No. 1 rival since Tulane left the conference in the ’60s, doesn’t need nine games either. Florida also doesn’t really need nine as long as the Cocktail Party is preserved, which it would be in any arrangement going forward since the draw of Georgia-Auburn won’t outweight the Iron Bowl.

I’m not breaking any news here because I don’t have sources. All I’m saying is that the list of teams with two extremely important rivalries is actually pretty short: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and Texas. Maybe Tennessee, depending on how much everyone cares about the in-state series with Vandy. That’s only four or five out of 16.

But consider what a temporary schedule means. They’re not actually putting together a true rotation, though they could frame it as such if they want. SEC brass can rig the slate so that all of the important rivalries are preserved for that year while they wait out Disney’s financials. And, of course, a one-year temporary schedule can easily be made into a two-year temporary schedule by flipping the home/road sites.

What we eventually end up with, though, is a game of chicken. If the 16-team SEC ratings go gangbusters, then that puts pressure on ESPN to pay up for an extra game. However, the league probably can’t keep extending its “temporary” schedules past 2025. If the Worldwide Leader doesn’t blink, then the conference will stare down the barrel of actually skipping some of its sacred cow series.

And at that point, the turmoil will be as much or more within the conference than between it and ESPN.

All of the success and money can make folks forget sometimes that the SEC is, underneath it all, a highly dysfunctional family. It Just Means More, but that sword cuts both ways. This is the conference of JetGate, a fan getting a coach fired after filing FOIA a request at his own school, that same fired coach getting his successor fired at a different league school after filing open records requests of his own, and a head coach doing media days by speakerphone to avoid a subpoena in a lawsuit against the NCAA by former assistants from a different league school.

It’s the only conference that Texas could’ve joined where its top boosters could look at their counterparts at multiple other members and think, not laughably, “what is wrong with you people?”

The bottom line is that what’s best for the league as a whole — a nine-game schedule — is not in the best interest of a majority of the member schools absent a larger payday. There’s an eat-your-vegetables aspect to it, where the conference gains intangible benefits like prestige, cohesion, and togetherness through the nine-game slate that will ultimately benefit everyone whether the payout expands or not.

It’s just that it’ll take a load of butter and salt from ESPN to make those vegetables palatable enough for everyone to consume. And until those arrive, the conference doesn’t have a good way to get everyone on board. So, we’re probably going to get a year or two of an eight-game slate.

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