SEC football schedule: Making the case for both eight- and nine-game models as league remains split on format

The SEC did not make a decision on a future scheduling format during its spring meetings in Destin, Florida, this week after narrowing it down to two distinct options, commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters.

“We have more work to do,” said Sankey. “Narrowed it down to a couple of options. You never know what [else] could emerge.”

On the table are both an eight- and nine-game model. The eight-game model would feature one common opponent each season with a rotating schedule of seven opponents. The nine-game model would feature three common opponents with six rotating opponents a year. Other models, including so-called “pods” and divisions, have already been ruled out.

The NCAA removed a requirement for conferences with at least 12 members to have divisions on May 18, clearing the way for different scheduling formats. The Pac-12 instantly became the first to change, announcing that the league’s 2022 title game will take place between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams based on conference winning percentage.

The SEC isn’t in much of a rush to figure out a new scheduling model, as Oklahoma and Texas may not enter the league until 2025 at the latest. The divisional structure will be in place for at least the 2022 season.

The case for eight games

The SEC has played eight conference games since splitting to divisions in 1992. The ACC and SEC are the only Power Five leagues that still play eight conference games, while the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine.

While other leagues might be penalized for playing fewer conference games, the lower number has never cost the SEC. The league has produced a College Football Playoff team each season, and twice produced a pair of teams. Given the quality of competition, maximizing the schedule is no priority to compete for the playoff.

Additionally, playing eight games is a handout of sorts to the SEC’s “have-nots.” Schools like Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, traditionally difficult places to win, have manageable pathways to bowl games by playing eight conference games and scheduling winnable nonconference matchups. That pathway is threatened by moving to nine. Naturally, lower-revenue schools seem much keener on playing eight conference games, and a 1-7 model provides for more frequent rotation between schools.

The case for nine games

If the SEC moves to a nine-game conference schedule with three protected matchups, it would maximize both the earning potential and watchability of the league. While nonconference matchups provide value, a 16-team conference provides plenty of quality games that would become competitive schedule-wise with most of the rest of college football.

The SEC is filled with rivalries. Trying to narrow down the key matchups that would play every year to just one is a losing proposition for everyone. Ultimately, a schedule with only one protected rivalry means that Texas and Texas A&M wouldn’t play every year. The Third Saturday in October would end on annual basis. LSU likely wouldn’t play Florida or Arkansas. That would be a shame.

Nine conference games would create more opportunities for losses, but it’s highly unlikely even multiple losses would keep the SEC out of the College Football Playoff. The schedule would be grueling and quality enough that the winner of the league would be a lock.

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