SEC remains deadlocked on football scheduling model

DESTIN, Fla. — Three days into its spring meetings, the SEC remains split on a future scheduling format for a variety of reasons.

One of those is money.

At the center of the league’s debate between division-less eight or nine-game scheduling models is television revenue. Conference members currently play eight conference games. Increasing to nine games would not produce any additional revenue from the league’s new media rights deal with ESPN—another wrinkle in a months-old debate that has left the conference mostly split along revenue-generating lines. The top half of the league is leaning toward a nine-game schedule while the bottom half favors an eight-game schedule, something Sports Illustrated reported last week in a wide-ranging story detailing the debate.

TV revenue isn’t the only obstacle keeping the conference from agreeing on a new format, which would start in 2025, when Texas and Oklahoma are scheduled to arrive. Administrators are also hesitant to add an extra league game amid uncertainty around expansion of the College Football Playoff. Playoff expansion failed last year, and any new playoff would not begin until 2026. CFP Chair Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State, provided an update on Thursday on expansion talks.

While there are other issues afoot, TV revenue and CFP uncertainty have bubbled to the top of the debate. Asked about the scheduling debate following a joint session of athletic directors and presidents on Thursday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters to “come back tomorrow,” referring to an SEC presidents meeting scheduled for Friday, the final day of the event.

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However, during a news conference on Wednesday, Sankey hinted at what is a growing feeling among officials here this week: The league will make no decision on a scheduling format. “We have more work to do,” he said then.

And that’s O.K., many administrators say. The conference does not need to make the decision this week, Sankey says, though most believe the league needs to have a decision by the end of the calendar year, at the very latest.

SEC officials have spent months narrowing more than 30 scheduling models to these two: an eight-game format where teams play one permanent opponent and seven rotating opponents (1-7 model); and a nine-game format where teams play three permanent opponents and six rotating (3-6). There are two essential goals in the remake of the scheduling formats: (1) Have SEC teams play every league team twice—home and away—every four years; and (2) Pit the top two teams in the conference in the title game, hence the elimination of divisions.

“The SEC should lean into competing against one another as often as possible in all sports—not just a football deal,” says Florida AD Scott Stricklin, a vocal proponent of a nine-game format. “Those are the ones the fans want to go to or watch on TV. Those are the ones the players want to play.”

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But for some, adding a ninth game without generating additional revenue is a sticking point. In fact, the Big Ten is closing in on what is estimated to be a $1 billion new media rights deal. The league plays nine conference games. Can the SEC lure ESPN back to the negotiating table to restructure a deal if it expands to a ninth conference game? It’s a question some are asking.

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For other SEC schools, adding a ninth game to an already loaded conference schedule—saddling half of the league with another loss—could deliver a crippling blow to postseason chances. It would make it more difficult to both attain a sixth win for bowl eligibility and qualify for a playoff spot, if the CFP does not expand.

However, under the eight-game format—with only one permanent opponent—secondary rivalries are not protected, including Georgia-Auburn, Alabama-Tennessee and new member Texas playing against Texas A&M. A nine-game format with three permanents protects primary and secondary rivalries but also creates uneven conference home games for half of the league every other year.

A nine-game schedule causes another issue: Future non-conference schedules, some of them set years in advance, will need to be adjusted. If it moves to nine games, the league may waive the policy requiring teams to schedule at least one non-conference Power 5 opponent each year.

Stricklin says “opinions are shifting” from one day to the next, but ultimately, he believes that the SEC may need to address the tie-breaker procedures before a new format is agreed to. Without divisions, a strong tie-breaker structure is necessary to determine the participants in the SEC championship game.

There are other issues too, such as determining both year-ending rivalry games and permanent opponents for each team. SI took a stab at both of these issues last week.

Put simply: Three days in and with one day left in its annual meetings, the league feels deadlocked over a scheduling model. And, for now, that’s O.K. Either way, conference schedules will be more equitable than ever.

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“There is some fatigue in our current scheduling model,” Stricklin says. “I don’t know where we’re going to end up but it does appear we’re going to have a lot more rotation, so we get to see everybody and every stadium once in a four-year period.”

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