MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — Halfway through the SEC’s spring meetings here on the Florida Gulf Coast, one thing is certain: The league will play nine conference games—eventually.
Two days into the four-day event at the Sandestin Hilton, conference leaders continue to work toward a temporary scheduling format that features eight games, not nine—at least for now. It’s no real surprise. In a story published Monday, Sports Illustrated reported that a short-term eight-game format starting in 2024 is under serious consideration.
While no one has confirmed such a plan, there are signs that this is the direction. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday that such a model has been discussed. Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne gave a telling answer Wednesday in a meeting with reporters. Byrne said administrators do not have enough information to vote on a long-term scheduling format right now.
What more does he need?
“It’s a combination,” Byrne said. “It’s the playoff—what does it look like from a financial standpoint, what is the right balance from a strength of schedule standpoint?”
The uncertainty around the expanded CFP is one of two primary reasons that the league may choose this short-term, eight-game scheduling plan. The other one: additional revenue from ESPN, which isn’t expected—at least not right now.
Most of the conference supports remaining at eight games without extra dollars from the network. In fact, only five schools have been public about their support for nine games: Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri. A majority of the 14 schools (eight) is needed to pass a scheduling format, and Texas and Oklahoma do not receive a vote, because they are not official members until July 2024.
So how will this short-term, eight game league slate work? Let’s explore.
There are plenty of unanswered questions. Few details on this short-term plan have escaped the room of administrators.
Will this temporary, eight-game plan be for one year (in 2024), or two or four years? While most seem to support a one-year model before easing into a nine-game schedule, it remains unclear.
And what are the matchups like? Under the long-term eight-game model that the league has been discussing, each team would play one permanent opponent and seven rotating opponents. That will eliminate the league’s secondary rivalries. In the long-term eight-game format, the schools would play every other year instead of annually.
However, if the short-term model is, in fact, one year, those secondary rivalries are able to continue. Many SEC programs have an obvious primary rival and a secondary rival as well. Take for instance Alabama: Auburn (primary) and Tennessee (secondary). Or Georgia: Florida (primary) and Auburn (secondary). Or newbie Texas: Oklahoma (primary) and Texas A&M (secondary).
This gives us a better idea on matchups for each team.
Some are referring to this short-term plan as a “temporary” solution. So what’s the long-term one? The answer is a nine-game conference schedule of course.
This brings us back to the reasons in which the SEC would choose the short-term model: additional TV revenue from ESPN and the CFP uncertainty.
Now is not the time for ESPN to announce that it is giving the SEC millions more dollars to pay an extra ninth game. The SEC’s sole broadcasting partner starting in 2024, ESPN is in the midst of several rounds of layoffs and has been public about its plan to be more selective in the future with spending.
There’s more: The network is involved or is soon to be involved in bidding for several other deals, including an expanded CFP, the WWE/UFC and the upcoming NBA. A short-term plan provides more time for the network to sift through its current predicament and avoid the public look of tossing around cash bags while cutting employees.
And now for the second reason: CFP uncertainty.
Without the extra cash, those in the eight-game camp will not vote for a move that will result in eight more losses to conference members. That could mean the difference in a team making a bowl game and not. More importantly, it could mean the difference in a team advancing to the expanded CFP—or not advancing.
No one is quite sure how much strength of schedule will matter in the 12-team field. Can an SEC team get into the field with three losses? These are questions being asked.
Thursday is a big day at SEC meetings.
Athletic directors and presidents meet in a joint session where scheduling is certain to be topic de jour, along with NIL. Presidents gather again Friday where they normally vote on such measures.
Will they vote Friday? Maybe or maybe not, says Sankey.
One SEC head football coach told SI on Wednesday that he expects a decision this week, but who really knows?
Without a majority on board for nine, it’s easy to see a path for the presidents to choose this short-term, eight-game model. Or maybe there’s a dramatic change and something unforeseen happens? You never know.
“When presidents get in the room, anything can happen,” says one administrator.
No matter what happens, commissioner Greg Sankey was clear about one thing on Wednesday. He doesn’t care if the league faces criticism for staying at eight games when all other Power 5 leagues might play nine.
“I’m pretty sure the last game of the season was 65–7,” Sankey said on the Paul Finebaum Show of Georgia’s win over TCU in the title game. “If the indictment is that we don’t play the highest level of football, then someone isn’t watching the games.”