With the SEC expanding to 16 teams for the 2024 season, when Texas and Oklahoma officially join the conference, there has been much debate over the schedule format, specifically whether to continue playing eight league games or instead play nine.
The league finally made a decision at its spring meetings, sticking with an eight-game format for 2024 while keeping its options open after that. The 2024 opponents will be released June 14.
We asked our college football insiders to explain the ramifications of the decision for the SEC and beyond, and to weigh in on the move, including their takes on who benefits from the decision and who gets hurt by it.
Why eight games instead of nine?
Chris Low: Even though SEC commissioner Greg Sankey indicated several times his preference was to play nine conference games, there wasn't a consensus among the rest of the schools. With the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams in 2024, there was concern among some regarding how playing a ninth SEC game could affect a two-loss or three-loss team's chances of making the playoff. Also, Alabama wasn't ready to sign off on having to play Auburn, LSU and Tennessee as its three permanent foes in a nine-game schedule. Some presidents cited concerns over player safety with an extra conference game, while others in the SEC didn't see the need to expand to nine games, especially with the conference dominating the sport the way it has for the past two decades. In other words, "Why fix it if it ain't broke."
Another concern was that some schools said they would have to buy their way out of nonconference games already scheduled for the 2024 season if a ninth SEC game were added. And let's not forget perhaps the major factor: SEC schools would like to see rights holder ESPN kick in more money for an extra conference game with Oklahoma and Texas joining the league in 2024, according to multiple sources within the conference.
Which schools were pushing for eight and which were pushing for nine?
Low: Texas A&M was the school most aggressively pushing to play nine games. Florida, Georgia, LSU and Missouri also publicly favored nine games, while some schools remained on the fence. Alabama's Nick Saban had long been a proponent for playing nine games but wasn't on board with the Tide having to play Auburn, LSU and Tennessee every year because he felt that would create an uneven playing field if other teams' permanent foes weren't as strong. Kentucky and South Carolina were among the teams in favor of eight. Kentucky cited having to already play rival Louisville every year out of conference, and South Carolina's concerns were similar. The Gamecocks face Clemson every year out of conference.
What will cause the league to go to nine games in 2025?
Low: In short, more money. If ESPN were to throw in additional revenue for a ninth game, it would be extremely difficult for schools to turn that down, according to multiple sources within the SEC.
Also, waiting to see how the expanded CFP field looks in terms of rewarding strength of schedule could play a role. If schools see the selection committee prioritize quality wins over the number of losses, that might help push the nine-game conference schedule over the finish line.
What are the next steps? Is a nine-game conference schedule inevitable?
Low: Nothing like continuing to kick the can down the road, or as Sankey himself said, continuing to circle the airport. Call it what you want -- a temporary schedule, a bridge schedule or a stopgap schedule -- but it's pretty clear the SEC is buying a little more time to navigate its way to playing nine conference games. Surely, by 2025, they can figure it out after Oklahoma and Texas have been in the league for a season. Sankey doesn't lack patience. It's a big part of what makes him such an effective leader. Nine games are coming to the conference that has won 13 of the past 17 national championships. We'll all just have to wait a little while longer to see it happen.
Who benefits the most with the decision to stay with eight conference games?
Alex Scarborough: Even though fans would have benefited most with the nine-game conference schedule, the division-less format will still be a win for fans and players. It means they'll get to see every SEC team twice during a four-year stretch -- home and away. And with Texas and Oklahoma joining the league, that means they won't have to wait as long as they would have in the past to visit Austin and Norman for the first time.
Low: The eight-game schedule helps those teams that might be on the bubble when it comes to winning six games and qualifying for a bowl game. And in a 12-team playoff, the chances of the upper-tier teams having fewer losses are greater if they're having to play eight conference games as opposed to nine. Also, those schools already facing challenging nonconference games against in-state rivals (Florida vs. Florida State, South Carolina vs. Clemson and Kentucky vs. Louisville) are probably better off not having to play a ninth SEC game.
Ryan McGee: The Group of 5. Open dates on SEC calendars mean, at least in theory, chances for booking games with big schools for the mid-majors looking to beef up their CFP chances. How better for Coastal Carolina, Boise State or the like to get the attention of the committee than to be able to point to Week 3 and say, "Hey, we went to Auburn and had them on the ropes for 3½ quarters!"
Harry Lyles Jr.: The teams that had previous engagements locked in benefit the most with sticking with eight for now. Getting out of some of those games doesn't sound like a fun proposition.
As far as the bigger picture, I don't think there's all that much to SEC teams getting docked by the CFP if they stick with eight games. Much to Sankey's point, this has been the strongest league for a while now, and I don't think one fewer conference game is going to make anybody feel much differently about the strength of the teams at the top. And even if that fear exists, there's room to book games as needed. We saw how quickly that can get done during the pandemic.
Who is hurt most by the decision?
Scarborough: It isn't exactly a positive reflection on the SEC that the commissioner clearly favors a nine-game conference schedule and he can't get the votes. It might not be best for every school on an individual level, but it's what's best for the league as a whole (and its fans), and that should have been enough to get it done now.
McGee: I don't know ... accountants? I get the need for a level playing field/résumé among Power 5 conferences, but do we really think that this will hurt the SEC's chances of making an expanded CFP?
What would the impact be of not playing some of the league's rivalry games every year?
Low: A short-term schedule that calls for eight conference games would likely still allow for long-standing rivalries such as Auburn vs. Georgia and Alabama vs. Tennessee to be played without a break. But if an eight-game schedule is locked in for several years, then we wouldn't see Auburn and Georgia playing every year or Alabama and Tennessee every year, which would be a kick in the face to the rich history of the SEC.
McGee: It became a thing over the past several years to start questioning the necessity of Tennessee-Alabama or other rivalry games because they had become lopsided, but you cannot allow yourself to become a prisoner of the moment. A decade of oh-fer on one side of a matchup doesn't cancel out a century-plus of games, nor does the inconvenience of having a tough schedule because you're a classic program and the teams you play and have always played happen to be really good (sorry, Nick!).
The SEC was built on history and regional rivalries and the classics have to be protected. Period. See: Tennessee-Bama last fall. When you get away from those, you get away from what made you who you are. So much weird change is inevitable in the expansion/realignment/transfer portal era; it should be countered by digging a preemptive moat around what you can. Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, Third Saturday in October, Earth's Largest Outdoor Libation Soiree (since we can't call it the cocktail party), Red River Rivalry, Clean Old Fashioned Hate, the Palmetto Bowl, any game with history and a real nickname, in-conference and cross-conference, needs to be taken care of. Any other plan is abandoning the sport's roots.
Lyles: I think my elders have covered everything here. The only thing I would add: These games help form the fabric of society in this part of the country, up there with religious and national holidays. They are the games that keep everyone coming back to college football, and we've seen how taking away rivalries has gone in the past in other parts of the country. I would be shocked if the SEC went away from that in the long term.