8 or 9 games? SEC football scheduling debate could finally be put to rest this week

The future of SEC football scheduling could be decided this week.

With Oklahoma and Texas officially joining the conference ahead of the 2024 season, future scheduling will be a major topic of discussion at this week’s SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida.

For years, the central debate has been whether to play eight or nine conference games. Other conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12) have moved to nine games, but the SEC has stuck with eight.

But with major changes coming in 2024 — Texas and Oklahoma joining the conference (on July 1, 2024), the SEC’s exclusive ESPN deal beginning and the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams — adjustments need to be made to the league’s scheduling format.

The SEC currently has an eight-game conference schedule where teams play their divisional opponents, plus two cross-division opponents. Last year, the SEC narrowed its list of potential replacement scheduling formats down to two, both of which eliminate divisions. The first is an eight-game schedule where teams play one permanent rival and seven rotating opponents. The other is a nine-game schedule with three permanent rivals and six rotating opponents.

And according to multiple reports, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has privately indicated to league members that he is in favor of moving to a nine-game schedule. He has declined to take a public position on the matter.

Sankey said in February that he viewed the spring meetings as the “far end date” to arrive at a decision. On Sunday night in Destin, Sankey told reporters that he’d like to reach a resolution soon.

FILE - Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks during SEC Media Days, July 18, 2022, in Atlanta. The third in-person meeting of conference commissioners who manage the College Football Playoff since an August directive from their bosses to expand the postseason format ended without a resolution but not without optimism. “There's a will to try and that will is still there,” Sankey said Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has privately communicated his preference to move to a nine-game conference schedule, according to multiple reports. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

There are myriad issues complicating the matter. Some schools are worried that adding an additional league game will impact the ability to achieve bowl eligibility. Others are concerned about competitive balance and so-called parity in the league, pointing to the projected permanent opponents they’d be paired with in the 3-6 model. There are also questions about how the College Football Playoff selection committee may view an SEC team with multiple losses. How will strength of schedule be weighed in? Could a three-loss SEC team make the 12-team field?

And of course, there is the subject of revenue. Will ESPN provide extra cash for the ninth conference game?

From Sports Illustrated:

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.

Moving to the 3-6 format would allow teams to play each other with much more frequency. Moving to a nine-game schedule would also allow the SEC to preserve so many of its annual rivalries like Alabama vs. Tennessee, Auburn vs. Georgia and even Texas vs. Texas A&M.

“We saw games last year — Missouri at Auburn, for example — that hadn’t been played since we added Missouri back in 2012. The one that sticks out most is that Georgia has not traveled to College Station since Texas A&M has been a member. That shouldn’t happen,” Sankey told WJOX in February. “We shouldn’t be going 12 years between campus visits. We should be rotating our teams through more frequently.”

If there is a vote held this week, a simple majority (8-6) is all that is required to push a change through. Officials from Texas and Oklahoma are in attendance at the meetings, but will not participate in any votes.