There was no doubt that enough of the Southeastern Conference's 14 members were going to vote Thursday to grant entry to Texas and Oklahoma (turns out Texas A&M made it unanimous after all). Now the question turns to scheduling in the nation's first 16-team super conference.
"It is a touchy issue, one that will likely spark vigorous debate and maybe even divide among coaches, athletic directors and school presidents," writes Sports Illustrated's Ross Dollenger.
As Dollenger notes, the conference’s new footprint will cover 12 states and 16 schools with "differing financial situations, cultural views and varying interests." New member Texas raked in $223 million in revenue in 2019, while established member Mississippi State reported barely half as much.
In the conference’s current scheduling format, teams play eight games: six each year from within their own division and two opponents from the opposite division, one on a permanent basis and one rotating—a 6-1-1 model that has long been the target of criticism both in and outside the league, according to Dollenger.
For many, the permanent, cross-divisional matchup is the problem. While it preserves long-standing rivalries, it creates imbalance in scheduling and prevents teams from regularly playing their SEC brethren, with as many as seven years between games for given pairs of teams. Schools that have lobbied for cross-divisional rivalries to remain intact include Kentucky-Mississippi State, Ole Miss-Vanderbilt, Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee.
As Dollenger points out, many believe there is an appetite in the league to add a ninth conference game. The 10-game conference-only slate dictated by the pandemic last fall has been described as a smashing success, especially for the SEC’s television partners. "Not only does it guarantee eight more conference games for TV, but with two new blue bloods entering the league, it guarantees more big-time matchups for a linear product that is losing subscribers," he writes.
“ESPN will drive the matchups,” one league source told SI. Said another, “If last year taught us anything, college football revolves around television.”
Will the SEC division format be replaced by pods or no system at all? The 10-member Big 12 Conference, where Texas and Oklahoma say they will continue to compete through the 2025 season due to media rights agreements, plays a round-robin, with the top two teams in the standings meeting in a championship playoff — but that would be impossible with 16 teams.
One source suggested to SI that a division-free format featuring three permanent annual rivalries and six rotating matchups would preserve most but not all long-standing rivalry games and would guarantee that every team in the conference would meet one another every other year. The two teams with the best records would play in the SEC championship game, but that may lead to messy tie-breakers and too many rematches, Dollenger writes.
Other options include a division-less 2–7 model or an eight-game 3–5 format.
During SEC media days, SEC Network proposed a pod system that follows a 3–6 format. The four four-team pods split up the conference’s traditional powers and were mostly aligned geographically. But in that model, Auburn and Georgia are in separate pods, ending the annual game dubbed the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, which has been played 125 times total and every year since 1944. And Texas A&M, which enjoyed the in-state recruiting advantage of being in the SEC while Texas was not, could wind up in a separate pod from the Longhorns, jeopardizing an annual head-to-head.
In short, there's a lot to consider, and protecting and sorting through end-of-the-year rivalry games is the “toughest” part, one SEC administrator told SI.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey will be at the center of it. “Sankey has to figure out, who does each team want to play? He has to ask each team,” said one source. “He doesn’t care who you don’t want to play. He cares who you do want to play.”