Should the SEC football schedule follow the Big Ten’s lead?

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13: Greg Sankey the new commissioner of the SEC talks to the media before the quaterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13: Greg Sankey the new commissioner of the SEC talks to the media before the quaterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

With the Big Ten announcing a unique approach to building future football schedules, should the SEC football schedule follow suit?

The SEC went into their annual spring meetings with one main objective: determine what scheduling model the league will adopt once Texas and Oklahoma join in 2024.

Member schools were set to vote on one of two long-term options: an eight-game conference schedule featuring one permanent rival and seven rotating opponents or a nine-game conference schedule featuring three permanent rivals and six rotating opponents.

In both options, division are eliminated.

But rather than make a final decision on a long-term scheduling model, the SEC decided on a temporary measure for the 2024 season.

2024 SEC football schedule: SEC teams to play 8 conference games in 2024

The SEC will stay at eight conference games in 2024 while eliminating divisions, but they are not yet officially adopting the “1+7” model previously considered. Instead, schedules will simply be built out with the goal of preserving most rivalry games and creating competitive balance from team to team.

A year from now, the league will reevaluate and look to find the long-term solution. As Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger notes in his report, most anticipate that the SEC will inevitably move to nine conference games.

But why did that move not already happen?

There are multiple issues. For one, the “lesser-than” programs of the league are concerned that a ninth conference game will make reaching bowl eligibility too difficult given the strength of the SEC. Whereas the traditional powers want to preserve as many annual rivalries as possible and have more attractive schedules for their fans, the bottom-half of the SEC simply wants to assure they can continue making bowl games.

But even some of the SEC’s power players aren’t completely on board with moving to nine conference games. Alabama coach Nick Saban has expressed concerns with maintaining competitive balance in the “3+6” nine game model. In that model, Alabama’s three permanent opponents would likely be Auburn, Tennessee, and LSU. While those are the Tide’s primary rivals, that’s a considerably more challenging trio of opponents than most other SEC teams would face on a yearly basis.

Another concern of the league’s top programs is how the tougher conference slate will impact their selection to the College Football Playoff.

A ninth game means a higher likelihood at taking another loss. Will the playoff selection committee value an 11-1 team from the Pac-12 over a 10-2 team from the SEC simply because of the better record. Or will strength of schedule be taken into account?

We don’t yet know.

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The final hurdle for moving to nine is one that all parties seem to agree on: money. In December of 2020, the SEC announced that it had reached a deal ESPN to make the network the exclusive media partner for the league, starting in 2024. The deal will pay the SEC around $300 million annually, if not more with Texas and Oklahoma on the way.

It’s obviously going to be a massive payday for all of the programs in the conference. But at the time this deal was set, the SEC was still playing an eight game schedule. No one stands to benefit from a ninth conference game more than ESPN, as it means more high profile matchups available to broadcast.

The stance of the SEC’s members is that if ESPN wants the league to play a ninth conference game, they should have to pay more for that inventory. They believe that if they’re going to take more losses for ESPN’s gain, ESPN should up their compensation. It seems as though, however, ESPN doesn’t want to budge.

All of these factors together equaled no long-term solution for scheduling, furthering the frustrations of CFB fans and media members who simply want to see more exciting games played. But as no decision has been made final, the SEC does have time to now explore a new, unique model for scheduling that was just introduced by the Big Ten.

The Big Ten unveils unique scheduling model

Last Thursday the Big Ten unveiled their future scheduling model as well as matchups for the 2024 and 2025 seasons. With USC and UCLA joining in 2024, the Big Ten found itself in the same boat as the SEC. How do we maintain rivalries and a schedule rotation while adding a pair of programs with zero connections to the conference?

Many assumed the Big Ten would use the aforementioned 3+6 model. Teams keep their main rivals and can play the entire league home and away over a four-year period. The problem with this model for the Big Ten is who would be USC and UCLA’s permanent opponents?

While they would obviously play each other annually, each would need two other teams as annual “rivals”. And you’d be hard-pressed to find multiple Midwestern programs eager to make a school from LA that they have no history with a permanent fixture on the schedule.

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Instead of forcing rivalries into existence, the Big Ten is taking another approach, modifying the 3+6, division-less model into a more flexible format they’re calling “Flex Protect Plus”. The model allows each team to have up to three permanent rivals while cycling through the rest of the league every two years.

Essentially, teams with three legitimate rivalries can keep those games annual. But teams with fewer aren’t forced into having three permanents. If they have just one or two, those are their only annual rivals. If they have none, then they simply don’t have any annual rivals on the schedule.

The Big Ten announced 11 protected rivalries going forward. Iowa, with established rivalries against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska, will play those three teams annually. USC and UCLA only have each other as protected rivals, alleviating the conundrum discussed above. Meanwhile Penn State, whose deep history is more tied to the likes of Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia, has no protected Big Ten rivalries.

To assure a regular rotation through the league, most teams will face “two-play” opponents to go along with their permanent rivals, giving each team three opponents that they’ll see in both 2024 and 2025. “Two-play” refers to the fact that teams will play each other twice, home and away. After two years, they’ll then be given another set of two-play teams.

They’re basically creating a 3+6 model, but the “3” are not necessarily annual rivals.

The amount of two-play teams on your schedule depends on how many permanent opponents you have. Because Iowa has three permanents, they’ll never be given any two-play teams. Penn State on the other hand will be given three two-play teams to face home and away every two years.

A little confusing, yes, but again, think of this like the 3+6 model where who makes up the “3” can change regularly.

This model creates a good balance between assuring a good schedule rotation while still maintaining important rivalries (without forcing nonexistent ones). There are some quirks where certain teams will go through their rotation of opponents quicker than others, and it is possible that a particular matchup could end up being played at the same location in consecutive years.

And though the model was supposedly designed with the idea of avoiding more than two undefeated teams in a given year, one Reddit user appears to have debunked that. Utilizing tricky tiebreakers to determine who reaches the Big Ten Championship Game may one day happen.

Regardless, this looks to be a good system for building out schedules in a 16-team conference. So that begs the question: should the SEC follow suit? And in my opinion, they absolutely should.

The biggest drawback of the true 3+6 model the SEC is considering is that you inevitably end up with weird combinations for permanent opponents.

Though a few teams have three true rivals (such as Alabama), most do not (like Mississippi State). When you try and build out a set of three permanent rivals for each team, while also trying to keep competitive balance, you naturally end up with some odd pairings.

Most notably, many predictions of permanent opponents in the future SEC would regularly have Florida paired up with Oklahoma. Though the teams have met in some notable postseason matchups, that is no way, shape, or form a rivalry. They aren’t even in the same geographic region. But if every team needs three rivals, someone is going to get the short end of the stick.

On the flipside, the 1+7 option also considered by the SEC takes away too many important rivalries. It doesn’t make sense for games like Auburn-Georgia to stop being an annual game simply because both of those teams have a bigger rival. And are we really going to bring Texas into the SEC and not have them playing both Texas A&M and Oklahoma every year?

How to protect rivalry games in hypothetical SEC football schedule

With “Flex Protect Plus” you can keep the most important rivalries while keeping teams from being forced into games they have no interest in playing annually. What could this look like in the SEC? Let’s start with protecting these major rivalries:

Alabama – Auburn

Alabama – Tennessee

Alabama – LSU

Auburn – Georgia

Georgia – Florida

Florida – Tennessee

Texas – Texas A&M

Texas – Oklahoma

Oklahoma – Missouri

Mississippi State – Ole Miss

LSU – Ole Miss

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You could then make considerations on a team like Arkansas, who you could potentially pair with the likes of Texas, LSU, Texas A&M, or Missouri. Do Kentucky or Vanderbilt get Tennessee annually? Or do those teams, along with South Carolina, not have anyone as a permanent opponent?

And its possible not all of the rivalries I listed above would remain. Based on Nick Saban’s comments, would you still keep Alabama playing both LSU and Tennessee? Does Tennessee – Florida remain? Though you’d hate to see those games go, even the Big Ten did away with Ohio State and Penn State as an annual matchup in their new format (a move I firmly disagree with, but I digress).

Once you determine what games you want to keep, you then set up the “two-play” opponents to fill out the rotation. This is where you could prioritize some rivalries that may have not made the cut.

Let’s look at this from a Mississippi State perspective.

MSU has just one, true rival in football, and that’s Ole Miss. That’s the only conference game that must be on the schedule. So in the Flex Protected Plus format, MSU would have Ole Miss as it’s annual opponent and would then play a pair of two-play opponents plus six other rotating teams to fill out it’s annual schedule.

Rather than being forced into keeping someone like Kentucky, Texas A&M, or god forbid, Alabama on the schedule as an annual game, MSU can simply play their one rival and then rotate through the rest of the league. Now that would still be the case if the league chose the eight-game, 1+7 model, but unlike that format, Flex Protected Plus allows the other teams in the league to keep multiple rivalries. It’s a win for both sides.

And it’s possible you could take things a step further. The Athletic’s David Ubben suggests that the SEC should consider going beyond a maximum of three protected rivals, allowing a team like LSU that’s involved in more than three rivalry games to continue those series. Though this would make maintaining a consistent schedule rotation amongst the entire league more difficult, I’d be in favor of it.

While I certainly understand the sentiment of wanting to keep schedules balanced and allow for regular meetings between all members of the conference, maintaining rivalries is the most important thing to me. Simply eliminating divisions means the rotation of opponents will improve. I’m sure the league can find a way to modify the Big Ten’s model in favor of keeping the games fans want to see.

Of course, there is still a large elephant in the room. The Big Ten’s model is meant for a nine-game conference schedule. The Big Ten has been playing nine conference games for years, so there’s no debate amongst the league about how that will impact competitiveness. The SEC, on the other hand, clearly feels quite different about the issue.

Also, there isn’t a good way to preserve three (or more) rivalries while still keeping a clean rotation through the rest of the league in an eight-game schedule. Frankly, even in a nine-game model, if you were to take Ubben’s idea of allowing more than three rivals, the rotation gets wonky. But the ninth game at least gives you more wiggle room.

In an eight-game schedule with multiple permanent opponents, you’re essentially filling out the rest of the schedules in a semi-random manner each year. You still rotate through the rest of the league more frequently than you currently do, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to make balanced schedules. And you almost certainly are setting yourself up for some maddening three-way-ties atop the SEC standings.

Ultimately, the SEC would be best served to go to nine conference games. I understand that from a Mississippi State standpoint, there’s likely a negative impact to having the extra conference game. But just as a college football fan, I personally don’t want to lose fun rivalry games just to keep my own team’s schedule more manageable.

A nine game schedule that follows the Flex Protected Plus model (or something similar) is a decent compromise. While the schedule is likely more difficult for State, we wouldn’t be locked into a series against anyone other than Ole Miss. That creates more opportunities to play some of the more beatable teams within the conference.

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It’s the best format for fans of the sport, and the SEC should select that model for future schedules.