Starting tomorrow, the Southeastern Conference will try to get serious about deciding whether to continue playing eight league football games per season or move up to nine.
The SEC leadership committee (coaches, athletics directors and school presidents) will assemble in Destin, Florida, have a few shrimp, apply some sun-tan lotion and square off in group conversation.
With Commissioner Greg Sankey mostly looking ahead, this distinguished group has been debating this massive decision for years. Talks intensified after Texas and Oklahoma were approved. They become members next year.
Months ago, a consulting firm produced 30 different formats for future scheduling of a 16-team SEC. I don’t see how it got to 30 but none gained unanimous approval.
Two favorites emerged:
One is an eight-game schedule with one permeant opponent and seven in rotation. That would reduce such historic annual rivalries as Tennessee versus Alabama and Georgia against Auburn to every other year or now and then. Nobody asked me but my vote is no. I want the Vols to play the Tide, Kentucky and Vanderbilt every year, forever. Tradition matters.
The other idea is a version of that thought, nine-game format where every school would have three permanent opponents and six rotating league games – thus preserving more matchups cherished by more fans.
Of course, fans are important – somewhat. That’s why Tennessee hired professional marketers to push ticket sales.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher says there is no schedule consensus. Georgia coach Kirby Smart said “I’m into what is best for our conference.”
Both coaches might be confused about just who is in the SEC. In 11 years, the Bulldogs have not been to College Station.
Seven schools supposedly prefer expanding the schedule to nine games. Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State and South Carolina oppose. Alabama might go either way. A few, including Tennessee, are awaiting discussion or just keeping quiet.
Missouri, a supporter of nine, is in an awkward spot. It is fully booked through 2032. The Tigers would need to buy out of at least eight non-conference games beginning next year.
Godfather Nick Saban, at the beginning of schedule talks, was a nine-game advocate. When he saw his tentative three permanent foes – Auburn, LSU and Tennessee – he switched. He thought that trio was an unfair overload, that he might even lose an occasional game.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart is a strong supporter of eight. He does not want the full house for Louisville games to be at risk.
Barnhart noted a ninth SEC game means half the league will pick up a loss on a weekend it could have gone undefeated. He sees Eastern Kentucky and UT Martin as satisfactory foes. Tennessee has been buying a triumph or two almost forever. This time it is Austin Peay.
Among the other issues for the Destin beach party are whether almost priceless memories are worth preserving. Newcomers are sometimes dangerous. They think football started with them.
The SEC will be interested in strength of schedules, how to get six victories for bowl eligibility and ESPN money.
Several coaches think nine games mean more losses, missed bowl bids and maybe unemployment. Several athletics directors foresee increased revenue from that ninth game.
Several presidents are eagerly awaiting guidance from subordinates on how they should vote – if they vote.
Troubling is the fact that ESPN hasn’t said anything about paying more for more games. The SEC expected an increase from the contracted $927 million.
Sankey wants a decision but missing money creates the possible option of not voting just yet. The league has been pondering the decision for a long time. Pondering some more would give the TV partner and owner Disney a few more minutes to decide the value of more great games.
While ESPN is eliminating talent to cut costs, the SEC is holding out the collection plate.
If the SEC chooses nine conference games, one less overmatched visitor will appear at Neyland Stadium. South Alabama, Bowling Green and Chattanooga will have to play each other.
The SEC will consider other matters. Sankey wants conference leadership to think seriously about how to stop fans from storming football fields and basketball courts after thrilling victories. So far, additional security and school fines have not discouraged celebrations. The commissioner has floated the idea of taking away a future home game as punishment for misbehavior. That idea won’t pass.
Pencil in some talking time for NIL and transfer portal.
Want to bet on whether anybody will bring up the bad baggage belonging to Hugh Freeze? More likely the new Auburn coach, a natural showman, will do a cannonball into the resort pool and try to wash away others’ sins.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is email@example.com.