For years, SEC fans have clamored for fewer games against lower-level squads and more big-time matchups with opponents of their own teams’ stature.
It took a pandemic, but they may get their wish.
The SEC is moving closer to an agreement on a conference-only schedule of 10 games, multiple sources told Sports Illustrated. During a virtual meeting on Wednesday, a majority of athletic directors approved the idea of an SEC-only, 10-game schedule. However, the schedule must be ratified by league presidents. SEC presidents are expected to meet virtually Thursday to seriously discuss the matter. It is unclear if they will vote then or delay a decision until next week. The NCAA Board of Governors is scheduled to meet Tuesday in what could be a momentous event for the 2020–21 college athletic season. Officials there could postpone or cancel fall championships, eliminating year-ending championships for sports such as FCS football, volleyball and soccer, or moving those to the spring.
Three weeks ago, SEC athletic directors met in Birmingham in an in-person meeting that produced several potential contingency plans for a 2020 season, including conference-only schedules of 8–10 games and schedules that includes eight conference games plus one or two non-conference games. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced their plans for conference-only schedules, but the ACC, Big 12 and SEC were working to attempt to preserve non-conference games among their schools, specifically marquee matchups like LSU-Texas and Tennessee-Oklahoma and the four traditional year-ending rivalry games between the ACC and SEC: Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, Kentucky-Louisville and South Carolina-Clemson.
A conference-only schedule, however, has emerged as a potential best option, even though all league administrators are not necessarily in agreement. A conference-only slate allows for flexibility and for all games to feature a uniform testing protocol. The number of games, 10, is seen by many in college football as a potential minimum requirement to compete in the College Football Playoff this year, though that number is likely to fluctuate according to the impacts of the virus.
The SEC’s decision, if made, would create a ripple effect that will extend to multiple levels. The ACC and Big 12 would lose a combined 13 games against the SEC, and the ACC announced its own schedule model on Wednesday. The Group of Five may have no other choice but to follow suit. All of college football could play a shortened season that features conference games only.
A conference-only model would mean the elimination of games against Group of Five and FCS teams. These are often referred to as “buy games” because SEC teams pay steep prices—sometimes as much as $1.5 million a game—to their traveling competitors. In fact, SEC teams in 2017 paid out more than $45 million in buy games, according to school NCAA reports obtained by SI. This year, Georgia is the only SEC school with two Power 5 programs on its non-conference schedule. All other teams play three games against Group of Five/FCS squads. SEC teams could owe millions to those smaller clubs for cancellations. However, there is a potential out. In at least some game contracts, a change in “league scheduling format” could free an SEC team from its contractual responsibility, several administrators told SI.
If the model is approved by presidents, the SEC could find itself in a prickly situation in scheduling the two extra conference games. The league’s normal regular season includes six games against inner division foes, one permanent opponent and one rotating opponent from the opposite division.