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The SEC's Most Significant Question in Expansion: Who Plays Who, Where and When?

With Texas and Oklahoma's impending entrance into the conference, there has been little discussion among administrators on a new scheduling format.

Pods or divisions?

Two permanent opponents or three?

Eight games or nine?

Texas and Oklahoma’s impending entrance into the SEC leaves the league in a scheduling pickle, with many more questions than answers.

While conference executives have indeed studied the options (more on that later), there has been little serious discussions among administrators on the topic. It is a touchy issue, one that will likely spark vigorous debate and maybe even divide among coaches, athletic directors and school presidents.

After all, the more you expand an empire, the more divided it becomes. The conference’s new footprint will cover 12 states and 16 schools. While the new SEC is the richest and most powerful in the history of college athletics, it is also one of the most diverse—a broad stretch of turf that features schools with differing financial situations, cultural views and varying interests.

Like a microcosm of the NCAA itself, the SEC has haves and havenots, both in historical athletic success and athletic budget. Take for instance Mississippi State and new member Texas. The Longhorns’ athletic revenue in 2019—$223 million—was nearly double that of the Bulldogs.

In many ways, the haves and havenots are at the center of a long-running, somewhat divisive topic within the league for years: scheduling. In the conference’s current 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.

For many, the permanent, cross-divisional matchup is the real 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 matchups of some teams.

Over the years, as scheduling legislation has arisen inside the conference, voting blocs emerged making it impossible to eliminate the permanent opponent. For obvious reasons, permanent opponents Kentucky and Mississippi State, and Ole Miss and Vanderbilt preferred to keep things unchanged. The same goes for permanents Auburn and Georgia, and Alabama and Tennessee, which are decades-old, annual rivalry games the schools wished to preserve.

Now, with two additional members and a loud chorus for change coming from both ESPN and within the league, the format is in for an overhaul.

Among conference executives, a few options have bubbled to the surface but none of them have been properly vetted or disseminated to members.

Many believe there is an appetite in the league to add a ninth conference game. The 10-game conference-only slate 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.

“ESPN will drive the matchups,” says one league source.

“If last year taught us anything,” says another, “college football revolves around television.”

With the number of games determined, a decision must be made about divisions. Are they on the chopping block? Some believe so, replaced by either a pod system or no system at all. For years now, the Big 12 has operated with no pod or divisional format. The 10 teams played a round-robin, with the top two squads meeting in the championship game.

A round-robin system is impossible in a 16-team league. So what then?

“Each team has three permanent opponents and six rotational,” suggests one league source.

This division-less 3–6 format would preserve long-standing rivalry games—though not all of them—and would guarantee that every team in the conference would meet one another every other year. While the model is gaining steam within the league, it has its own issues.

The two teams with the best records play in the SEC championship game, but that may lead to messy tie-breakers and too many rematches.

Also, determining permanent opponents is an unenviable task that will almost certainly result in bitter feelings among some. Protecting and sorting through end-of-the-year rivalry games is the “toughest” part, says one SEC administrator.

Alabama-Auburn, Mississippi State-Ole Miss and Tennessee-Vanderbilt are obvious choices as permanent, in-state partners. Four SEC teams end their seasons against ACC teams: Georgia (Georgia Tech), Florida (Florida State), South Carolina (Clemson) and Kentucky (Louisville). But what of the rest?

That leaves Missouri, Arkansas, LSU, Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Texas-OU, obvious permanent partners, are expected to keep their yearly clash in an October date that is built around the Texas State Fair. The same goes for Florida-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee and, if it’s feasible, Auburn-Georgia—mid-season rivalries that many hope stick around.

But the end of the season gets tricky.

Does Texas-Texas A&M resume its annual meeting? And if so, how does LSU, which currently plays the Aggies as the last game, end its season? Does the Bedlam Series continue or does Oklahoma get paired at season’s end with former Big 12 mate Missouri, which, for now, ends its season with Arkansas?

There are a lot of questions.

“We’ll have to get in the room and figure it all out,” says a league administrator.

Of course, there are more options than the division-less 3–6 format. They include a division-less 2–7 model or an eight-game 3–5 format.

Some are married to divisions and want them kept. Do the two most eastern teams in the SEC West, Alabama and Auburn, move to the East? In that situation, the conference could keep its similar scheduling format and add a ninth game, or it could still use a 3–6 or 2–7 model.

During SEC media days last week, SEC Network, the league’s own TV channel, 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 guess what? There are problems with it, too. Auburn and Georgia are in separate pods, ending the annual game dubbed the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, played 125 times and every year since 1944.

And there’s another problem too: Texas and Texas A&M are in separate pods. While one league administrator believes the two schools must be kept together to play each year, another says they must be separated to keep the groupings more balanced.

It’s an illustration of the divide among league decision-makers who must answer the most significant question of SEC expansion: who plays who, where and when?

“(Greg) Sankey has to figure out who does each team want to play. He has to ask each team,” says one source. “He doesn’t care who you don’t want to play. He cares who you do want to play.”

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