MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — You’ve got to hand it to the Southeastern Conference. It is turning indecision and disagreement into a TV show.
On June 14, the league that cannot make up its mind will unveil its 2024 schedule live on the SEC Network. It will be an eight-game conference slate, not nine, with a single-division lineup leading to the two highest-ranked teams playing in the championship game. But it will not be the beginning of a so-called “one-seven” model, with one permanent opponent and the other seven rotating annually.
It might not be the beginning of anything. Or maybe it is. Who the hell knows. No promises, no commitment, everything subject to change. The dithering continues in Dixie.
The only thing certain is that the SEC has a one-year plan that commissioner Greg Sankey says will preserve “traditional rivalries” that could have been unsustainable on an annual basis in a one-seven model. So fans can expect to still see Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee and other games in ’24 that otherwise might not have been played. And the strong presumption is that Texas will play Texas A&M in a rivalry resumption game—in College Station, according to Aggies athletic director Ross Bjork. Those are good things.
This entire exercise ultimately might be the most prudent play for the league in terms of gauging its full monetary worth with ESPN and full competitive clout with the expanded College Football Playoff, which will go to 12 teams in ’24. But it comes with an undertone of avoidance. Even if it’s just in the short term, the big, bad SEC took the easy way out.
How can a league expanding to 16 teams only play eight conference games in trying to decide a champion? The other 16-team league in 2024 will be the Big Ten, which plays nine games. The Big 12 will have 12 members (for now) and plays nine games. The Pac-12, with 10 members (for the moment) plays nine. The Atlantic Coast Conference, with 14 teams, is the only other power conference that plays just eight league games.
Beyond sheer numbers is the dominance of the SEC and its attendant pride in that dominance. A swaggering, chesty conference that has won the last four national championships, by three different schools, seems a bit scared.
Scared of a challenge. Scared of enhanced competition. Scared of doing something that doesn’t immediately produce more money. Scared of not being catered to by the College Football Playoff. Scared of reducing its three-cupcake seasonal diet to two. Poor things.
The primary stated reason for hitting what amounts to the pause button (again) is the “onboarding” of Oklahoma and Texas as the SEC’s newest members a year ahead of schedule. (Though the acceleration from 2025 to ’24 had long been speculated upon.) These things take time to get right, we were told. Even though everyone knew the 16-team behemoth was coming since July ’21.
Sankey cited the Oklahoma-Texas transition while pushing back against any assertions that may come about his conference refusing to step up its degree of difficulty. The commissioner has seemed in favor of pushing his membership toward a nine-game slate, but he was willing to defend staying at eight (at least temporarily).
“Over time, nobody’s shying away from anything,” Sankey said. “We just didn’t add another game over a period of transition. If you’re that impatient, I’m glad you’re not leading the conference.”
It will be up to the CFP selection committee to decide whether sticking at eight games comes with a cost in 2024. There is no doubt that the SEC is the best conference in the country … but it also is a league in which everyone schedules one FCS opponents and very few schools schedule more than one power opponent for a non-conference game.
The basic scheduling formula is this: eight SEC games, one quality non-conference game (sometimes at a neutral site, sometimes home-and-home), three weaker opponents at home. That certainly hasn’t hurt the league in terms of CFP representation in the past, and the SEC has almost always delivered in the playoff.
But everything changes with the expansion to 12 teams. Instead of being virtually assured of one bid and pushing for two, the SEC will be virtually assured of multiple bids and pushing for three or four.
In previous years, the CFP selection committee has occasionally seemed more enamored by win-loss record than strength of schedule. In this instance, the SEC will be using 2024 as a trial run for what matters most in filling an expanded bracket before committing to a long-term scheduling plan. But a league that often hollers about strength of schedule is bypassing the surest way to prove itself—indeed, to further separate itself—in that area by staying with eight games.
You want to keep Western Carolina, Tennessee-Martin and McNeese State on the schedule? Fine. But don’t be surprised if some committee members from outside the SEC hold that against you in comparison with teams that played at least one more quality opponent.
This is a strange shrinking from the fight by a conference that has dominated college football. League presidents and athletic directors—more than Sankey—are opting for a softer path to a safer outcome. Through 2024, at least, SEC schools certainly aren’t a group willing to embrace an anyone-anywhere-anytime mantra.
Maybe that’s a byproduct of sustained disagreement and lack of consensus over a long period of time. The default position is caution. And fresh SEC Network programming.