The SEC won’t be moving to a nine-game conference schedule after all. But it will be going forward in 2024 without divisions.
Commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters Thursday that the league has approved a temporary eight-game conference schedule for the 2024 football season when it welcomes Texas and Oklahoma to the league.
Sankey said that the league will continue exploring scheduling options for 2025 and beyond.
Sankey had strongly hinted at his preference for a nine-game conference schedule leading up to the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin, Florida. The proposal would have featured three permanent opponents, which would preserve longstanding rivalries, as well as six rotating opponents.
In response to a question about the argument for a nine-game schedule, Sankey said Monday, “A league at the forefront of college athletics does not stand still.”
The SEC currently plays an eight-game conference schedule — games against all six division opponents plus two cross-divisional games. The eight-game conference schedule discussed at spring meetings this week features one permanent opponent and seven rotating opponents.
Sankey said the eight-game schedule in 2024 will be based on “fairness and balance” and that “traditional rivalries” would be a major factor.
“We understand the important matchups,” he said.
Other than the obvious rivalries such as Alabama–Auburn, Georgia–Florida and Mississippi State-Ole Miss, sources told ESPN that a priority for the league would be preserving other long-standing rivalries such as Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn–Georgia and Texas–Texas A&M during the 2024 season.
There were a number of issues causing concern among stakeholders regarding the nine-game conference schedule. Among them: competitive balance and the desire for more revenue in return for the additional conference game.
Asked about the possibility of being compensated for an extra conference game, Sankey said he believes, “Money follows. It doesn’t lead.”
Coaches focused on the impact a ninth conference game would have on bowl eligibility and the ability to make the College Football Playoff.
Alabama coach Nick Saban had been an advocate for playing nine conference games in the past. But his position appeared to change recently, focusing instead on the need to play only Power 5 teams, which he said would be better for fans and improve teams’ strength of schedules.
“I think one of the more difficult things with going to nine games is we’ve tried to schedule two out-of-conference Power 5 games to try to improve our strength of schedule over the next 7, 8, 9, 10 years. And if we go to nine games, we’ll have to unwind that,” he said. “My deal was always to play more SEC games because we couldn’t get other people to schedule. So now I think there’s more people in tune to scheduling. So having a balance is probably the most important thing.”
Florida coach Billy Napier said he wondered about the impact scheduling would have on at-large bids in an expanded 12-team playoff in 2024 and beyond. How strength of schedule is viewed would be a “critical factor” in the decision, he said.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart took a different approach, calling the entire debate over eight vs. nine conference games “the most overrated conversation there ever was.”
He pointed out that, regardless of eight or nine conference games, by moving to a division-less format each team would play every opponent in the SEC twice — home and away — during a four-year period.
In the past, cross-divisional teams could go long stretches without playing each other. When Georgia traveled to Mississippi State last season, it was its first trip to Starkville since 2010.
“I get traditional rivalries. You have two, you have three, you have one,” Smart said. “You guys need something to write about bad when you start talking about this. It’s just not that big a deal to me. Because you have to win your games to advance, right? You need to be in the SEC championship, possibly, with expanded playoff. That’s a lot better topic for me. Is somebody going to get an advantage by not going to the SEC championship but making the playoff?”
Smart said it would be difficult potentially losing the Auburn rivalry. A former Georgia football player, he counts himself among the fans who want to see it continue every year.
“But I think it’s one of the costs of progress bringing two more teams in,” he said. “It’s one of the costs of scheduling, getting more balance in terms of you’re going to play everybody. I think that it’s not going to be just Georgia- Auburn, it’s going to be somebody else vs. somebody else. Sometimes you call that progress. Sometimes you upset the fan.
“I think that that’s a good debate … because your traditionalists want those rivalries and others want to see you play the teams they never get to see you play. You can’t have both.”
The SEC will announce the full 2024 schedule June 14.
“We have been engaged in planning for the entry of Oklahoma and Texas into the SEC since the summer of 2021, but the change of the membership date from 2025 to 2024 creates scheduling complexities that can better be managed with a one-year schedule,” Sankey said. “Creating a one-year schedule will provide a longer on-ramp to manage football scheduling around existing nonconference commitments of our members. It will also provide additional time to understand the impact of an expanded College Football Playoff and engage with our media partners as we determine the appropriate long-term plan for SEC football scheduling.”
The SEC also updated its field access policy.
Each school must provide security and a uniformed police presence around the visiting team and game officials before, during and after competition to prevent contact with fans. It will also be a requirement that teams create a secure, clear path off the playing surface in the event of a field or court storming.
Penalties for violations were increased to $100,000 for the first offense, $250,000 for the second offense and $500,000 for each additional offense.
If the visiting team and game officials have cleared the playing surface before fans enter the field or court, the home school may avoid the prescribed penalty.
SEC, sans divisions, going with 8-game conference slate in ’24