The Southeastern Conference’s most recent action answered some — but not all — of the questions that have been pondered for months.
Of all the details the SEC confirmed about its 2020 football season in its Thursday release, it did not lay out a complete schedule. The expectation is for the SEC to keep the schedules the teams would have played in 2020 — their full division schedules, their annual opponent from the opposite division and the rotational cross-divisional opponent for 2020 — and add two more cross-divisional games to complete the schedule.
How the SEC will assign those extra two games to each member institution remains a mystery to the public. The SEC has several options, though, that fit different objectives.
The first model, as reported by Paul Finebaum and others, is a simple one: take the cross-divisional opponents slotted for the next two seasons and insert them into this one. For Alabama, that would be a road game against Florida (previously scheduled for 2021) and a home game against Vanderbilt (2022).
The primary question that comes from this method is what the league does about the 2021 and 2022 games that are moved up to 2020: does it play those games as currently scheduled, giving Alabama the odd scheduling quirk of games in Gainesville in back-to-back years and two games against Vanderbilt in three years, or does it move the entire cross-divisional rotation up two years? If it did the latter, Alabama’s trip to Kentucky scheduled in 2023 would be moved up to 2021.
An unintended consequence of the latter is a slight reduction in the long wait between return trips to SEC East stadiums, a system that has been criticized in recent years. For example, Alabama visited Williams-Bryce Stadium in 2019 and won’t visit again until 2033. In that time, UA will play more games in Big 12 stadiums (thanks to future home-and-home series with Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma) than it will in the home of a member of its own conference.
The drawback to the latter method is the fan experience, or lack thereof. In the event that attendance is either banned or severely limited, UA fans who looked forward to a trip to the Swamp in Gainesville will likely have to wait until 2035 to see the Crimson Tide there again.
Strength of schedule model
Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated reported the SEC is expected to develop a model, possibly based on strength of schedule, to assign opponents.
How the league selects data to use for such a model would be an interesting process. Strength of schedule models, even ones using a full season of data, are already a flawed exercise in that college football seasons are small samples with even less interplay between top leagues to provide true context. Building one with no regular season data to use would be an entirely subjective project.
This method also presents the issue of its objective. If it attempts to create as equal strength of schedule as possible for all 14 members, the SEC risks having its champion with a weaker schedule compared to other conference champions, in the event a College Football Playoff of some sort happens this season.
Stacking its best teams with the most difficult schedules would massage that concern (and likely provide some enticing matchups to the television networks in the process), but it also risks presenting a champion with more losses than its counterparts, again in the event a Playoff is viable at the end of the season.
No security measures would ever satisfy the conspiracy theorists on Twitter, but if done correctly this would be the most fair solution — or at least the most justifiable.
This would also be a way to generate meaningful content for SEC Network for the first time in months: the league could have commissioner Greg Sankey draw teams from boxes as is often done to form international soccer tournaments such as the World Cup and UEFA Champions League. It may lack some of the suspense those soccer draws have — Sankey would have to redraw if this draw matched Alabama with Tennessee or Georgia, for instance — but a ratings bonanza that comes with no legitimate questions for the fairness of the scheduling model has to be an attractive option.