Even Greg Sankey can't offer a good reason to keep 8-game SEC football schedule | Toppmeyer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Greg Sankey offered a reason why some SEC members continue to support an eight-game conference football schedule, but I didn’t hear a convincing reason.
“We’ve been at eight games. It’s a comfort level,” the SEC commissioner said Monday, when asked to articulate why some within the conference favor an eight-game model rather than nine games.
Sure, that’s a reason – a lame one.
Comfort and familiarity breed complacency. The SEC didn’t become the biggest, baddest football league by being complacent.
To be clear, Sankey did not stump for an eight-game conference schedule during his hourlong press gaggle at the Associated Press Sports Editors Southeast region meeting. In fact, Sankey wouldn't explicitly say whether he favors eight or nine SEC games. Instead, he offered breadcrumbs of information and said he’d reserve his preference for his membership.
What Sankey did say, though, makes me further believe the answer should be obvious to this yearslong debate surrounding the schedule format for when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024.
“The more you play, the more you narrow that competitive disparity across the board,” Sankey said.
There it is.
Not only is the proposed nine-game conference schedule, with three rivals affixed to each team, better for consumption and rivalry preservation, nine also reduces competitive imbalance, compared to an eight-game format featuring one fixed rival.
Consider this: In the eight-game format, one team (probably Tennessee) would be treated to playing Vanderbilt every season, while another (probably Florida) would be paired with Georgia.
How's that for fair?
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No model will ensure absolute fairness, and nine conference games would create an imbalance of home and road games. However, adding two additional rivals for each team and playing more SEC games creates more opportunity for equity in scheduling.
The SEC will eliminate divisions after this season, regardless of which schedule format the membership approves. Nixing divisions will reduce some of the scheduling imbalance that exists.
Case in point: Georgia’s toughest game this season projects to be at Tennessee. By comparison, rival Auburn will host Georgia and Alabama and play at LSU and Texas A&M.
So, yeah, the current format stinks for scheduling equality, but convincing arguments persuaded the SEC to keep that model in place for as long as it did.
For starters, a 14-team league made for wonky scheduling. Also, until last season, either round-robin scheduling or divisions were required to conduct a conference championship. And, most importantly, the SEC’s eight-game conference schedule worked well for the postseason while the conference gobbled up national championships throughout the the BCS and four-team College Football Playoff eras.
Now, though, the stage is set for evolution, with the conference growing to 16 in 2024 and divisions no longer required for a conference championship. Oklahoma and Texas’ arrival will coincide with the CFP expanding from four to 12 teams. Additional playoff entry points should further incentivize the SEC to solidify their strength of schedule and join the Big Ten, Big 12 and others in playing a nine-game conference schedule.
So, what’s the holdup? Why can’t consensus be reached?
“Some people think one thing at one time," Sankey said, "and then they think something different at another."
Enough waffling. The choice ought to be clear, particularly since Sankey’s articulated argument for sticking with eight games – familiarity – is weak.
Anyway, I don’t buy that familiarity is the root of the hesitation against increasing to nine SEC games.
Truthfully, I think some coaches are scared that playing another conference game would leave them exposed. Also, some coaches are too caught up in who their three assigned rivals would be in a nine-game conference schedule, rather than acknowledging that the nine-game format would create a better opportunity for something resembling equitable scheduling.
If SEC members agreed to eliminate the requirement to play at least one Power Five nonconference opponent, that might persuade some reluctant, record-conscious members to embrace a nine-game SEC schedule. Sankey said eliminating that Power Five nonconference scheduling requirement is a possibility, but not a certainty, within the nine-game SEC schedule proposal.
“That’s part of the conversation," Sankey said. "We’re talking."
The members have been talking and debating the future schedule format for years. It’s time for Sankey to whip the votes.
SEC members will vote to decide the schedule format, with the spring meetings that begin May 30 as a targeted decision point. Oklahoma and Texas get to offer input, but they don’t get a vote. Neither does Sankey, but the commissioner is a respected leader who holds sway over the membership.
Sankey should exercise that power to nudge enough members to embrace change, rather than retaining a familiar number when there’s no longer a good reason why eight is better than nine.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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