As SEC meetings near, chances for 8-game football schedule, or not voting, have gone up

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A smirk went across the face of Georgia president Jere Morehead this week as he overheard a question: Will the SEC schedule be finalized next week at the conference’s spring meetings? It was the knowing smirk of a man who has been dealing with the subject for much longer than he ever expected.

“I am ready for it to be done,” Morehead said. “We’ve talked about it and talked about it. I’m not sure it will get completed (next week). We’ll see. There’s just a lot of dynamics still playing around on that issue.”

Or perhaps just one dynamic, as Morehead bluntly acknowledged: Whether the SEC gets more money from ESPN.

“I may be saying more than Commissioner (Greg) Sankey would want me to say, but obviously if you go to a nine-game schedule, you have to be compensated for going to a nine-game schedule,” Morehead said. “There’s still some dynamics that have to play out with our media partners.”

Georgia is among the schools that in the past has favored going to nine games, and those schools were long believed to be in the majority. But during the past few months, support has wavered, and there is now a real chance that keeping an eight-game format will win out. That could make next week’s meetings dramatic, with a vote that could go either way.

Georgia remains solidly in the pro-nine-game camp. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

Or the vote could be punted, yet again. But time is running out.

If the SEC does adopt a nine-game schedule, schools have to cancel at least one nonconference game in the 2024 season, and many have their schedules full for seasons beyond that. That, and just being tired of debating the subject, may spur a decision next week.

Oklahoma and Texas officials will be in Destin next week and will have a voice in the decision. But they will not have an official vote until July 1, 2024. So the decision could come down to a simple vote. The best way to look at it: There are more schools hard in favor of going to nine games than there are those hard in favor of staying at eight. But there are enough schools close enough to the fence that staying at eight games could win out, especially if ESPN doesn’t increase its financial commitment to the league.

Right now the SEC is operating under the pre-expansion agreement that was set to bring the conference about $811 million annually, and per the standard pro rata clause in most contracts, that would go up to around $926 million by adding two schools. The SEC has hoped that because those two schools are Texas and Oklahoma and that a nine-game schedule would mean more marquee games, ESPN would offer more money.


Grudges, politics and gentlemen’s agreements: The chaotic history of SEC scheduling

The nine-game format would include three annual opponents for each school, then rotate everyone else. The eight-game format would include only one annual opponent while rotating everyone else. The result being that some secondary rivalries — Auburn-Georgia, Alabama–Tennessee, Texas-Texas A&M, for example would not be played annually. The SEC probably has made the case to ESPN that having those games every year, rather than twice every four years, is worth more money, as is having a total of eight more conference games every year.

ESPN has made no financial commitments yet. (Side note: This would seem to confirm that ESPN was not behind Oklahoma and Texas joining the conference.)

But there still could be something new to sway the vote in Destin, if there is a vote. ESPN could let the SEC people know that, for instance, it would be amenable to paying a certain amount more if the league went to a nine-game schedule. Or it could just be pointed out that since ESPN and the SEC share SEC Network revenues, more SEC games — and more quality games — will result in more revenue anyway.

Failing that help from ESPN, however, more than a few SEC schools are unwilling to give up the attendance money they get from extra home games. And yes, bowl eligibility is a factor too. So in essence it becomes a divide between the schools already scheduling 10 or more power conference games per year, and those that haven’t been.

Here’s the best guess at where things stand now:

The nine-game camp

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate, and Aggies officials actually helped craft the original plan for a nine-game format.

Georgia, Florida, Alabama and LSU are also in the category of major programs that have already been punching up their schedule with Power 5 teams. However, Alabama coach Nick Saban has been wavering on the nine-game model, not liking the three permanent opponents his team would draw (LSU in addition to Auburn and Tennessee). So Alabama may not be a hard yes, and Morehead makes it sound as though Georgia’s vote is fungible too.

Texas and Oklahoma had already scheduled SEC schools (Georgia in both cases, Alabama and Tennessee in others) before deciding to join the SEC. So they could use their voice and unofficial vote in favor of nine games.

Missouri, while not an elite football power, has also expressed support for the nine-game format, according to an SEC source.

The eight-game camp

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart has been outspoken in favor of staying at eight, saying last summer that it worked for his school, pointing to the annual rivalry game with Louisville as a ninth power conference game.

Mississippi State and Ole Miss are also believed to prefer having only eight conference games plus one mandated nonconference game against a Power 5 team. Bowl eligibility plus more home gate receipts are driving factors.

Mystery (five)

Tennessee, which wasn’t afraid to schedule Oklahoma for a nonconference series, would seem more likely to favor nine. Auburn also sees itself in the elite category. But both schools, along with Arkansas, also like having more home games and the gate receipts that come with it. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has also been quiet on its preference.

South Carolina is one of those in a supports-either-option camp. The Gamecocks do already have the annual rivalry with Clemson, so a nine-game schedule would give them at least 10 power-conference games per year. But athletic director Ray Tanner, speaking with The Athletic in March, said he would do what’s in the best interests of the SEC.

What happens if there is a vote, and it’s 7-7? It’s not clear if Sankey or the SEC office would simply break the tie. The only thing that’s clear is Sankey is seeking a consensus, or something close to it. He learned under predecessor Mike Slive, who liked to say of the conference’s private deliberations: “The First Amendment is alive and well in the SEC.” And Slive could smile and say that because he knew eventually the league would settle it and not announce the actual vote.

Could there be some give-and-take on permanent opponents, as in could it be a trading chip to get wavering teams to support a nine-game schedule? Nothing can be ruled out, but all along the permanent opponent and the format have been on a separate track. Each team’s three permanent opponents in a nine-game format have been known to each school — though not publicly confirmed — since last year’s meetings and have not changed.

Could the commissioner put his weight on the scale for one of the options?Perhaps, but Sankey is more likely to stand back and let his presidents take the lead. That’s why next week could look like this: Coaches talk about it publicly Tuesday and Wednesday, athletic directors lay the groundwork for a final decision, then presidents come in Thursday, hash things out, and vote Friday.

But not voting is also an option. Not a desirable option. But an option.

(Photo of Texas vs. Texas A&M: Darren Carroll / Getty Images)

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