The Southeastern Conference’s scheduling model is so entrenched that most fans could piece it together with ease: Eight conference games, an FCS opponent at home and a couple of other non-league matchups with maybe a traditional rival mixed in.
How long that tried-and-true formula can last is the question. The SEC is preparing to add Oklahoma and Texas to the league and there could be more expansion.
“I think the SEC needs to expand it’s conference games for sure,” said former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, now an analyst for the SEC Network.
That’s easier said than done,
The SEC season is already a pressure cooker over eight games where week-to-week a team’s championship fortunes can be upended. Now the league might add one or more critical games to the gauntlet.
Former Florida Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow isn’t sure how that shakes out.
He sees the importance of facing usually overmatched teams from the Football Championship Subdivision in order for SEC teams to find a rhythm. But as a fan, the now ESPN analyst, wants more matchups like the Top 25 Auburn-Penn State showdown earlier this month.
“If I’m an AD at an SEC school, I’m like, ‘I already have to play an SEC schedule. Are you kidding me?” he said of the prospect of adding league contests.
“I’m getting as many directional schools as I can” on the schedule, Tebow continued.
It’s a tricky balancing act for schedule makers. When teams play other Power Five teams, it can be a springboard for success or blunt a promising season.
In the SEC, No. 2 Georgia gained momentum and buzz with its 10-3 victory over then-third-ranked Clemson to start the season. Two weeks later, No. 22 Auburn fell in a drama-filled visit to 10th-ranked Penn State, 28-20.
The Nittany Lions have risen to No. 4 while Auburn has held on near the bottom of the rankings.
The Power Five doles out hefty paydays for what’s usually an easy victory against “cupcake” FCS teams. Every SEC team has one on the schedule this season. The AP surveyed SEC schools and found that 13 of the 14 programs will pay a combined $6.55 million in guarantees for such games.
Only Arkansas would not reveal what it will pay, meaning the total SEC payout is closer to $7 million.
The contests — that often look more like scrimmages — are helpful for the SEC team and its fans. Football teams iron out issues from fall camp while reserves, who won’t see the field once conference play starts, can get significant playing time. And crowds likely stream from packed stadiums satisfied with a blowout victory.
Sometimes, things don’t work out. Vanderbilt paid East Tennessee $415,000 to open the season and lost to the Buccaneers 23-3.
Rodgers believes the league must rethink its scheduling. More SEC games are needed in a super-sized, 16-team league, the SEC Network analyst said. Rodgers added that uniformity in scheduling nonconference games could squeeze out the FCS — ending one of the primary revenue streams such schools have in funding athletics.
“We’re on the cusp of college football as a whole changing completely,” Rodgers said. “I think we thought that it was behind us, ‘Look Texas and Oklahoma are here, let’s all take a breath.’ No, no, no, it’s only going to get crazier.”
The SEC only has to look at its recent past for a possible solution. The COVID-19 pandemic led the league to an all-SEC, 10-game schedule in 2020. The SEC played all but two regular-season games, ending with a championship contest as Alabama emerged as national champion.
“You know, we played 10 SEC games last year. I thought it was great for fans. I thought it was great for the matchups,” said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, long an advocate for more SEC games.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, No. 2 to top-ranked Alabama in the Top 25, is also backing more SEC games because he says it’s “good for the league.”
Should the SEC hold on to eight-game league season with 16 teams, it could mean only one cross-divisional game. Think Florida-Alabama in the regular season once a decade.
But additional conference games could affect facing FCS teams, opponents from the Group of Five leagues and tradition Power Five rivalry games like Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State or South Carolina-Clemson.
The coronavirus eliminated those contests last year. College football’s changing landscape might do the same.
“The model is going to continue to change,” Rodgers said. “So buckle up.”
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum and John Zenor contributed to this report.
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