Arkansas’ Sam Pittman went to a place coaches don’t often visit when discussing the future of the SEC football schedule: He suggested giving the fans what they want.
Many coaches consider what is best for their own career when considering a schedule. They think, “How can I plan for six wins?”
But Pittman got to the heart of the matter when he said he would support expanding the SEC from eight to nine conference games, an idea the league is considering.
“I think it would be great for football and great for the fans,” Pittman told me in June, “and let’s face it, they’re the ones buying the tickets.”
STAY INFORMED: Subscribe to our sports newsletter now!
I couldn’t agree more, but why stop at nine?
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey jokingly said last month that the conference might bypass the league’s nine-game schedule in favor of the SEC’s 10 games.
What Sankey said in jest should become a legitimate research idea.
I know the familiar arguments against expanding the conference schedule:
Aren’t you going to play with a heavier schedule the programs that are trying to climb? Maybe, but why let dungeon dwellers get in the way of progress? If a coach is counting on a few annual wins against Mid-American Conference teams as the key to a rebuild, I don’t have much hope for him anyway.
Wouldn’t more conference play be a bigger obstacle for teams to make the College Football Playoff or win a national championship? That narrative conveniently ignores that Alabama cruised to a national title in 2020 while navigating a pandemic-induced 10-game SEC schedule.
How a 10-game SEC football schedule might work
Sankey’s quip about the SEC’s 10-game schedule made me wonder if a format could be built within a 16-team conference once Oklahoma and Texas join. The SEC plans to abandon divisions after expansion, so any schedule plan must come from a non-division structure.
Applying a few ounces of brainpower, I came up with this model for a 10-game conference schedule:
Each team will play five designated SEC opponents each season. It would then play five of the 10 remaining teams in flip-flop fashion, facing one set of five in odd-numbered years and the other five in even-numbered years.
This would allow teams to play each of their SEC peers at least once every two years, while preserving top rivalries. A 10-game conference slate will leave room for one non-conference matchup, plus a game against a cupcake opponent.
Yes, this means cutting (in most cases) two transitions out of the schedule, but to reiterate, offer paying customers what they want. How many season ticket holders would mourn the 11am drop A September game against Akron?
Designating five opponents for each team would require several compromises and competitive balance must be considered. No team should face five opponents who annually rank among the top teams in the SEC, and no team should be given five scrubs.
Here’s what I came up with:
Alabama – Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Texas
Arkansas – Missouri, Ole Miss, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M
chestnut – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
Florida – Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina
Georgia – Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee
Kentucky – Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee
LSU – Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M
Be Miss – Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, Vanderbilt
Mississippi State – Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss
Missouri – Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Oklahoma – Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M
South Carolina – Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Tennessee – Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Texas – Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas A&M
Texas A&M – Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas
Vanderbilt – Auburn, Ole Miss, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee
Several rivalries may have to be sacrificed on a yearly basis in order for the pieces of the puzzle to fit. In my proposed format, I’ve left out games like Florida-Tennessee, Arkansas-LSU and Kentucky-Vanderbilt for the sake of overall assembly. Each of these teams would have enjoyed other quality rivalries, and the games left on the cutting room floor would have happened in different years.
Of course, this is probably a fantasy. After all, the SEC has long resisted increasing even nine conference games. Ten can cause instant hyperventilation among coaches whose job status hangs in the balance.
Or maybe Sankey will joke about an 11-game SEC schedule at media days next year, at which point I’ll go back to the drawing board.
Blake Topmeier is the SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.