We wouldn’t speculate about Oklahoma football just for the sake of the exercise. We’re very much focused on USC football around here and enjoying what Lincoln Riley has done for the Trojans in a relatively short period of time. However, one thing happened on Thursday which has invited a delicious, irresistible, impossible-to-ignore question about Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma.
That one thing: The SEC approved an eight-game conference schedule for the 2024 college football season, when Oklahoma and Texas join the conference.
“According to Chuck Dunlap, SEC communications director, SEC members will be required to play their eight conference opponents and at least one Power Five or major independent opponent.
“Each team will play one permanent SEC opponent and then rotate the other seven league games. For the Oklahoma Sooners, they’ll face the Texas Longhorns each season. That’s a rivalry too valuable for the league to not have them meet each season in the Cotton Bowl.”
While this is not a multi-year deal, it is still a very significant story. We’ll explain that in the course of time, but first, we have to begin with the big question for Lincoln Riley:
IF HE KNEW THE SEC WAS STAYING AT 8 GAMES, WOULD LINCOLN RILEY HAVE LEFT OKLAHOMA?
It’s true that Riley knew that he would have to compete with Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, and the rest of the SEC, but the prospect of playing nine games in the SEC, not eight, probably made Oklahoma’s national championship path harder for him to envision. If Riley felt a nine-game SEC schedule was a strong likelihood (if not a near-certain outcome), did that have any influence at all on his internal thought process?
PAC-12 NINE GAMES >>> SEC NINE GAMES
Lincoln Riley knew the Pac-12 used a nine-game conference schedule. If he guessed (inwardly) that the SEC was very likely to adopt a nine-game league schedule, Riley easily could have rationalized that playing nine in the Pac was better than playing nine in the SEC … at least if the national title was and is the goal.
RILEY AND THE BIG TEN
This is a fascinating follow-up question: Lincoln Riley couldn’t have known that USC was going to move to the Big Ten (or at least, that hasn’t been proven yet), so does USC’s move to the Big Ten make the SEC’s eight-game schedule decision even more of an internal source of conflict for Riley? We don’t know what he’s thinking, but it’s definitely interesting to contemplate the query.
2023 SEASON AT USC
How will the progress of the 2023 USC season affect any of Riley’s thoughts, deep down inside? Again, we can’t know the answers to these kinds of questions, but here — in the month of June — it’s impossible to not at least think about such questions.
2023 SEASON AT OKLAHOMA
If Brent Venables succeeds or fails in 2023 at Oklahoma, will that affect how Lincoln Riley personally processes any of his attitudes or views about the quality and stability of the USC job and how he plans for the future?
The SEC hasn’t failed to win the college football national championship since 2018. LSU won in 2019. Alabama won in 2020. Georgia won in 2021 and 2022. If the SEC continues to win titles, this insistence on playing only eight games might hit differently compared to if the league stumbles in 2023. Not just Lincoln Riley, but a lot of other coaches, might have strong opinions on this — opinions they might never air publicly, but which could influence the decisions they make and/or how they go about their business in 2024 and beyond.
EXAMINING THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE WITH THE SEC AND ESPN/DISNEY
Let’s dive into the nuances of this move by the SEC from a media perspective. Very clearly, ESPN/Disney weren’t able to get a ninth game from the SEC in the first year with Texas and Oklahoma in the conference (2024). With the SEC adopting a one-year plan, it raises the question: Will we see nine games in 2025, the second year in which Texas and Oklahoma will play football in the SEC?
BACKGROUND ON THE PLAYOFF AND CFB MEDIA RIGHTS
Keep in mind that after the 2025 season, a new College Football Playoff television deal will begin. The actual negotiations will occur before the end of the 2025 season, but the deal will take effect in 2026. The deal is almost certain to involve multiple media rights partners due to the 12-team size of the playoff field. ESPN/Disney has been the sole carrier of the four-team playoff from 2014 through today (and continuing through 2025).
The obvious question: Will the negotiations over playoff rights for 2026 be accompanied by a leverage play from Disney/ESPN in which it asks for a ninth SEC league game? Will 2026 be the year when the SEC — after staying with eight for a few more seasons — finally moves to nine league games?
ESPN/DISNEY'S NEXT PLAY
So, if you’re ESPN/Disney, do you sit back and wait for the 2023 season to unfold, or do you (behind the scenes) press SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey to make sure you get a ninth game in the 2025 season? One wonders what conversations are occurring in corporate offices right now. Is ESPN a prisoner of events, or can it dictate terms? It seems as though it’s the former, since the SEC wouldn’t just give away a ninth game under terms of a deal ESPN/Disney agreed to.
WE HAVE TO ASK
Point-blank: Why wasn’t ESPN/Disney able to lock down a ninth SEC game — all that extra inventory, all that extra money — at the bargaining table in the initial deal it agreed to?
ESPN VS FOX
It certainly seems that with Fox Sports getting a Big Ten package which includes nine conference games — even though that package is shared by NBC and CBS — ESPN/Disney isn’t getting as good a media rights deal.
Fox and the Big Ten are expanding their offerings with USC coming in. ESPN/Disney have to think they’re not getting the same value — not as much as what they hoped, at any rate — with the SEC staying at eight league games in 2024.
ONE IDEA FOR ESPN/DISNEY TO CONSIDER
If the SEC tells ESPN/Disney that it wants to stay at eight conference games in 2025, what can ESPN/Disney do?
Here’s an idea: SEC semifinals.
There’s an SEC Championship Game — the SEC was the first Power Five conference to use a championship game in 1992 — so why not have SEC semifinals as a lead-in to the title game? That could give ESPN/Disney major added value. The SEC teams not playing in the semifinals could play each other, giving ESPN/Disney the ninth game as a flex-scheduled contest.
ONE MORE THING ABOUT LINCOLN RILEY
One last question: Will any of these developments, in any way or to any degree, reshape Lincoln Riley’s thought process relative to the NFL? He could grow tired of the movements he’s seeing in college sports, or he could relish the competition even more in the Big Ten, as he tries to win a national championship.
We’ll just have to wait and see. First things first: Riley needs to win big at USC this year. Everything else can wait.