SEC kicks can on expanding football schedule, giving control to ESPN, College Football Playoff

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. – The SEC’s presidents and chancellors had the opportunity this week to increase the conference’s football schedule to nine games. Instead, they meekly kicked the can a few inches forward. For the 2024 season, the SEC will remain one of two Power Five conferences to play only eight conference games, even as the conference swells to 16 members.

The decision whether to stay at eight games beyond 2024 will be taken out of the hands of these same presidents and chancellors.

ESPN or the College Football Playoff will gain the power of choice.

Oh, not in procedure, of course. The presidents and chancellors retain voting rights, but they’ve surrendered any real decision-making authority to their media partner and the selection committee.

LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers (8) tries to elude Texas A&M defensive back Bryce Anderson (1) during the second quarter at Kyle Field.

Disney/ESPN will become the SEC’s sole television partner beginning with the 2024 season. If ESPN ponies up more money for the SEC to enhance its product by adding another conference game, this debate is resolved. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey can say money shouldn’t drive decision-making on this subject, but money is nonetheless a key driver in the decision-making on this subject. Too many administrators were reluctant to embrace an extra conference game without additional ESPN compensation for the nine-game schedule to gain the required support this week. If ESPN’s offer changes, expect the vote to change.

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The CFP is the other main powerbroker here, though. The selection committee has the power to bring the SEC back to the scheduling table by how it awards at-large playoff bids.

The SEC’s scheduling system worked beautifully within the confines of a four-team playoff. An SEC team has won the national championship in six of the nine years featuring a four-team CFP. Twice in a five-year span, Alabama and Georgia played against each other in the national championship.

Entry into an exclusive four-team playoff placed a premium on not losing games. No SEC team that finished the regular season at 11-1 or better ever missed playoff selection.

But, the playoff will expand to 12 teams in 2024 and will include six at-large bids. That means the SEC will be eligible for as many as seven playoff bids. In such a setup, it’s not solely about best positioning your elite teams to win the national championship. It’s also about stockpiling as many playoff bids as possible.

“If we’re going to play more Power 5 games and SEC games, let’s make sure we’re rewarded for strength of the schedule,” Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said this week.

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Put differently, will a Big Ten team that plays an additional Power Five game in 2024 be favored in a debate over a comparable SEC team?

The SEC’s top two teams should not be in danger of missing a 12-team field, but how does the league best position itself to qualify its third-, fourth- and fifth-best teams for at-large selection? Tough to think playing fewer conference games and more cupcake games as compared to Big Ten peers is going to help the SEC in those at-large selection debates.

If the CFP favors a 9-3 Penn State for the final playoff spot over a 9-3 Tennessee or a 9-3 Michigan State gets the nod over 9-3 Auburn, this debate takes a new shape. An SEC team that plays eight conference games and nine total games against Power Five opponents would have a weak leg to stand on in a playoff debate against a Big Ten team that played nine conference games and 10 Power Five opponents.

By holding the SEC accountable for playing fewer conference games than the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12, the CFP selection committee could bring the conference to heel – if a windfall from ESPN doesn’t do it first.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: SEC gives ESPN, College Football Playoff control of schedule decision