Would you have expected anything else — and anything less — from the SEC? Would you have expected SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey to concede any ground or give up any leverage in the pursuit of College Football Playoff berths or national championships?
No. The SEC always plays for keeps. “It Just Means More” is a very real statement of the SEC’s hunger for football success. This hunger was affirmed on Thursday, when the SEC approved an eight-game conference schedule for 2024, the first year in which Oklahoma and Texas will compete in the conference.
Why is this such a cutthroat move, and what must USC and Lincoln Riley take from this turn of events? We’ll break it all down below, with help from our friends at Sooners Wire, who are discussing this story at their site:
“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.”
The Pac-12, where USC currently plays, and the Big Ten (where USC will play next year) both have nine-game league schedules. The SEC is maintaining the one-game difference with the other Power Five conferences, giving its teams more nonconference scheduling flexibility to improve their records and increase the odds of more playoff berths under the 12-team format which will be in place in 2024.
THE PLOT TWIST
Many people in the college football industry thought the SEC would move to nine games with a 16-team conference. The arrivals of Texas and Oklahoma elicited the possibility that the SEC would want more showcase games between high-profile teams. ESPN/Disney certainly wanted that, but the SEC wouldn’t give that to its main TV partner. Notable in all this is that ESPN/Disney didn’t get contractual guarantees that the SEC would move to nine games. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe that was a sign that ESPN/Disney didn’t have as much leverage as some industry insiders perceived. At any rate, ESPN/Disney have to be disappointed that they’re not getting a ninth SEC game.
ONE-YEAR OR LONG-TERM?
This is a one-year arrangement, but if ESPN/Disney couldn’t get a ninth SEC game from the conference next year, what makes anyone think ESPN/Disney can get that ninth game in 2025 or 2026? This is a huge question for ESPN/Disney and the college football industry as a whole.
We know why the SEC is staying with eight conference games: maximizing the odds of getting a ton of playoff spots in the 12-team field.
Last season, Alabama went 10-2 and did not make the four-team playoff. In 2024, with 12 teams in the field, a 10-2 Alabama team will get in. Period.
If the SEC can generate five 10-2 teams, it might get five playoff berths, one for its champion and then four at-large berths. Some might wonder why the SEC has to be so greedy and deprive fans of more quality SEC games.
The SEC will simply respond, “We’re here to win.” It’s hard to knock the SEC for its logic. Ultimately, ESPN/Disney didn’t negotiate hard enough.
PLAYOFF MATH FOR USC
USC might have felt, when the 12-team playoff format was agreed to, that it wouldn’t have a hard time making the playoff. That might still be true, but the SEC is making a very clear play to collect as many berths as possible.
What this means for USC is that the Trojans will very likely need to finish in the top two of the Big Ten to get a playoff berth on a regular basis. Finishing third, even with a 10-2 record, might not be good enough.
If the SEC does get five bids, that means the SEC gets four of the six at-large bids on the board. That leaves just two at-large bids for everyone else. The Big Ten runner-up would regularly be in strong position to get an at-large bid, but if the runner-up in another conference is 11-1, being third in the Big Ten will create a precarious position.
If the SEC gets only three at-large bids and not four, however, the amount of breathing room for a 10-2 Big Ten team which finishes third in the conference will increase considerably. If Notre Dame doesn’t qualify for the playoff, even more so.
BIG TEN FOOTBALL SCHEDULE ROTATION
We still don’t know what the Big Ten’s football schedule rotation plan will be. When USC joins the league next year, it will be of great interest and importance to know which teams USC will (or won’t) play on an annual basis. It will be important for the Trojans to get a balanced schedule which doesn’t make their path to the playoff overly imposing.
If you’re Oklahoma, this turn of events is actually good news. Oklahoma fans had very good reason to think the SEC would move to nine conference games. That would make the Sooners’ playoff equation more complicated. Now, with only eight (at least for 2024), Oklahoma’s playoff path is not as daunting. ESPN/Disney lose in all of this, but not Oklahoma.
Texas shouldn’t be relieved. Oklahoma has actually achieved a lot in college football over the past decade. Texas hasn’t done a thing since the 2009 season. Texas needs to prove it can win big.
USC IN THE PLAYOFF
If USC does make the playoff in 2024, the odds just got better that the Trojans will face an SEC team in either the first round or the quarterfinals.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF FAILURE
The College Football Playoff could have mandated that all conferences, in the 12-team playoff era, needed to play the same number of games. Another option: swapping out the SEC Championship Game for a play-in game or some other kind of “flex scheduled” game to beef up an SEC team’s schedule.
Nope. The playoff was unable to do that.
You know what’s coming, right? SEC teams, as long as they are still allowed to play just eight conference games, will fulfill the Power Five nonconference game requirement by playing Kansas or Colorado or Georgia Tech, someone like that. They’re going to play three easy nonconference games with one moderately challenging game. This is how it works.
This is why the SEC usually gets what it wants.