Arkansas’ Sam Pittman went to a place coaches often don’t go when discussing the future of the SEC football scheduling: He suggested giving fans what they want.
Many coaches consider what’s best for their own careers when contemplating the schedule. They think, “How can I schedule six victories?”
But Pittman cut to the heart of the matter when he said he would support the SEC expanding from eight to nine conference games, an idea that’s under consideration by the league.
“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.”
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Couldn’t agree more, but why stop at nine?
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey jokingly said last month that the conference may bypass a nine-game league schedule in favor of 10 SEC games.
What Sankey said in jest should become a legitimate idea to explore.
I know the familiar arguments against expanding the conference schedule:
Won’t playing a tougher schedule hamstring programs trying to ascend? Perhaps, but why let cellar-dwellers get in the way of progress? If a coach is counting on a couple of 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 games present a bigger hurdle for teams to qualify for the College Football Playoff or win a national championship? That narrative conveniently ignores that Alabama romped its way to a national title in 2020 while navigating a pandemic-induced 10-game SEC schedule.
How a 10-game SEC football schedule could work
Sankey’s quip about a 10-game SEC schedule made me wonder whether a format could be constructed within a 16-team conference after Oklahoma and Texas join. The SEC plans to ditch divisions after expansion, so any schedule plan would need to come from a no-division structure.
Applying a few ounces of brain power, I devised this model for a 10-game conference schedule:
Each team would play five designated SEC rivals each season. Then, it would 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 would leave room for one marquee nonconference clash, plus a game against a cupcake opponent.
Yes, that means trimming (in most instances) two pushovers off the schedule, but, to reiterate, offer the paying customers what they want. How many season-ticket holders would mourn the nixing of an 11 am September game against Akron?
Assigning five rivals for each team would require a few compromises, and competitive balance should be taken into account. No team should have to face five rivals that annually rank among the SEC’s top teams, and no team should be assigned 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
Auburn – 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
Ole 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
A few rivalries may have to be sacrificed on an annual basis to make the puzzle pieces fit. In my suggested format, I dropped matchups such as Florida-Tennessee, Arkansas-LSU and Kentucky-Vanderbilt for the sake of the overall assembly. Each of those teams would enjoy other quality rivalries, and the games left on the cutting room floor would occur in alternate years.
Of course, this is probably a fantasy. After all, the SEC has long resisted increasing to even nine conference games. Ten might cause immediate hyperventilation among coaches whose job status is hanging by a thread.
Or, maybe Sankey will quip about an 11-game SEC schedule at next year’s media days, at which point, I’ll return to the drawing board.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.