Staples: It's obvious which regular-season scheduling model the SEC should pick

Staples: It’s obvious which regular-season scheduling model the SEC should pick

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — When presented with two choices — one sensible and exciting and one completely idiotic — the debate shouldn’t last long. The idiotic choice should be punted and the sensible, exciting idea should be adopted.

Once the choices were narrowed to two, the discussion about the SEC’s potential regular-season scheduling options once Oklahoma and Texas join the league (in 2025 at the latest) should have taken about five seconds. Yet SEC athletic directors are still debating which model is best after two days of discussions. In any profession, it’s always possible to get so deep in the weeds that the obvious decision doesn’t seem so obvious. That’s what’s happening on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico this week.

SEC presidents and chancellors will join the ADs Thursday. These people have a lot more to worry about. So hopefully they are less likely to get lost in the minutiae. And hopefully, they’ll make the correct decision.

I bet if I lay out the options without identifying which is the good one and which is the stupid one you’ll pick the better one without blinking. Let’s try it.

• One option would be a divisionless eight-game conference schedule that features one fixed opponent for each school while rotating the other seven games throughout the remainder of the conference’s (soon-to-be) 16-team membership. This plan would protect Alabama–Auburn (the Iron Bowl) but not Auburn-Georgia (The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry) or Alabama-Tennessee (The Third Saturday In October). Florida and Georgia would play annually, but Florida and Tennessee would not. Oklahoma and Texas would play annually. Texas and Texas A&M would not.

• The other option is a divisionless nine-game conference schedule that features three fixed opponents for each school while rotating the other six games through the remainder of the conference. This would allow Alabama-Auburn, Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee, Oklahoma-Texas and Texas-Texas A&M to be played annually. It also might stoke the fires of a few emerging rivalries such as LSU-Texas A&M. It could potentially create new ones as well. For example, it’s a little weird that Arkansas and Oklahoma — flagship universities in bordering states — have played only 15 times since 1899 and only three times since 1978. Perhaps each could be part of the other’s trio.

Did you spot the dumb one? Of course you did. It’s the 1-7 model. If a bunch of allegedly intelligent people got together and decided that Texas and Texas A&M — or Georgia and Auburn or Alabama and Tennessee — shouldn’t play annually when a reasonable possibility exists, then whoever voted to adopt that model should find a new line of work. They lack the common sense to sell football games for a living, and that calls into question their decision-making in every other matter as well. The Big Ten is likely about to change its scheduling model in the near future. Can you imagine that league’s leaders saying “We don’t need Michigan and Michigan State to play EVERY year?” Of course not.

The 3-6 model is the only logical choice. So why is anyone fighting it?

The resistance is two-fold. Some schools would rather take the short view than make a choice that ultimately will sell more season-ticket packages on their campus and make them more money through the SEC’s future media rights deals.

Part of the opposition comes from leaders at certain schools who fear the zero-sum nature of adding a conference game. That means half the league is guaranteed one more loss per season. With nonconference games, those schools at the bottom of the standings can try to schedule their way to six wins and a bowl game in a mostly empty stadium in a medium-sized city. Another conference game means those schools have to work that much harder to get to .500. These schools are so afraid their teams won’t be quite mediocre enough that they’re trying to block a model that embraces progress and tradition all at once.

But that isn’t the only loser thinking standing in the way of you getting better, with more interesting games to watch on television during the regular season. There is a fear among a few in the league that if the College Football Playoff doesn’t expand, moving to nine conference games could hurt the SEC’s chances to keep producing national champs. This is silly. First, the odds of the CFP staying at four are slim because the only league that even likes four is the SEC. An early expansion was blocked in part because the SEC’s acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas freaked out the leaders of a few other leagues, but after a cooling-off period, those leagues will come back to the same place they were before the Oklahoma and Texas news broke. Most of them need expansion. And if you’ve been reading this space, you know that the SEC either wants an eight-best format or a 12-team format with six automatic qualifying spots for conference champs. Either one would allow plenty of room for SEC programs with a few schedule blemishes to make the field. And in the unlikely event the CFP stays at four beyond the 2025 season, a nine-game schedule probably wouldn’t reduce the SEC’s odds of producing a national champion in most years. If anything, it probably would increase the likelihood of a two-loss team getting admitted to a four-team system — which has yet to happen in the eight-season history of the CFP.

The good news on this front is the SEC doesn’t have to make a decision this week. It can push this for a little longer and wait to see if some clarity emerges on the next CFP format. The new schedule format needs to be in place when Oklahoma and Texas arrive. That’s 2025 at the latest. We’ll refrain from any speculation as to whether those two could buy their way out of the Big 12 early; so far, there has been no indication they can. But the SEC also might want to have the new format ready for 2024, when the league’s new media rights deal with ESPN begins. Doing so probably would require a decision on a model by late 2022 or early 2023. Pushing until 2025 would buy another year. “We get to set our own timetable here,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday.

For the schools that crave bowl eligibility, it would be wise to remember that the schools make the NCAA’s rules. So these schools could simply lobby to change the rule for bowl eligibility. They’d likely find plenty of allies in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. The Group of 5 leagues would understandably be dead set against lowering the standard for bowl eligibility. But answer this question honestly: Which Boca Raton Bowl would you rather watch while wrapping presents/casually betting second-half totals? Do you want Western Kentucky–Appalachian State or Mississippi State–Minnesota?

And please, don’t even start with the arguments about the need for bowls to be a reward for a great season. That was true when there were eight bowls. It’s laughable when there are more than 40. They are television inventory for our entertainment, and our viewing habits suggest that adding a few more could make some more coin for ESPN.

The supporters of the 3-6 model also likely would extend an olive branch to those schools by eliminating the requirement to book at least one Power 5 school in the nonconference schedule. So Georgia could keep scheduling Georgia Tech annually and a Clemson/Florida State type in most years — which it would even with a nine-game SEC schedule — and Arkansas could schedule Rice instead of Oklahoma State or Notre Dame. I don’t think that would make Arkansas fans happy. Nor do I think it would make them buy more tickets. But it would make 5-7 a lot less likely. (What’s odd about all this is that the schedules for Arkansas and Mississippi State would usually be easier without being in the meat grinder that is the current SEC West.)

For years, fans of Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 schools have surmised that the SEC would always stick at eight conference games to minimize the possibility of losses for CFP purposes. The group within the SEC that wants to move to nine conference games doesn’t care about any outside pressure to homogenize scheduling models across conferences. This is market-driven. The current model — eight conference games within two seven-team divisions and one permanent crossover opponent — has caused home schedules to grow stale. That has produced lower season ticket sales at some schools and no-shows at places that still sell all their season tickets. (No-shows eventually turn into no-sales.) Texas A&M has been in the league for 10 seasons and played football at Georgia once. The Bulldogs still haven’t played an SEC game at Kyle Field.

What’s interesting is the staleness of the schedule was a result of the SEC trying too hard to protect tradition. Keeping Alabama-Tennessee an annual game was the main reason both cross-divisional opponents didn’t rotate each year. Now the SEC has a chance to protect that tradition and create more variety.

If its school leaders can get out of their own way and make the obvious choice.

(Photo of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young scrambling for a first down against Tennessee: Gary Cosby Jr. / USA Today)

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