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Non-Conference Scheduling Will Kill Nine SEC Game Talk

By Dave Holcomb
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With the Alabama’s and Georgia’s of the world scheduling games against programs such as Notre Dame, Clemson, Texas and Oklahoma over the next decade, the push for a nine SEC-game schedule is going to disappear.

The fad of national contenders scheduling difficult non-conference games has been a major initial hit among fans, the media and the programs themselves. It’s actually a rare instance where everybody seems to win.

But that doesn’t mean the fad won’t come with drawbacks. With the Alabama’s and Georgia’s of the world scheduling games against programs such as Notre Dame, Clemson, Texas and Oklahoma over the next decade, the push for a nine SEC-game schedule is going to disappear.

The possibility of a nine-game conference schedule has seemingly been on the discussion table since the SEC expanded to 14 teams in 2012. The argument in favor of it is scheduling imbalance.

With the current setup, SEC programs face the teams in their same division every year, alternating who hosts on an annual basis. Because there’s only eight conference games and seven teams in each SEC division, that leaves just two other conference contests each year.

But then each program has a permanent “cross-over” opponent. Alabama-Tennessee, Georgia-Auburn, Florida-LSU, Mississippi State-Kentucky, Ole Miss-Vanderbilt, Missouri-Arkansas, and South Carolina-Texas A&M are the inter-divisional games on the schedule every year too.

So only one other conference game is left, which rotates between the other six opposite divisional programs. That means Georgia will only play LSU once every six years, and the Bulldogs will visit Baton Rouge once every 12 years.

LSU hosted Georgia last season. With this current format, the Tigers won’t do that again until 2030.

That’s a problem. There’s lots of reasons to be in a conference -- most of them monetary reasons -- but why be part of a conference if you aren’t going to regularly play all of the schools and visit every campus?

By the time Georgia heads back to Baton Rouge, there will have been three more Winter Olympics and Jake Fromm will be 32 years old.

Obviously, the SEC isn’t going to sacrifice any of its divisional games so programs can visit other conference campuses more often. Actually, round robin play (within a division) is a requirement from the NCAA in order to play a championship game.

The SEC has also been reluctant to give up its classic rivalry matchups such as Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn (to a lesser extent LSU-Florida). Fans of those programs want those games every year too.

Let’s face it, if all six (or even four) of those schools want something, they are going to get it.

That means the easiest way to fix this problem of playing visiting schools from the opposite division so infrequently is with a ninth conference game. With two rotating contests, Georgia would play LSU (and the other five SEC West teams not named Auburn) every three years and visit them every six seasons.

At least with this rotation, players would face every other SEC school during their minimum three years of college. It’s also infrequent enough that a trip like Georgia heading to Baton Rouge is still special, and the SEC would be able to keep the rest of its traditional rivalry matchups.

But with Georgia and Alabama adding a difficult non-conference games to their schedules during the 2020’s, the likelihood that they will also be willing to add a ninth SEC contest appears very slim.

Using Georgia again as an example, the Bulldogs already have Clemson and Georgia Tech on the schedule in 2024. It’s not in Georgia’s best interest to then agree to a nine-game SEC slate to give the league more balance.

I’m using the 2024 schedule as an example because that is the last year of the current NCAA agreement. Heading into 2025, perhaps the NCAA could drop its requirement of divisions and round-robin scheduling.

Regardless, Georgia still won’t be lining up to play a ninth conference game. In 2025 and 2026, the Bulldogs will play a home-and-home series with UCLA. With Georgia Tech a fixture on the schedule and a Power 5 non-conference opponent becoming a near fixture very soon as well, a ninth SEC game would mean 11 contests against Power 5 teams.

Going undefeated against 11 Power 5 teams, nine of which would be in the SEC, sounds nearly impossible. Don’t forget, the SEC Championship is a must-win game too in order to make the College Football Playoffs.

The SEC isn’t the only conference that possesses this problem. The ACC and Big Ten do as well, but the SEC’s failure to push for a nine-game conference slate faster enabled Georgia and Alabama the opportunity to schedule difficult non-conference opponents during the next decade. Those top programs figure a non-conference contest against elite competition will be better for their playoff chances and recruiting than visiting campuses such as Vanderbilt or Arkansas more often.

That’s a real shame. Introducing a nine-game conference schedule would be a very easy fix to the infrequent visits to schools in the opposite division. But that proposal seems highly unlikely now with the top SEC schools making the addition of more non-conference Power 5 opponents to the schedule a priority.