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Post Making chicken salad out of an eight-game SEC schedule

Friday June 16, 2023

The addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC in 2024 immediately raised questions about how they’d fit into an eight-game football schedule that was already stretched to its limits. We’ve learned some answers along the way. Would the SEC keep the divisional structure? (No.) Would a 16-team league mean a ninth game to improve its inventory for a new media deal? (No, for now.) Will traditional rivalries like Georgia-Florida be preserved? (Yes – at least that one.) With all of those questions answered, the big one left was the schedule itself.

Wednesday night the SEC unveiled its football schedule for 2024. Dates are still to be announced, but we know now which eight conference opponents each team will face. Here’s the league announcement, and here’s Georgia’s announcement.

I generally agree with the consensus: a nine-game schedule is still the better way to go, but this is about as good as it gets for an eight-game slate. All legacy teams will get a quick introduction to Texas or Oklahoma. Most decent rivalries seem to be preserved. (Will Georgia fans miss Missouri or, dare I say, South Carolina?) The tiered system guarantees the best programs will face several of their peers, and there are not many places for any contender to hide. The league’s TV partners should be pleased.

It’s a miss for Georgia if you expected that a better overall schedule would mean a more compelling home schedule. Tennessee and Auburn should be the highlights of the six-game home schedule, but they are teams Georgia hosts regularly. Three of the season’s most compelling and novel games (Clemson, Alabama, and Texas) will be played elsewhere. You’d hope that swings back around in 2025 (Oklahoma, perhaps?), and UCLA is set to visit in 2026. No question though that a season ticket package for games played anywhere but Athens would be far more attractive than the home games. In the past two seasons we’ve seen teams unexpectedly rise to create games of national interest in Athens (Arkansas and Kentucky in 2021; Tennessee in 2022). There won’t be many chances for a surprise with only three SEC home games, but that’s already a reality Georgia fans deal with every other year due to the commitment to Jacksonville. A nine-game schedule is really the only way out of that situation.

Divisions are gone but instead the conference split the teams into two tiers based on their conference winning percentage over the past ten seasons. It’s almost an NFL approach to scheduling. Georgia will face four teams from each tier. A program’s fortunes can change quite a bit over ten seasons, and you might not group teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Auburn the same based on a more recent history. It’s uncertain how often they’ll adjust the tiers – will it be adjusted annually using the same ten-year rolling average – but I like the implied tip of the cap to a relegation system. Will future coaching contracts include language or incentives about maintaining a program in the top tier?

This all looks good for 2024. It’s unclear how or if the format will persist into 2025 and beyond. Georgia’s announcement stated that “the 2024 schedule will be a standalone one-year schedule as Conference members continue to finalize a long-term schedule format,” so it’s possible that we’ll be doing this all over again next spring. Will this be an annual jigsaw puzzle, or will there be some attempt to put scheduling on some rules-based autopilot? Balancing rivalry games, reshuffling the tiers, and ensuring a decent rotation of other conference opponents might lead to less-attractive combinations in the future than this initial effort. The league punted on the nine-game schedule for now, but it’s still on the table, and adding another game could be enough reason to blow things up and start from scratch again.

One thing is for certain: no matter the format Georgia won’t be playing at Texas A&M.