Arkansas’ Sam Pittman went to a place coaches often don’t go when discussing the future of SEC football programming: He suggested giving fans what they want.
Many coaches consider what is best for their own careers when considering timing. They think, “How can I program six wins?”
But Pittman got to the heart of the matter when he said he would support expanding the SEC from eight to nine conference games, an idea the league is considering.
“I think it would be great for the 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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I couldn’t agree more, but why stop at nine?
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey joked last month that the conference could bypass a nine-game league schedule in favor of 10 SEC games.
What Sankey jokingly said should become a legitimate idea to explore.
I know the familiar arguments against expanding the conference schedule:
Won’t playing a tougher schedule stop the hamstring programs from trying to go up? Maybe, but why let wine merchants get in the way of progress? If a coach is counting on a few 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 advance to the college football playoffs or win a national championship? This narrative conveniently ignores that Alabama fought their 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 joke about a 10-game SEC schedule made me wonder if a format could be built in a 16-team conference after Oklahoma and Texas join. The SEC plans to drop divisions after the expansion, so any schedule plan would have to come from a divisionless structure.
Applying a few ounces of brain power, I designed this template for a 10-game conference schedule:
Each team would face five designated SEC rivals each season. Then he would face five of the remaining 10 teams in flip-flop fashion, facing a set of five in odd years and the other five in even years.
This would allow teams to face each of their SEC peers at least once every two years, while preserving the best rivalries. A 10-game conference slate would leave room for a marquee non-conference matchup, plus a game against a cupcake opponent.
Yes, that means cutting (in most cases) two pushovers from the schedule, but, to reiterate, give paying customers what they want. How many subscribers would mourn the end of an 11 a.m. September game against Akron?
Assigning five rivals to each team would require some trade-offs and a competitive balance would need to be considered. No team should have to face five rivals who rank among the best teams in the SEC every year, and no team should be awarded five scrubs.
Here is what I found:
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
USL – 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
Caroline from the south – 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 each year for the puzzle pieces to fit together. In my suggested format, I dropped matchups such as Florida-Tennessee, Arkansas-LSU, and Kentucky-Vanderbilt for the good of the whole. Each of these teams would enjoy other quality rivalries, and games left on the cut room floor would happen every other year.
Of course, it’s probably a fantasy. After all, the SEC has long resisted the increase to nine conference games. Ten could cause immediate hyperventilation in coaches whose professional status is hanging by a thread.
Or, maybe Sankey will joke about an 11-game SEC schedule in media days next year, in which case I’ll go back to the drawing board.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.