A few years ago at the annual SEC spring meetings, coaches and athletic directors. The idea that an Auburn athlete might get a few hundred dollars more a year -- regulated by the federal government! -- than an Alabama athlete was the stuff of scandal and outrage at the time.
These days, they don't even talk about cost of attendance. It's part of the scholarship package. In the big picture, it just doesn't mean more.
Ah, but overreaction will surely hit the fan again at this week's SEC spring meetings where mountains are routinely made out of mole hills. Once the parties fully convene Tuesday in Destin, Florida, at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort, the primary topic of discussion will be a significant one -- because it is about actual play on the field.
Representatives from all 14 teams, plus Texas and Oklahoma (which officially join next season), will continue to haggle over whether to add a ninth conference game beginning in 2024. Such a move would address how the conference looks, plays and feels competitively with expansion approaching on July 1 of that year.
On the table are two options:
- Eight-game SEC schedule: one permanent opponent, seven rotating opponents
- Nine-game SEC schedule: three permanent opponents, six rotating opponents
Support for the nine-game model, once believed to be a near-certainty for the league, is reportedly slipping. The SEC has played an eight-game conference schedule with separate East and West divisions since 1991, though the plan is for the SEC to move forward operating without divisions.
With either the eight- or nine-game schedule, each SEC program would play other conference opponents at least twice (home and away) over a four-year period. That in itself would be progress as some SEC teams in the current schedule model have gone a decade without meeting home and away.
The top two teams in the expanded league would play in the SEC Championship Game. That opens up a whole new serving of cornbread for the South: How to break ties to determine those spots with 16 teams in the mix.
Add the pressure of striving to make an expanded 12-team playoff into that decision. The SEC has dominated the national landscape like never before, winning 13 national championships since 2006. Will this seemingly minor tweak cause a Jenga-like collapse of a dynasty?
For most in the league, it would be more difficult to win an additional SEC game as opposed to a fourth nonconference game. Unbalanced schedules are another issue. With an eight-game slate, some teams will naturally have a more difficult permanent opponent than others. In a nine-game schedule, teams would play five away conference games to only four at home every other year. That extra home game can be worth millions in ticket sales alone.
Then one must consider traditional neutral-site rivalries -- Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Florida), Texas vs. Oklahoma (Dallas) and Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (Dallas) -- which reduce the home game schedule for one team in each game annually.
There are also four SEC programs -- Florida (vs. Florida State), Georgia (vs. Georgia Tech), Kentucky (vs. Louisville) and South Carolina (vs. Clemson) -- that play annual nonconference rivalry games against ACC opponents. Would those go away if the SEC decides to play nine league games?
Bowl eligibility could be in the balance. For every Alabama and Georgia hoping to stay in the College Football Playoff hunt, there is a Vanderbilt just trying to get to the Gasparilla Bowl. Three times in the last decade, the SEC has been guaranteed a national championship before the title game was played: 2011, 2017 and 2021. Would a ninth game impact that possibility?
"Since I've been in the league, there have been 23 head coaches fired," said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who is entering his 11th season with the Wildcats. "When they add a ninth game, that percentage is only going to go up."
Now balance that against the desires of media rightsholders. In general, more is better when it comes to televising conference games. Now take the No. 1 league on the planet and add eight more games (in a nine-game format) and eyeballs become even stickier on the SEC.
ESPN will have an active voice in the discussion. SEC membership has not been told how much extra ESPN is willing to pay for a ninth game, according to 247Sports.
"I think it will be hard to make everybody happy," Stoops added.
Can we all agree -- because it's the SEC -- that it will be easier for a team to make that expanded field with, say, a 9-3 record? The likes of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas have beento answer that question in the affirmative. Between 2020-33, Georgia alone has scheduled 13 nonconference games against Power Five programs.
In other leagues, these conference game issues are usually haggled out in private where, frankly, few care. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 currently play nine-game conference schedules. The ACC is at eight.
In the SEC, the issue is more contentious because the discussion has to do with almost everything.
In an eight-game schedule, there would be tremendous discussion over than one permanent opponent. Florida-Georgia, Texas-Oklahoma, Alabama-Auburn for sure, right? But what about games like Texas-Texas A&M, Georgia-Auburn (oldest rivalry in the South), Alabama-Tennessee, Alabama-LSU and Florida-Tennessee being played only every few years?
Alabama coach Nick Saban has long been an advocate of nine games. Heck, he has spoken for years of playing an entire Power Five schedule. Why? Because Bama could. But he is reportedly so upset at the three permanent rivals proposed in a nine-game format (Auburn, LSU and Tennessee) that he is ready to scrap the whole discussion and stay at eight.
"Nobody is speaking for Nick," one SEC coach said. "I think he was always an advocate for nine, but I think even he is rethinking it. Because of the obvious: As the playoff expands, they're going to play more big games. We're already the league with the most interest because of how tough the league is."
Now we're about to find out how the league evaluates its own toughness. Maybe. The conference schedule debate has lingered for years. So long that, well, the discussion may go beyond the conclusion of the meetings on Friday.
There is too much pride, money, bowl games and playoff berths at stake.