Sunday June 4th, 2023 4:05AM

8 or 9 conference games? SEC heads to spring meetings still debating schedule formats

By Ralph D. Russo AP College Sports Writer
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Southeastern Conference leaders have been debating what to do with their football schedule for more than a year.

Play eight conference games each season including one rival or go to nine league games with three?

Whether ESPN is willing to pay to broadcast more SEC games will factor into the decision, though it is unclear how much. As SEC officials head to the Florida Panhandle for spring meetings next week, there is still no deadline to make a call on a format that goes into effect next year.

“We have to make a decision and if we don’t make a decision is that the be all, end all? No,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in an interview. "But at some point we have to land the proverbial airplane. I think we’re ready to do that.”

Among the other agenda items for the meetings in Destin, Florida: gambling, coming on the heels of Alabama firing its baseball coach amid an investigation of suspicious bets on a Crimson Tide game; how to better prevent — or at least discourage — field and court storming by fans after games; and, of course, name, image and likeness compensation for athletes.

The football schedule is the headliner.

The SEC currently plays an eight-game conference schedule with 14 members in two divisions. Each team has one annual cross-division rival. In 2024, Texas and Oklahoma arrive to make the SEC a 16-team conference, and there will be no more divisions.

Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida, schools that expect to perennially contend for playoff spots and compete for national championships, prefer nine league games each season.

“We want nine for sure at A&M,” Aggies athletic director Ross Bjork said. “We expanded for a reason. And people want more SEC content, right? Clearly, there’s a demand for it, especially football.”

For some schools with more modest goals, where national titles are aspirational but not expected, playing an extra game inside the nation's toughest football conference is not ideal.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart has publicly supported eight. Auburn AD John Cohen signaled support for eight while he was at Mississippi State; it's unclear if switching jobs has changed his opinion.

There are concerns in the conference about playing five road league games every other season instead of the current four annually. Home games are worth millions in revenue.

ESPN could conceivably help make up for that. The SEC's latest media rights deal with ESPN/ABC starts in 2024 and makes the network the exclusive home of the conference. Replacing nonconference games with SEC vs. SEC games should provide the network more value.

Sankey said the decision doesn't come down to how much the network might spend to make it worthwhile for SEC schools to play more game against one another: “That's way, way oversimplifying the matter.”

One of Sankey's bosses had a little different message this week.

“I may be saying more than Commissioner Sankey would want me to say, but obviously if you go to a nine-game schedule, you have to be compensated for going to a nine-game schedule,” Georgia President Jere Morehead told The Athletic this week. “There’s still some dynamics that have to play out with our media partners.”

The SEC does have more clarity on the schedule than it did a year ago, when it was operating under the assumption Texas and Oklahoma would be joining in 2025. Texas and Oklahoma officials will attend next week's meetings, but they do not yet have voting privileges.

College Football Playoff expansion was also up in the air a year ago. That's now settled: The CFP will expand from four to 12 teams in 2024.

How to choose annual rivals won't be an easy discussion with a nine-team format, either.

"I’ve always been an advocate for playing more (conference) games,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “But if you play more games, I think you have to get the three fixed (opponents), right? They’re giving us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don’t know how they come to that?”

There is no guarantee a vote on a new schedule model will be taken in Destin, Sankey said. A majority vote is all that is needed to decide on a model, but, ideally, the SEC would like to have everybody on board with the final decision.

Sankey recalled former Tennessee AD Doug Dickey once telling Sankey's predecessor, the late Mike Slive, that in the SEC even close votes needed to be unanimous after they left the room.

"People are going to air their perspective, share their points of difference and then we’re going to take a vote and life’s going to move on and we’re going to schedule football games and play them," Sankey said.

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