8 vs. 9 schedule debate rages on at SEC Spring Meetings

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — Georgia coach Kirby Smart had an interesting take on the 8-versus-9-game scheduling debate raging at the SEC Spring Meetings this week.

“Most overrated conversation there ever was,” Smart said during his 15-minute session with reporters Tuesday. “Four years you’ll play everybody home and away; I get it. The traditional rivalries, you have three, you have two, you have one. … It’s not that big of a deal to me.”

That’s a markedly different attitude about a decision that Commissioner Greg Sankey desperately hopes gets made here this week. It’s one of several matters the football coaches are debating this week at the Hilton Sandestin Resort before forwarding their recommendations to the league’s athletic directors and presidents for voting Thursday.

The thought going in was that perennially powerful SEC teams, such as Georgia and Alabama, naturally favor a nine-game conference schedule. The less-competitive teams, the logic goes, favor an eight-team model in order to control more home games and be in less jeopardy of losing more games.

Smart’s team has won the past two national championships and is expected to contend for a third this year. But he was among conference coaches who not necessarily toeing their expected lines. He expressed a different set of concerns.

“Is somebody going to get an advantage by not going to the SEC Championship game but making the expanded playoff? That’s a lot better topic to me than eight or nine games,” Smart said Tuesday. “I think you’ve got to win your games, and now more than ever it’s going to be that way because there’s not going to be divisions.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban similarly was unmoved by the 8 vs. 9 debate.

“I think whatever happens, happens,” the dean of SEC coaches said. “I think there’s so many things that probably sort of go into this in terms of eight games versus nine games, including TV contracts and things that are way beyond my scope of visibility that I’m sure a lot of those things will sort of factor into it.”

Similarly, Eliah Drinkwitz didn’t come at it from the angle expected of a coach of a football program of Missouri’s ilk. Fighting for bowl eligibility in most seasons, the expectation was that the Tigers would be firmly in the eight-game court.


“I’m on the 9-game schedule,” Drinkwitz said before Tuesday’s deliberations. “I like the set up of three permanents (in the 3-6 model). I think the more permanents that you have the more you can measure your program against consistent opponents. I also think it preserves the basis of the SEC.

“The Southeastern Conference is the best conference in football because of its fans and the passion of the fanbase. I think you run the risk of losing that with short-sightedness like, ‘this schedule’s not fair for me’ or blah-blah-blah. The reality of it is preserving primary and secondary rivalries is important to the league, is important to the fan bases, is important now more than ever with the competition for dollars and passion in sports. If you move too far from it, you’re going to open the door for fans to go to other venues for entertainment.”

Other coaches polled going in Tuesday were less opinionated. Florida’s Billy Napier and new Auburn coach Hugh Freeze declined to take a side. They deferred the argument to their respective higher-ups, who will vote on the matter later this week.

That has made predicting this outcome that much more confusing. There remains the chance that the whole thing gets tabled again this year. That’s what happened this time last year, before the official addition of Oklahoma and Texas was moved up a year to 2024 from 2025.

Sankey clearly prefers nine to eight, but he is letting the matter be settled among the league’s constituency in the Hilton’s conference rooms.

Asked after the first day of deliberations whether he thought a resolution would be reached here this week, Sankey shrugged.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I sensed a trust level in our decision-making process.”

There will be an opportunity to resolve the situation after this week’s meetings conclude Friday. But Sankey said he’d be disappointed if it doesn’t.

At the root of the impasse is self-preservation. Adding two more teams to the SEC means eight more losses will be distributed among the membership during conference play. No coach wants to be the recipient of those L’s in what’s already a cutthroat profession.

And what about the College Football Playoff, which expands to 12 teams in 2025?

“If you drop two games to top teams, or maybe a third one, do you still get in?” Freeze asked Tuesday.

The coaches and ADs will have eight more hours Wednesday to hash it out. The league presidents arrive Wednesday night. An 8-6 vote is needed to pass a motion.

“I’m a history teacher by trade,” Drinkwitz said Tuesday, “and every time I come to one of these meetings, I’m blown away that the 13 colonies actually formed a union.”