In a 16-team SEC, the Florida Gators’ annual football schedule will look very, very different than it ever has. (Photo credit: Kim Klement, USA Today)
With Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC for the 2024-25 academic season, the conference is- believe it or not- running out of time to cobble together a workable rotation of football schedules. And with the league’s hand being forced with simply the passage of time- kickoff of the first game of the new mega-SEC is about 15 months away- the process of figuring out which SEC teams will play who every year is beginning to take shape.
I’ve spoken with three different people who have inside access to these brainstorming sessions. All the information I’ve compiled below was confirmed by all three unless I specifically state otherwise.
Let’s start with the things that are either closest to being set in stone or the most obvious to assume logically, and work backward from there.
A nine-game SEC slate is all but a certainty
I mean, duh.
There are a couple of against-the-grain individuals at a few schools who actually abhor the idea of a nine-game conference schedule- such as teams on the outer geographic fringes of the league like Florida, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Missouri not loving the idea of playing an extra game that’s difficult for fans to get to- but the dissent that’s arisen from this is a nonstarter. That’s not going to stop the SEC from adding that ninth game, not with the schedule congruence it would result in and especially not with all the money that would pour in. It’s just a matter of playing a little politics and taking care of some formalities and minor obstacles at this point.
If you haven’t heard of the concept before, let’s meet the 3-6 scheduling format. This is overwhelmingly the most likely of the scheduling formats the SEC will adopt beginning in 2024.
With a nine-game SEC slate, you’d have all sixteen teams playing three permanent opponents every year. That accounts for four of the sixteen teams, with your team being one and having three others as annual rivals. This leaves twelve teams, and in the other six games, each team would play half of them, meaning that every four years, every SEC team would play three conference foes annually and the other twelve twice every four years.
Because of all the non conference games that are scheduled in 2024 and beyond, one source told me this morning that the SEC would be willing to consider a “bridge” eight-game schedule for a few years, and then implement the nine-game SEC slate later on down the road. If you remember, the SEC also did this in 2012 and 2013. In the immediate aftermath of the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, the league realized it had more kinks to work out before establishing a long-term schedule of schedules, so they implemented a bridge to buy themselves more time to do so.
The idea is that the eight-game slate would serve as a “bridge” to the point in time in which teams don’t have a slew of marquee non-conference games they’d have to reschedule. That source, though, reiterated: “sooner or later, a nine-game SEC schedule is coming.”
The SEC is scrapping divisions; it will be one division of 16 teams
Another pretty obvious development in the SEC’s expansion is going to be the elimination of divisions and the formation of one league of 16 teams. No dividing them up, no separation of blocks of teams that can only reach the SEC Championship Game by winning that division, just one division of 16 teams. Essentially, what the Big 12 currently does.
This one isn’t even anything new. The Greenville News (and many others) reported on this back in November of 2022. I just thought it was worth asking about to the three people I spoke with for this piece: after showing them the article, I asked, “Has anything changed on this front?” All three replied no.
So say goodbye to divisions, and hello to a BCS-like system within the conference (except, you know, where the teams actually decide their own fate) where the goal is to nab one of those top-two spots- doesn’t matter which one- to keep its SEC Title dreams alive. And really, there’s no way to make the 3-6 scheduling format- which, again, is at this point the overwhelming favorite- happen with divisions still intact.
Now that we’ve gotten the really obvious stuff out of the way, we’ll work our way down to the slightly-less-obvious-but-still-pretty-logical-to-assume things I learned.
The Florida Gators-Georgia Bulldogs rivalry is locked in, but questions remain
As it relates to Florida’s reality in an expanded SEC, the big question is: who will Florida’s opponents be? As of now, we certainly don’t have all the answers, but we do have a few.
A couple of weeks ago, I published this piece on the future of Florida-Georgia rivalry, which basically announced the world’s worst-kept secret that any college football fan over the age of toddler could have guessed: Florida and Georgia will remain permanent opponents. To date, nothing in that article has changed other than the extension of the series in Jacksonville through 2025, although the picture gets murkier by the day.
Two former employees at Georgia Tech- who spoke on the condition of anonymity- recently informed me that the Yellow Jackets’ athletic department is getting tired of their annual Thanksgiving shellackings at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs, and is not especially interested in continuing to renew the series. One of the ex-GT employees said something particularly illuminating: “While Georgia Tech is not actively searching for a way out of its yearly game with Georgia, from the conversations I’ve had, my guess is that the Institution would jump at the chance to bolt if an escape hatch were to present itself.”
The question is, what could that escape hatch look like? Would it come in the form of conference realignment leaving Georgia Tech in the dust as a “Power Two” conference system (like the NFL’s AFC and NFC) comes about? Might GT simply see the writing on the wall and preemptively defund its program and accept a descent to the FCS? Could Georgia get bored of annihilating an also-ran program every Thanksgiving weekend as the expanded playoff begins to reward tougher schedules?
Whatever form it takes, this, if it came to pass, would set off a chain reaction in one of two possible directions. Remember that a nine-game SEC schedule reduces a team’s non-conference dates from four to three. If Georgia simply replaces that annual rivalry with more marquee Power Five matchups, and thus more road games, the desire to host Florida every other year in Athens becomes more desirable; no team would be happy about hosting just five of its twelve games in a given season at its campus. (Yes, even if the city of Jacksonville sweetens the purse). But if Georgia makes sure to reserve at least one non-conference date for a lower-level team, it can then assure itself of six home games even with the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville.
Obviously, this situation is nowhere close to being resolved, and won’t be resolved for several years, but keep your eye on it.
The Florida Gators-LSU Tigers annual rivalry is over
Thanks to the parity that the 3-6 scheduling format will create, the Florida Gators will still get to host LSU once every four years, and visit Death Valley once every four years. That’s the point of the 3-6. No rivalry will be paused long enough for people to say it truly “dies,” and each team will hopefully forge some new rivalries with other SEC schools they haven’t played much before. With every team on the docket twice every four years, boiling blood won’t have too much time to simmer down, and fans anxiously counting down the days to a matchup won’t have six or seven (or in the case of Florida-Auburn, EIGHT) years to wait for a rematch.
So rest assured, this rivalry isn’t going away completely. We’ll still get more servings of this series in the future.
But as far as the annual Florida-LSU rivalry goes, that’s done. Finished. It’s a wrap. It’s on its deathbed with a large “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” label on its door.
The league isn’t even considering saving this series, with one of the people I spoke to saying this potential annual pairing was never really on the table to begin with, and neither Florida nor LSU are strongly lobbying to keep it. Both Florida and LSU have too many other rivals that they want to play annually, and as fun as this series is, it’s simply not worth LSU sacrificing a trophy game like the Magnolia Bowl or the Battle For The Golden Boot- not to mention its annual heavyweight showdown with Alabama- to keep it going every year.
That leaves Florida without its current SEC West permanent as a potential annual opponent. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Florida won’t play a current SEC West team on an annual basis…
Auburn is a real possibility as an annual opponent
Auburn is almost certainly going to play Alabama and Georgia on an annual basis. For the folks on the Plains, the question is simply who the third opponent will be. If some people get their way, it just might be the Florida Gators- which would renew an ancient rivalry that faded two rounds of conference realignment ago.
It’s a minority, but according to sources, there is a camp of people in Auburn’s athletic offices that wants Florida, and thus wants three premiere programs on its annual schedule. The thinking is two-fold. One, the expanded CFP will reward teams with tougher schedules, meaning a 10-2 or even a 9-3 team could work its way in as an at-large selection. Two, if Hugh Freeze does what they’re hoping he does with the program, playing Florida, Georgia, and Alabama each year will place the Tigers in desirable slots on national TV quite often, which is an excellent recruiting tool.
The other camp, of course, sees Alabama and Georgia as non-negotiable annual rivalries and balks at the premise of facing a third historical powerhouse each year. And if hopes fall flat on Freeze and he either underperforms or (gasp in horror) puts another SEC school in hot water, Auburn won’t see much value in getting sledgehammered each year by that trio of schools in prime time.
There’s another angle to this possibility, too: geography. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has previously said that geography would be a big factor when determining each team’s annual SEC opponents, and Auburn- a team Florida has only played twice since 2007- is actually the closest SEC school to Gainesville. Of course, Sankey also said that “balance” would be another factor in that same breath, and while Florida has been terrible since 2021, the Gators certainly won’t be a team that the SEC office can reasonably place onto a team’s annual slate to soften its yearly trio of foes. So we’ll see.
So: who will the Florida Gators face each year?
The SEC’s annual meetings in Destin next week will likely bring about some resolution to this, but the picture looks like this.
South Carolina, Kentucky, and Auburn are the likeliest annual opponents along with Georgia, per the sources I spoke to. The most likely scenario is that the Florida Gators will face two of those three schools each year, and then Georgia. Individually, the next most likely school to be an annual opponent is said to be either Kentucky or South Carolina, with Auburn trailing a fair bit behind them in that category.
The reasoning for South Carolina would be geography, the reasoning for Kentucky would be tradition (believe it or not, Kentucky is one of Florida’s most frequently-played opponents, as they’ve played annually since 1967), and the reasoning for Auburn would be both.
However, playing two of those three schools each year- or even one of them- is also not a certainty.
The Florida-Tennessee series is in a similar position to the Florida-LSU rivalry from a pure logistics standpoint. Unlike Florida-LSU, though, there is at least a sentiment that this series is worth saving. Tennessee, according to sources, prioritizes its series with Kentucky and Vanderbilt over Florida and is resigned to the fact that the Vols will play Alabama until the end of time. But both schools have expressed interest in keeping the series annual from 2024 on. So the annual Florida-Tennessee rivalry isn’t dead- at least not yet. It’s just on life support.
Vanderbilt and Missouri are the two current SEC East schools that Florida is extremely unlikely to draw in its annual slate. From the current SEC West, Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss are in the same category: Florida is extremely unlikely to deal with any of them on an annual basis.
That leaves the two newcomers, Texas and Oklahoma, along with Mississippi State, as potential schools I’ve been told to watch for.
Florida has an interesting history with Mississippi State. And I’m talking about well before the Gators pulled their athletic director and football coach away from Starkville in the dead of night. From 1962-1993, the schools played every year.
Nobody would argue that Mississippi State is or ever was on Florida’s level as a program, but during that time, Starkville (and for a time, Jackson) was seen as a conveniently central spot throughout the SEC landscape for Gator fans spread out across the Gulf Coast to be able to see their team without having to fly. And Starkville is a lot closer to Gainesville than most of the other SEC schools. So for parity and geography purposes, Mississippi State is on the table as a possibility, albeit a fairly unlikely one.
Texas and Oklahoma are the wild cards. The two schools are set to continue the Red River Rivalry in Dallas upon joining the SEC, which leaves them with two spots. Texas has an ancient rivalry with Texas A&M that’s all but certain to be reignited, leaving them with one, and Oklahoma has an old Big Eight rivalry with Missouri that’s likely to be resumed. Conventional wisdom would suggest that both schools would face the other former Big 12 team- which would pair Texas with Missouri and Oklahoma with Texas A&M.
But the SEC is not married to conventional wisdom, nor is it obligated to do what fans want or predict. The idea that the league could pair one of its new flagship state schools in Texas or Oklahoma with an existing one- like, say, Florida, Georgia, or Alabama- is absolutely not out of the realm of possibility. The SEC already has a history of locking two unfamiliar programs into an annual series and saying, “there, you’re rivals now, accept it!” with Missouri and Arkansas (and, you know, the whole SEC East).
With two exponentially bigger brands than Missouri now coming into the fold, it sure would make for great TV if, for example, the Oklahoma Sooners and the Florida Gators became annual rivals, or the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas Longhorns. Those pairings do have national championship games in their past, after all, and they’d be guaranteeing a massive audience for each of them.
I’m told not to hold my breath on drawing Texas or Oklahoma as an annual rival, but that there’s a non-zero chance it happens.