SEC beefing up schedules, moving away from early cupcakes

Sports
Neal Evans, Nick Saban

Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) places the leather helmet from the “Old Leather Helmet Torphy” on head coach Nick Saban’s head after they defeated Miami in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference is moving away from early season cupcakes. It’s been years in the making and probably long overdue.

The powerhouse league still has a few teams lagging in the scheduling department, seemingly not quite ready to go all in for competitive reasons. But beefing up schedules is clearly on the horizon for everyone, especially once the SEC adds Oklahoma and Texas.

“You can’t just open the gates and give people a 12-inch piece of wood to sit on anymore,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said.

Stricklin called the shift in philosophy “market driven,” pointing to fans, players and television partners wanting better matchups on a weekly basis.

It’s hardly unique to the SEC, especially since strength of schedule plays a role in determining which teams make the College Football Playoff. And with the CFP planning eyeing expansion, there’s even more reason for some of the nation’s top programs – those expecting to vie for coveted playoff spots – to add more challenging games.

While fans may have gotten spoiled watching last season’s all-SEC slate of games because of COVID-19 concerns, it would be hard to complain about much of the league’s 2021 schedules.

Top-ranked Alabama thumped Miami. No. 2 Georgia edged Clemson. Mississippi routed Louisville. LSU lost at UCLA. And that was just Week 1.

This weekend’s slate includes Pittsburgh-Tennessee, Colorado-Texas A&M, Texas-Arkansas and North Carolina State-Mississippi State.

And then Auburn plays at Penn State and Vanderbilt host Stanford in Week 3, followed by Missouri at Boston College.

“It means a lot for confidence,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Confidence can help. Can overconfidence hurt? Yes, but there’s a line there. The experience of the environment is what I value. Win, lose, or draw, the experience of that environment was going to make us better, and that is what I gain from it.

“Does it give some of the players more confidence? Yes, it gives them more confidence. It does, but it better not give them overconfidence because humility is one week away.”

Alabama and LSU have led the league’s push to strengthen schedules. The Crimson Tide have opened each of the last 10 seasons with a Power Five opponent – and won them all. The Tigers, meanwhile, have scheduled similarly for nine straight years.

The rest of the league is catching up.

“One of the harder things to do is to judge what the future of college football is going to be,” said Florida coach Dan Mullen, who is entering his 17th year in the SEC. “If you look and say, ‘OK, six years ago, we’re going to have a playoff and this is how they’re going to judge it and evaluate the playoff.’ It’s hard to judge that in the future, that far.

“And scheduling is tough. As you call people, there are a lot of people who are booked out way into the future. And then you get into the issue of how is the SEC schedule going to work four and five and six years ago from now? I know what our position is right now as a league.”

Four SEC teams – Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina – have permanent, non-conference rivalry games against the Atlantic Coast Conference that they insist make scheduling a bit more difficult. The Gators play Florida State. The Bulldogs play Georgia Tech. The Wildcats play Louisville. And the Gamecocks play Clemson.

When those SEC teams are on the road every other year, they have one fewer home game that affects the bottom line.

“Our strength of schedule is kind of built in,” Stricklin said. “You want to have six, preferably seven home games a year. And when you start doing home-and-homes or start giving away neutral-site games, that eats into how many home games you’re going to have.

“Knowing the value of the home game to our campus and to the city, I don’t know that we want to be there. We might end up being there one day, but we’ve not taken that approach.”

Adding Oklahoma and Texas should change everything. The SEC is expected to revamp its scheduling model once the Big 12 juggernauts arrive, whether it’s in 2025 as currently planned or sooner, in hopes of everyone playing each other more often.

“Scheduling is just a challenging deal and we’re going to continue to work at it,” Stricklin said. “We do want to look for opportunities where we can make it more interesting for our fanbase.”

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AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Charles Odum, Teresa Walker and John Zenor contributed.

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