Last week, we took a look at how the Big Ten puts each year’s football schedule together.
Overall, the conference works to ensure that each team plays every other conference member at least once every three years. The league also tries to balance things as much as possible with respect to off-weeks, and doesn’t take past or current program strength directly into account when scheduling games.
Outside of a handful of rivalry games and a few other general parameters, most of the schedule is put together by computer. In the end, the conference seems to be working to avoid the appearance of favoritism by using the most objective method possible to schedule games.
But not every Power-5 conference schedules in the same way.
The Southeastern Conference seems to go about its scheduling very differently than the Big Ten, and with significantly different results.
For one thing, the SEC only plays eight conference games, instead of the nine that Big Ten schools do.
That’s the item that draws the most attention during College Football Playoff Resume Arguing Season. It also means that teams very rarely face about half of their conference mates.
Each SEC team plays the six other teams in its division every year. It also plays one fixed cross-divisonal rival each season (Alabama vs. Tennessee, LSU vs. Florida, Auburn vs. Georgia, etc.). That leaves just one more conference game to rotate between the other six teams in the opposite division.
Texas A&M and Missouri joined the conference in 2012, but the Aggies won’t play at Tennessee for the first time until 2023. LSU won’t play its first game at Mizzou until 2023, either.
Beyond the eight-game conference schedule, there are a number of other differences that make an even bigger impact.
One significant change is that instead of doing the majority of scheduling almost randomly through a computer, humans put together virtually all of the SEC’s conference schedule. Like the Big Ten, it all begins with the biggest games of the year.
“We usually start with the last weekend which is a rivalry weekend and plug those conference games in,” said Mark Womack, the SEC’s Executive Associate Commissioner, who coordinates football scheduling.
“They don’t always work on an annual basis but we look at games that have historically been played on certain dates, and then try to plug those in. We have a couple of schools that have contractual games in neutral sites. Texas A&M and Arkansas, for example, play in Dallas every year. Georgia and Florida play in Jacksonville. So those games go in on the dates that they’re contracted with those cities to play in,” Womack said.
Outside of the existence of those annual neutral site games, it’s pretty similar to the Big Ten’s process so far. But then the leagues take very different paths. While the Big Ten basically leaves it up to the computers, the SEC takes a more strategic approach.
“Then we start to fill out, trying to look at our television-rated games, our historically high-rated games and spread those out among all the playing dates that are available to us,” said Womack. “We do try and have a conference game on every weekend, if possible. It’s not always possible.”
Taking TV ratings into account is an interesting component in the process, and one where it helps to do it by hand instead of having them more or less randomly assigned by computers.
“That’s all a person job,” said Womack. “We look and see where we can spread games out from a TV inventory, try to have four games, conference games, if we can. Three to five anyway, on most weekends, starting probably with the third weekend of the season.”
Much like the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference tries to avoid having teams play more than two straight weeks away from home, and tries to keep teams’ off weeks close to the middle of the season.
But some schools get a little more say than that in selecting their week off. In every season since 2013, Alabama and LSU have both had a bye week leading up to their showdown on the first weekend of November.
“The way we look at that, if we’ve had both schools that have requested an open date before they play each other, we try and accommodate that if we can,” said Womack. “If we just had one school that wanted that, then that probably would not apply. But if both schools would like to have that, then that’s something that we try to accommodate.”
Those weeks off get plugged in fairly early in the process for every team. The goal is to keep them as close to the middle of the schedule as possible.
“If it’s a 13-week season, trying to put the open date for schools, somewhere between, say week five and week nine, if it’s possible. More in the middle part of the season,” said Womack.
“If it’s a 14-week season, you’re probably going to have some more in weeks, three, four, and five, and then weeks 10, 11, 12 if you have two open dates. So that just varies based on on whether that particular season allows for 13 or 14-week schedule.
“After that it becomes a product of trying to to make the matrix work out so that you can get all the games scheduled. And we do that by hand. For the most part, we do use some computer assistance and just randomly throwing some games in, but a large majority of it is done by hand.”
Another notable difference on the SEC schedule comes in the penultimate week of the season, when most teams take a week off from the challenge of the conference schedule to take a step back and face an FCS opponent.
That week is known by a variety of derisive nicknames outside of the south, including the “SEC/SoCon Challenge.” It has become an annual point of contention nationally.
This decade, Ohio State headed into Michigan week after facing opponents ranging from a 2-10 Illinois team to 11-2 Penn State and 12-2 Michigan State squads.
Alabama, on the other hand, has played Western Carolina, Chattanooga, Charleston Southern, Mercer, and The Citadel in that week before the Auburn game in recent years.
That all changes in 2020, when the Tide will host Texas A&M the week before the Iron Bowl. Is this the start of a brave new era in SEC scheduling? Not really. Womack said it’s a result of trying to have at least one significant conference game on the schedule that week.
“What we’ve tried to do there is to rotate among our institutions who would play conference versus conference games on that week, as opposed to just allowing teams to schedule any way that they wanted to on that particular week. So as we go in the future, that’s something that would be rotated among our members as to which schools would be required to play conference versus conference games on that next-to-last weekend of the season,” Womack said.
Who will have to play a league game that weekend in 2021? That’s not yet clear. While the Big Ten has made game dates and locations public through the 2025 schedule, the SEC is only announcing games about a year out. Schools know who they’ll play and where, but not the specific dates of those games.
“Our schedules have been announced through (20)20 right now, and we have ’21 and ’22 draft schedules in the works. And we will try and get those approved in short order,” said Womack.
Next time: Does the Big Ten’s method of scheduling put its teams at a competitive disadvantage?
[Header photo courtesy LSU football]