The 2024 SEC schedule and the end of the regional sports conference
The stopgap 2024 schedule, the first of the 16-team era, saw South Carolina lose its three most important rivals.
The regional college football conference is dead.
This has, in practical effect, been true since at least the early 1990s. But it never felt more true than on Wednesday night. That’s when South Carolina announced its 2024 SEC schedule, revealing that — for the first time since joining the SEC in 1992 — the Gamecocks will play neither Florida, Georgia, nor Tennessee.
Over the past 32 years, the Gators, Bulldogs, and Volunteers have come to represent many things to South Carolina fans.
They are local rivals — the three most geographically proximate SEC schools to Columbia, each accessible on a single tank of gas.
They are measuring sticks: South Carolina opened its SEC schedule against Georgia 22 times between 1992 and 2022, and that game usually gave you a good sense of how the season was going to go.
They are competitors for high school recruits: USC’s success has ebbed and flowed in step with its ability to keep the best Palmetto State prospects from shipping off to Athens and the twin ‘Villes, Gains- and Knox-.
Heck, in 2021, I wrote that “a season without Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee on the schedule would hardly seem worth playing.”
Prior to 2024, these schools were part of a group of seven SEC teams that South Carolina played every single year (with Texas A&M having tagged out Arkansas in 2014). Of those seven locked-in matchups, the 2024 schedule preserves only the four opponents that USC fans care least about: Mizzou, A&M, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt.
Ray Tanner previewed this outcome in March, telling Seth Emerson of The Athletic that “we have our rivals, but there will be others in the league where if you rated the top rivalries we wouldn’t be listed, probably, among the top four or five.”
The regional conference has, in truth, been dead for quite some time
Norman, Oklahoma is indeed quite far away (1,050 miles, as the car drives) but the somewhat bizarre reality is that the average driving distance for this batch of away games is barely changed from what road tripping Gamecock fans had to contend with in 2022. Last year, the median driving distance for SEC away games was 410 miles and the mean was 522.5. In 2024, the median will be 425 and the mean 525.
With driving distance as a metric, it’s 2014, not 2024, that feels more authentically like the moment that the SEC stopped being a regional conference. But really, the last time South Carolina played a truly regional conference away schedule was 1968. That year, the Gamecocks traveled to Chapel Hill, Raleigh, College Park, Charlottesville, Winston-Salem, and Clemson, with a median driving distance of 205 miles. In other words, in 1968, the typical ACC road trip was about as long as the drive to Athens.
South Carolina kissed those days goodbye in 1971, when it left the ACC. But whether the Gamecocks left the ACC or not, the days of the regional conference were numbered. The 1984 Supreme Court decision in NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma gave individual schools and athletic conferences the right to negotiate contracts on their own behalf, without fear of sanction from the NCAA. This loosened the NCAA’s control over TV contracts, but it was also, in effect, the death warrant for the College Football Association, an alliance through which most of the major college conferences collectively negotiated their television agreements. The demise of the CFA set the individual conferences into an arms race that produced the 1990 wave of conference realignment, which saw NBC strike its deal with Notre Dame and big-name independents like Penn State, Pitt, South Carolina, and FSU join the Big Ten, Big East, SEC, and ACC, respectively.
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It’s undeniable that loosening of the NCAA’s control over TV policy has done wonders for expanding access to and interest in college football games. But it’s equally undeniable that TV contracts and the system of incentives they create have imposed transformative changes upon the sport.
When Oklahoma and Texas were announced as the 15th and 16th members of the SEC, I explained why I didn’t love it:
To better understand the averse reaction — which isn’t coming from the whole South Carolina fan base, but definitely a substantial portion of it — let’s revisit the prevailing logic from the conference realignment of the early 2010s:
1) Add new media markets to your conference footprint
2) Get more lucrative TV contracts
3) TV money gets distributed to the members schools
4) Woohoo everybody’s rich
6) Win more football games
What we’ve seen this time around is a fracturing of the consensus, at least among fans and journalists, that the rising tide of TV revenue will lift all boats. Or, more precisely, a growing recognition that it doesn’t really matter if South Carolina’s TV revenue boat rises alongside Alabama’s because Alabama still retains all the extra advantages conferred upon it by virtue of being Alabama. And all that revenue growth has meant a commensurate growth in expectations and head coach salaries (and buyouts), all the while most SEC teams have remained at least as far behind Alabama as they were when realignment began.
In other words, even after all the TV money is divvied up, someone still has to go 4-8, and it sure as hell ain’t gonna be Alabama.
Meanwhile, conference realignment and the introduction (and looming expansion of) the playoff has irrevocably changed the sport from a quirky, regional one to a national one. Whereas college football was once the NFL’s oddball cousin who never seems to have a steady job but always throws the best tailgate parties, college football in 2021 skips the tailgate and heads straight for the air-conditioned VIP suites.
These changes haven’t been all bad! The financial success of major college football clearly played a role in dialing up the pressure to allow NIL compensation, for instance. There are costs and benefits to every decision, but it’s less clear to me than it’s ever been that what we gain by hurtling toward a world of super-conferences is greater than what we’re giving up…
In other aspects of American life, we seem to be taking a moment to question whether it has been wise to spend the past forty years substituting profit-maximization for an actual system of values. But that mood has yet to touch the college football decision-makers, if it ever will. In the early 1990s, the athletics directors of America outsourced their decision-making faculties to the television networks, and the hard truth is that no conference-swap or divisional reorganization will bring back what we’ve lost along the way.
Back to 2024
Pulling things back to the present day and, more to the point, the near-future: it’s not lost on me that the SEC is balancing two competing concerns. They’re trying to protect traditional rivalries while also ensuring that there aren’t any schools that don’t go, say, 24 years between trips to Oxford. Unlike the scheduling format we’ve had since 2014, the new schedules seem to achieve the latter goal quite well; if anything, it overcorrects in that direction.
It’s also worth pointing out that the 2024 schedule is just a stop-gap while the league continues to debate the merits and feasibility of a nine-game conference schedule. Expanding the SEC schedule presents obvious strategic challenges, but one thing that eight extra SEC games (if I am doing the math correctly) would quite obviously make easier is the preservation of intraconference rivalries.
So while this isn’t exactly what we should expect from every SEC schedule going forward, it gives us an idea of what the bold new super-conference era will look like. And, for me at least, it makes the cost of not going to nine games feel a lot more visceral.
On Thursday morning, I put out a call for reader opinions on the new SEC schedule. I was pleased to see that we had a robust discussion going, with several people making great points that helped me tremendously as I thought about writing this edition of the newsletter.
I wanted to share a few contributions that stood out and that I thought captured unique aspects of the discourse on this issue, some of which I didn’t address directly in the preceding passages:: “Boy I hate it! No natural rivalries to be found, and going to nine will make scheduling interesting OOC games an even worse idea. … Many will disagree with it but it's clear from public comments that Tanner's view is that our best bet is to play along with what the larger entities want to make sure that we stay bound to them rather than pushing them into considering breaking away from some of the ‘lesser’ brands in the SEC and forming a superleague.”
Brandon: “We have played Georgia 75 times. That is more than any team other than Clemson. There is no SEC school remotely close. They are the only SEC team that ranks on the five most frequent opponents. To not have them on the schedule is almost insulting”: “I can understand it IF is this truly only a transition year. I support the 9 game schedule format going forward and hope that Tanner has the cajones and gravitas to advocate in our best interests which I believe includes an annual game against Georgia and an annual game with either Florida or Tennessee. The 24 schedule reads like we have no South Atlantic rivals, like we are located in the Mid-South region.”: “UGA being left off the schedule is really the one that I think stinks most. Florida and Tennessee both feel weird but those histories are all from 30 yrs in SEC only.”: “I think some of this has to do with how we view certain rivals compared to how they view the rivalry with USC. Most of us view UGA as out biggest conference rival, but to them they probably view USC as their 4th biggest in conference behind UF, AU, and maybe UT … When you pair our perceived rivals with other’s perceived rivals, Vandy and Kentucky probably line up closer with ours than others.”: “I've long since come to the conclusion that what matters most to SC fans is of little to no significance to the powers that be within the SEC. Same could be said for any other fan base, with the possible exception of 'Bama. The league will protect the Iron Bowl come what may, and probably UF/UGA, UA/UT, etc. … Having said that, I'm glad we will keep Kentucky, as that has evolved into perhaps our biggest rivalry within the SEC (meaning that they probably hate us as much as we hate them).”
Chris White: “Been thinking on it, not too deeply and without sentimentality... I kind of like the idea of an annual surprise -- who will we face-off with this year? … It will be fun, sparring with the new and Western Division fan bases. Plus: builds Brand Gamecocks for recruiting in new areas of the country.
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