The Big Ten and SEC have taken turns unveiling their 2024 game plans over the past two weeks — moves designed to create excitement for the future of college football’s two most influential conferences.
For the first time, 16 teams will be represented at both conferences. USC and UCLA will join the Big Ten. Oklahoma and Texas will join the SEC. The playoffs begin with 12 teams. Should be fun right?
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These conferences will be all about getting as many teams as possible into the 12-team playoffs.
The Big Ten will stay at nine conference games, and the SEC will have eight conference games in 2023. How will that affect everything else as these two conferences try to navigate the 12-team CFP era?
Here are three factors to watch out for in the near future:
Could the Big Ten and SEC’s non-conference change?
In conversations like this, it’s best to start at the top. In 2024, Alabama has Georgia and Auburn as its home and a road schedule that includes Tennessee, Oklahoma and LSU. Now get on with the non-conference game in Wisconsin. That’s a five-star game plan for a five-star roster, and it’s not the only power matches between the Big Ten and the SEC on the game plan.
Alabama has a home-and-home race scheduled with Ohio State in 2027-28. Michigan will play Texas in 2024 and 2026, and Oklahoma in 2025 and 2027. Georgia has a home game with UCLA scheduled for 2024 and 2026.
It will be interesting to see if these encounters continue as the conference schedule will be more difficult. Will some of these blockbuster out-of-conference games be canceled in the future considering there could be a Wisconsin-Alabama or Michigan-Oklahoma clash in the CFP Quarterfinals anyway? Is this tight schedule worth it outside of the conference? That’s a question sporting directors will grapple with.
Does the strength of the schedule matter outside of the conference at all? Michigan has played a non-conference Power-5 team in Washington for the past two seasons. His other opponents were Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn. The Wolverines have won two straight Big Ten championships and their non-conference program this year includes East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. The Big Ten’s nine-game schedule is enough.
Would the Big Ten or the SEC consider 10-game conference schedules in the future? That worked for the SEC during the COVID-19-hit 2020 season, when it played exclusively in conference.
Alabama won the national championship and Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M played in the New Year’s Day Six. All four would have been playoff teams in the 12-team format that year. Admittedly, a nine- or 10-game SEC schedule would jeopardize cross-conference ACC rivalries like Florida-Florida State, Kentucky-Louisville and South Carolina-Clemson, but that could be another casualty down the line.
Florida plays Miami and Florida State in addition to an SEC roster that includes Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and Texas. Do you think the Gators want to do that every year?
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How conference championships are changing
The conference championship games are going nowhere. They are used to determine automatic bids in the 12-team setup.
However, their value will change. Part of the problem with conference championship games in the four-team era is that few of them resulted in a win for either team. Since 2014, five conference championship games have been played between two teams that, with a win, had an equal guaranteed chance of reaching the CFP. The Big Ten championship between Michigan State and Iowa in 2015 and the SEC championship games between Auburn and Georgia in 2017 and Georgia and LSU in 2019 met those qualifications.
The other two games offered a glimpse of what will happen more frequently in the 12-team CFP era. The 2020 ACC Championship between Clemson and Notre Dame and the 2021 SEC Championship game between Alabama and Georgia are examples of games where both teams made the college football playoffs.
As the SEC and Big Ten move to a no-division format, it’s a safe bet that both teams will be regular 12-team playoffs in these games. The conference championship game is played with a first-round bye, and that changes the stakes. Would a team consider giving their starters a break in one of these games?
Now that might seem like a ridiculous question given how closely tied these championship games are to conference identity, especially in the SEC. However, if it’s the difference between the #4 and #5 in a 12-team playoff, it could happen.
Why fighting for the 12-team playoffs is all that matters
We’ve seen all these hypothetical models proposing what the playoffs would have looked like from 2014 to now in a 12-team setup. In this model, the Big Ten would have produced 26 playoff teams and 16 overall bids. The SEC would have 25 playoff teams and 15 overall bids.
Playoff bids if there was a 12-team CFP from 2014-present:
|On the whole
Expect this trend to continue in the 12-team playoff era. The Big Ten and SEC will likely have the most total offerings, and competition between the two conferences for those spots will be interesting.
Let’s say Wisconsin and Tennessee both end 2024 10-2 or 9-3.
The Vols have an eight-game conference schedule that includes Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma. NC State is the toughest non-conference game. The Badgers play Alabama and have nine non-conference games, including Penn State at home and Michigan and USC away. If this debate is about last place on the field, then this debate will be as intense as the games on the field.
With that in mind, there’s no guarantee the SEC will stick to a nine-game conference schedule — especially if it wins debates like this one. Of course, the possibility of a further realignment would only add to the debate. The more teams you reach in the playoffs, the more title chances you have.
Which schedule model will lead to more success in college football’s next chapter? This is measured in national championships. The SEC has six in the last nine seasons from Alabama, Georgia and LSU. The Big Ten has one from the state of Ohio.
Will the 12-team model and expanded conferencing change that? Like I said, it should be fun.