News broke Thursday evening, February 9th that sent reverberations through the college sports terrain: Oklahoma and Texas would depart the Big 12 conference one year earlier than expected and join the SEC for the 2024 football season. While the news is momentous, it is hardly shocking; the only surprising thing about the announcement is how soon it came to last week’s report to the contrary, that the prairie powerhouses would stay in the Big 12 for the duration of their previous agreements.
This is exciting for Missouri fans. The conference payouts will get even bigger, and it will be nice to play old familiar foes again. In addition, this accelerated timeline will soon give clarity to one of the biggest issues facing the future of the league: the structure of the football schedule in the 16-team league. The East and West Divisions will be put out to pasture when our
new old friends arrive, and we will know soon what structure will replace it.
Commissioner Greg Sankey has already nixed the idea of a 4x4 mini-division “pod” system, and confirmed that there are two options remaining: an eight-game conference schedule, with one protected rivalry per school, or expanding to a nine-game league slate with three protected rivalries per school – aka the “3 and 6” method. Each system has its own advantages and disadvantages, but for Missouri, one method should be a clear preference. Let’s take a look at the possibilities of each.
Logistically, eight conference games with one protected rivalry per team is the easiest solution for the SEC. Oklahoma and Texas slide in as their own rivals, and everything else remains the same. Missouri’s seven non-rivalry games would cycle through the remaining 14 other conference teams every two years. SEC athletic directors would not be sent scrambling to reset their non-conference schedules (which are of course already booked through like 2073 at some schools).
The rule requiring SEC teams to schedule one Power Five in the non-con slate would likely remain, giving Missouri flexibility to rekindle old matchups like Illinois, Colorado, Kansas State, and, of course, the hated beakers from that school to the west. These games are a boon for fanbases and athletic departments alike. But booking tough games like this will only be tenable in an eight-game schedule: for a program that lives on the bowl eligibility bubble line every year, a nine-game SEC slate will dramatically lower the margin for error when building the non-conference schedule.
In addition, by removing division foes and cycling through the whole league, Missouri will be able to focus on Arkansas as a singular archrival. With the last decade of division play, the ire of Tiger fans has been spread across the conference. You probably hate Arkansas the most if you live near that state or spend too much time on Twitter. If you hate the big bad bullies, you loathe Georgia. If you can’t stand losing football games in the most outrageous way possible, Kentucky is Public Enemy #1. If you think Shane Beamer is a weirdo and you have a lot of pride in the name “Columbia,” then South Carolina raises your temper. The 1x7 model lets these villains enter the picture only on a rotating basis, and the monster at the end stays the same.
The three by six model would be tough for Missouri football going forward. The last four Missouri bowl-eligible seasons have all come at exactly .500, with no room to spare. The path to the postseason – let alone the playoff – becomes even more difficult with an additional SEC foe as a roadblock. Out of conference, SEC teams would not be forced by rule to book a Power Five opponent, meaning the most tenable Tiger tables would not involve renewing any old rivalries.
And who would be Missouri’s three protected rivals? Almost certainly two would be Oklahoma and Arkansas, a powerhouse and a peer. Do you trust that the league office pairs Missouri up with a South Carolina or a Vanderbilt, or could they find themselves attached to a second resource-rich rival like a Texas or a Florida?
With Oklahoma and Texas joining sooner rather than later, it’s time for Sankey and the league to stop kicking the can down the road and decide the new schedule format. Missouri fans should hope the league stays with an eight-game schedule, to give them more breathing room each season and to nurture rivalries both old and new.