The numbers tell the story on why Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart are opposed to the Southeastern Conference adding a ninth league football game to its scheduling format.
Starting in 1985, the University of Kentucky has had two football seasons — count ’em, two — in which it has won more than seven regular-season games.
In 2018, Stoops coached Josh Allen, Benny Snell and Co. to a 9-3 mark. Three years later, Wan’Dale Robinson, Will Levis and the troops gave Stoops his second 9-3 regular-season as UK’s head man.
Otherwise, no Kentucky team since 1984 has managed more than seven victories in a regular season.
So even as Oklahoma and Texas are set to bring the number of Southeastern Conference members to 16 when they officially join the SEC on July 1, 2024, I get why Barnhart and Stoops are unenthusiastic about proposals for the SEC to go from eight league football contests each season to nine.
The margin of error for Kentucky in succeeding at football in the SEC is reed thin. An additional league game narrows the path to UK football success even more.
At least in the short run, Kentucky’s brain trust has gotten its way. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced last week at the league’s spring meetings in Destin, Fla., that the conference was staying at eight league football games for 2024.
The SEC will also continue to require in 2024 that each of its schools play at least one non-league game against a Power Five conference foe. For Kentucky, the Governor’s Cup rivalry with Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Louisville fills that scheduling slot.
While the debate over whether the SEC should play eight or nine games has become keenly polarizing, an underlying issue is actually more interesting: To what degree does the Southeastern Conference need to prioritize more scheduling variety among its member schools if that comes at the expense of the preservation of annual rivalries?
As expected, the SEC announced that 2023 will be the last season in which the conference is split between East and West divisions. Starting in 2024, the league will operate in a single-standings format.
According to the SEC, the non-division format “will allow every school to play every other school a minimum of two times in a four-year period, regardless of whether the SEC utilizes an eight-game or nine-game format for future conference competition.”
It is unquestionably true that the East-West format limited cross-divisional competition. Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012. The Aggies have yet to play football at Kentucky in all that time — and, under the old scheduling format, were not slated to do so until 2025.
Yet if the cost of diversifying in-league schedules comes at the expense of not playing rivalry games on an annual basis, then variety is not worth that price.
Preserving rivalries should be job one for SEC decision-makers. Simply put, UK fans will not be winners if they wind up getting to see the Cats play Texas A&M and Arkansas more often if that comes at the expense of not playing border-rival Tennessee every year.
That’s why, of the two long-term scheduling formats most discussed for SEC football, an eight-game model with only one permanent opponent or a nine-game slate with three every-year foes, the latter is preferable.
On the “one-and-seven” scenario, the permanent foes seem relatively easy to assign: Alabama-Auburn; Arkansas-Missouri; Florida-Georgia; LSU-Texas A&M; Mississippi-Mississippi State; Oklahoma-Texas; Tennessee-Vanderbilt.
That would leave Kentucky paired with South Carolina as its annual “rival” by the process of elimination.
The one-and-seven formula likely ends annual marquee games such as Alabama-Tennessee, Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-LSU. It would keep the SEC from restoring yearly rivalries such as Texas-Texas A&M, Arkansas-Texas and Oklahoma-Missouri, too.
Conversely, the “three-and-six” scheduling model would preserve far more of the meaningful SEC rivalries on an every-year basis.
When I projected how such a scheduling format might look back in February, I had Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt as UK’s three permanent foes. That would be the three SEC schools that are in states contiguous to Kentucky.
(At least one national writer, Ross Dellenger of SI.com, projected UK’s three permanent foes in a three-and-six scheduling scenario as Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi State.
That would be less than ideal, with Kentucky being forced to play a ninth SEC game each year yet getting not even one foe on an annual basis that could be considered a “rival.”)
Since the SEC accepted Oklahoma and Texas, a ninth league football game has felt inevitable. It might require the league’s TV partner, ESPN, sweetening the financial pot to make league teams whole on giving up a home game every other year, but that seems likely to happen at some point.
In choosing its ultimate football scheduling format, the Southeastern Conference’s single biggest consideration should be clear: Keep as many rivalries going on an annual basis as possible.
When it comes to SEC football scheduling, placing “variety” over “rivalry” would be a dud.