If you've checked Twitter at all recently, you've probably heard that the SEC is making a tweak in their league schedule rules. The league will not move to nine league games as some had previously speculated (at least, not yet), but the move does impact the available inventory of out-of-conference games, which will impact BYU. We try to separate the fact from the fiction, and explain exactly what this new development means
Why is the SEC making a change?
There are a few reasons. Currently, SEC teams play eight conference games, the same as the ACC and Big Ten (although the Big Ten will switch to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016). The Pac-12 and the Big 12 currently play nine conference games. As the SEC expanded, some schools were concerned that if the number of league games didn't grow, some schools would be at a significant schedule imbalance, especially with some matchups protected as rivalries. Others were concerned that playing eight SEC games, instead of nine, would limit inventory for the new SEC Network. Finally, with strength of schedule a part of the playoff selection criteria, some felt that adding another SEC game would further bolster the credentials of SEC schools.
However, most coaches, outside of Nick Saban anyway, felt that adding a ninth game would simply increase the chances than SEC teams would beat up on each other, putting them at a disadvantage compared to champs from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others. A hybrid proposal seemed like the best compromise for the short term, an eight-plus-one model. Now, each SEC school will be required to play one school from a "Power 5" conference (the Big 10, ACC, Big 12 or Pac-12) on top of their eight conference games.
Was BYU looking to play a lot of SEC schools? How does this move change things on that front?
It's true, BYU has not played many SEC schools recently. In the Independence Era, the Cougars have only played one SEC game, a 14-13 BYU win at Ole Miss in 2011, and BYU was only added as a late minute replacement for Boise State. The Cougars played a home-and-home with Mississippi State in the early 2000s as well, but that was a different time.
Last November, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall specifically mentioned LSU as a team that could be on the horizon in the future, although LSU said they didn't know anything about that, and with the Tigers recently adding schools like Wisconsin, Penn State, UCLA and Arizona State to future slates, a tussle with BYU would be highly unlikely.
Before the change, and after, there wasn't much of an incentive for most SEC schools to play a home-and-home, or multi-game agreement with BYU. If they were a school near the bottom of the SEC, there isn't an incentive to schedule a particularly tough team, given that schools like Kentucky are already hard pressed to find enough wins to go bowling. Teams near the top of the league would either have opportunities to play higher profile out of conference games, or wouldn't benefit from a game against BYU. However, for a few schools, there may have been situations where a single game, where the SEC hosted, could make sense.
This move probably makes that even less likely. If a school wasn't already playing a big team out of conference, they have more of an incentive to either schedule a very bad Power 5 school (Kansas! Purdue! Welcome to the South!), so they can get a win towards making a bowl. If they want to set their sights higher, it makes more sense to sign a home-and-home, which would further deplete possible game slots to face a school like BYU. Nobody in the SEC would really benefit by going to Utah.
The only possible exception to this rule MIGHT be Vanderbilt, a private, academically oriented school that has been willing to play home-and-homes with schools of a similar profile, like Wake Forest and Northwestern. Vandy does not have any games scheduled against a major conference school except for Georgia Tech in 2016, but with a coaching change, and with Kentucky and Tennessee improving, they might need every win they can get before SEC play.
So it sounds like BYU wasn't gonna get too many of those games anyway. Does this not matter much then?
Well, no. For starters, the ACC has been monitoring what the SEC is doing, and is likely to either model the system, or move to a nine game league schedule themselves. Given that BYU has already had a relationship with a few ACC schools, and given that the ACC also has to juggle their out of conference inventory with Notre Dame, anything that would formally limit the number of open games could really hurt BYU.
BYU recently had a home-and-home with Georgia Tech, and will complete a home-and-home with Virginia this season. The Cougars have another home-and-home scheduled with Virginia for 2019-2020. UVA doesn't have any other Power 5 teams scheduled during those years, and if they have to add one, it could put their BYU series at risk. If the ACC goes to a de facto nine-game slate, getting an ACC squad to make a trip to Provo will be almost impossible, and even getting a one-off road game may be tricky.
That isn't great news.
Nope. Plus, remember that the Big Ten goes to nine games in 2016. BYU plays two Big Ten teams before than (road trips to Nebraska and Michigan in 2015), and has a home-and-home scheduled with Wisconsin for 2018 and 2019. I still think Wisconsin either reschedules or buys BYU out of their trip to Provo, and since B1G teams can only play one out-of-conference road game every other year, the chances of getting somebody else to make that trip will be tough.
Getting de facto shut out of EITHER the SEC or the ACC wouldn't be the end of the world for BYU. Potentially access to both, shuts therm out of high-level football games along the East Coast and southeast. If they have trouble with Big Ten schools (if say, BYU doesn't want to play them exclusively on the road, for example), they will be essentially locked out of high level football east of the Mississippi River, besides Notre Dame.
You can build a competitive schedule and ignore those conferences, but if you're about playing in different geographies, and building a national brand, not to mention building quality home games, that becomes a problem.
How can BYU address that?
In one sense, they already have. BYU has not shied away from scheduling teams in The American, and I expect that to only continue. The Cougars play Houston and UCF this year, and will open this season at UConn (as part of a home-and-home), and will have future home-and-homes with East Carolina and Cincinnati. If BYU wants games against anybody else in the league, it shouldn't be hard to do.
I would also imagine that BYU will find a way to get Navy, if not Army as well, on the schedule. Given Bronco's stated interest in playing service academies, BYU's flexibility in scheduling, and what I imagine would be BYU's willingness to play a game AT Army or Navy, coupled with perhaps an increased urgency in getting additional eastern exposure, I'd be surprised if the two sides aren't able to set something up in the near future.
Failing that, the only way for BYU to change their lot is to improve the stature of their program, and that requires winning more games, against good teams. Taking advantage of a softer schedule this year, and running up a strong record, would be a good place to start.