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Gamecocks AD Ray Tanner on SEC scheduling as expansion looms

Oklahoma Texas

The Sooners and Longhorns are set to bring their longtime rivalry to the SEC beginning in the 2025 season, but more conference expansion has raised the question if any more schools will come with them. AP/Jeffrey McWhorter

COLUMBIA — The Big Ten fired the biggest shot of the July 4 weekend, announcing that it had accepted the independence of UCLA and Southern Cal from their previous league and invited the California schools to join theirs.

The SEC, which had a similar scoop nearly a full year ago when it was revealed that Oklahoma and Texas were doffing their Stetsons to the Big 12 and coming to a more lucrative oil field, stood pat as the inevitable discussions began.

What does this mean for future conference expansion? Will the Big Ten and SEC keep adding? Will the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 keep attempting to band together or figure out that self-preservation is the wisest, most economical option?

Most importantly for the folks who plan their lives around autumn football Saturdays, who and when does (insert favorite team) play?

At South Carolina, about to begin its 31st season in the SEC, that’s the question, which leads to more. One being, “How much harder than it is now will it eventually be to win league games?”

Athletics director Ray Tanner chimed in.

“There has been a lot of dialogue on both, and when you’re doing schedules, I think no matter what sport it is … we got to think about the opportunities to be successful in the postseason and get opportunities to play and not cannibalize within the league,” Tanner said during a recent radio interview, before the Big Ten opened its bombing doors.

“With the three-six (scheduling format), you have the five and the four, then the four and the five, home and away. But you do see everybody within a four-year time frame home and away.”

The SEC had acknowledged that it has discussed what it will do when Oklahoma and Texas join, but has not found a formal solution. At SEC spring meetings, two future scheduling models were discussed: A 1-7, where every school has one permanent league opponent and seven rotating teams; And a 3-6, where a league game is added to the schedule, with three permanent opponents and six rotators.

No decision was reached, with most reports saying it was a clean 8-8 split between the 16 league schools (Oklahoma and Texas administrators were involved). All of this was before the Big Ten’s news, and while the SEC hasn’t said one way or the other if it will pursue more expansion, that’s also on the minds of many because it has to be.

The SEC is the leader of college football. It wins most of the championships, so it’s usually looked to as out front on huge decisions.

This one will be massive. But at present, it’s Oklahoma and Texas joining in 2025 and taking care of that first.

The TV networks will be involved, but aren’t in the leagues’ ears telling them what to do. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said as much at the spring meetings to Jesse Simonton of the On3 network.

“We keep them updated,” Sankey said. “But they’re not dictating.”

Sankey is not expected to make a formal declaration of the new scheduling model with Oklahoma and Texas at the conference’s bellwether event, SEC Media Days, in less than two weeks. But he said he wants a decision by the end of the summer, or at least by the end of the year.

USC is hoping for the 1-7 solution, as it’s the easiest to fit in with what it’s currently doing. The Gamecocks have a non-conference annual rivalry game with Clemson, meaning they have that game plus three other non-conference games of their choosing when they’re making future schedules. The general gist has been to schedule one “big-name” opponent, one in-state small school and one non-Power-5 school alongside Clemson.

USC has many of its “big-name” opponents already scheduled through 2035. The Gamecocks are planning three dates with North Carolina, three with Virginia Tech, two with N.C. State and two with Miami. There are also three scheduled games with Appalachian State.

A 3-6 model would cause some consternation, as USC probably wouldn’t want to break the contracts to get out of those future games, but would have to break some of the smaller contracts (the 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2027 non-conference schedules are already completed). That also shortens the opportunities to win games and thus get bowl-eligible, as the four non-conference games have played integral parts in previous seasons where they reached bowl-game eligibility.

USC won seven games last year, the seventh the bowl game. Three of its six wins to become bowl-eligible were against Eastern Illinois, East Carolina and Troy.

Discussions have been had and votes have been tabulated, but more await, especially if the SEC again expands or the College Football Playoff adds more teams.

“It hasn’t been an easy place to land. I think that probably it’s sooner than later that we will land and make a decision on where we’re going to go in the future,” Tanner said. “If we knew about the (CFP) expansion, if we knew exactly what that was going to be — and I think there is going to be an expansion — we have four more years with this current format.

“With knowing where expansion is going, eight to 12, will it help us make a decision on what we want to do, with the one-seven or the three-six? I think that does play a significant role in any decision that gets made from the SEC.”

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.