It’s the week before Rivalry Week, and I bet you’re looking at the SEC’s schedule with disdain. Most teams are into their conference schedules. The games should be meaningful. The stakes should be high. Conference titles are soon to be decided.
But in the conference where “It Just Means More,” the time is now to go against the grain. Every year, one college football league decides to interrupt the rhythm of the season in order to play the most sacred of competitions.
It’s SEC-SoCon Challenge day, y’all.
Why does the SEC play really crappy games on this day?
“SEC-SoCon Challenge” is our catch-all term for paycheck games on the mid-November date before Rivalry Week.
Of course, teams in other power conferences sometimes schedule these games (and everybody does it earlier in the season, too), and small schools outside of the Southern Conference get in on the fun, too. And the SEC does squeeze in an actual conference game or two.
The origins of these games go back a decade or so. In 2005, the NCAA’s board of directors decided FBS teams can play a 12th regular season game. Many SEC teams took advantage by regularly giving themselves some light work the week before they play their archrivals.
From the Orlando Sentinel at the time:
Athletics directors and NCAA leaders like the additional game for three reasons:
It brings in revenue. For the biggest schools, such as those in the SEC and ACC, an extra game translates into an extra home game and that means at least an additional $1 million for some schools.
Florida reported it would add at least $1.8 million.
Tennessee's figure was closer to $3 million. For schools such as UCF, the extra date provides an option to bring in a team at home or play another guaranteed game on the road.
The Golden Knights have made as much as $450,000 for a road game.
We groan about the quality of these games, but they’re integral to smaller programs’ existence.
When FBS teams use that extra game to play a tiny school from the FCS, those tiny teams get a lot out of it: a guaranteed revenue stream, a chance for fans to see a big venue, and a chance for players to play on a big stage.
Let’s take FCS Chattanooga. The Mocs have played or will play on the pre-rivalry week in 2009, ‘13, ‘15, ‘16 and ‘18. They’ve lost all these games and will lose to Alabama in 2016’s SEC-SoCon Challenge, but they’re always able to count on a guaranteed check from a big boy:
And those are on the low end for guarantee games, which can also include FBS mid-majors. Here are some of the payouts from early-season games in 2016:
Louisville will host Charlotte (for $600,000), Iowa will host Miami of Ohio (for $1 million) and Florida will host UMass (for $1.25 million), among scores of other games. The next week, Western Kentucky will earn $1.3 million to visit Alabama.
Guarantee games are a part of the college football ecosystem, and because fat TV checks don’t exist for these teams, the money goes an extra long way.
But what if an SEC team actually loses one of these games?
Oh please, don’t be contrarian just to be contrarian. There’s no way an SEC team would lose one of these guarantee games on this weekend!
Counterpoint: Georgia Southern (still an FCS team at the time) 26, Florida 20 in 2013.
In Gainesville, notable events typically aren’t scheduled in the fall at all. If they are, they get pegged to Florida’s bye week or the week of a game everyone assumes Florida will win. That typically means fall weddings will find their way to SEC-SoCon Saturday.
I volunteered somewhere during 2011’s SEC-SoCon challenge, and the Gators ended up entering the fourth quarter trailing before pulling away against Furman. Last season, Florida played FAU, and I left at halftime to attend a wedding. UF needed this to win in overtime:
A group of us gathered around a radio in the parking lot of the wedding venue to listen to it.
But it is not just Florida that has fallen victim on this most holy of college football Saturdays.
On that same day in 2015, the Citadel beat South Carolina, 23-22 ...
... and Georgia needed overtime to dispatch Georgia Southern:
(An aside: Don’t schedule Georgia Southern).
FBS Louisiana-Monroe used to be that “don’t schedule them” team. In 2006, the Warhawks nearly beat Kentucky on this sacred weekend.
And Nick Saban will go down as the greatest college football coach of any era when it’s all said and done. But do not ever forget the time ULM beat Alabama on SEC-SoCon challenge weekend back in 2007.
So sit back, relax, and try to enjoy the day.
The games are largely bad, and we know why. But perhaps you’ll be able to fall off the couch laughing at an SEC team losing a game they it has no business losing. Laughter is the best medicine to cure you of an otherwise banal day of SEC football.