The 2016 SEC-Big 12 Challenge will feature 10 games between teams from the two confeferences on Saturday, January 30, 2016, the leagues announced on Thursday, a departure from two years of playing games during the traditional non-conference schedule.
The Southeastern and Big 12 conferences have announced that beginning with the 2015-16 men's basketball season, both leagues will create a common open date during their league schedules to showcase the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The third annual Big 12/SEC Challenge will be held on Saturday, January 30, 2016, with ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU combining to televise all 10 games of the event.
"Moving the Big 12/SEC Challenge later in the season will raise the profile of this event and give our coaches, student-athletes and fans the attention that it deserves," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said.
And, yeah, okay, Slive is right to say that — especially because the competition would perenially play second fiddle to the long-running ACC-Big Ten Challenge in the fall — but the most important reason for the switch happening this year is probably the one that means the most to Gators fans: Florida isn't going to have anywhere to play a home game in the fall of 2015.
Florida has played Kansas in the first two iterations of the Big 12-SEC Challenge, winning at home in 2013 and falling in Lawrence this past December. The Gators should be in line to host another Big 12 team in 2015 — except that the renovations of the O'Connell Center taking place from March to December of 2015 will likely force Florida to barnstorm during its 2015-16 non-conference schedule.
Florida's already going to have it hard enough in that non-conference schedule without playing a road game at a Big 12 school — Texas Southern, which played at Florida in one of its 12 road games in 13 non-conference contests this year, and went 3-10 in those games, can attest to the difficult of being road warriors for nearly two months. And while Florida playing a road game in the Challenge for the second straight year would've made for the cleanest solution to the temporary problem, ESPN would have no problem broadcasting, say, Florida taking on Texas in Austin), I'm sure neither Billy Donovan nor Jeremy Foley was all that keen on that game happening next season.
Florida actually isn't the only SEC team that will be roaming in the fall of 2015: Mississippi is going to be without a home while its arena undergoes its own renovations. But it should be remembered that, for all of the depth of both conferences, Florida has as many national titles alone this century as the rest of both conferences combined, and is unquestionably one of the "draws" for a made-for-TV event like this, certainly a greater one than Mississippi. Foley and Donovan wield some clout when it comes to making changes like this one, and ESPN would certainly prefer not to shaft one of the three most prominent programs between the two leagues; my bet is that Foley and Donovan got what they wanted.
With this news, Florida should be expected to host a Big 12 team — forced to guess, I'd imagine it will be either Oklahoma (and former Florida coach Lon Kruger) or Texas — other than Kansas on January 30, 2016.
The move will also have interesting implications for both conferences' schedules. Most conferences with an even number of teams have their teams play twice each week during conference play, a system that has worked well for decades. And the Big 12 will probably simply begin its conference play one weekend earlier to accommodate its 18-game schedule set.
But the four SEC teams not participating in the challenge in a given year will play each other on that same day, creating an unavoidable imbalance in the SEC schedules. The league could just have the 10 teams participating in the Challenge begin SEC play on an earlier weekend, but that solution would just shift the point at which a group of SEC teams has played more games than another group.
Given the yearly whining from all corners about the perceived unfairness of SEC football schedules, we can expect plenty of complaining about the SEC hoops schedules from
the league's devoted basketball fans Big Blue Nation when the conference announces its solution.