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Commissioner Greg Sankey reveals timeline on revamped SEC football schedule structure

Stefan Krajisnik, Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Fri, March 10, 2023 

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — SEC commissioner Greg Sankey spent nearly seven minutes inside Bridgestone Arena on Friday discussing the new scheduling model for the conference’s football format. In his prolonged answer, he provided little clarity on which structure the SEC will implement when Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in 2024.

However, Sankey wants to reach a decision by the time SEC spring meetings conclude in Destin, Florida, in May.

Sankey claims discussions of a structure beyond two divisions stem back to 2018. He felt the conference was, “poised” to come to a conclusion at last year’s spring meetings. Though that wasn’t completed, the options weren't narrowed down to two single-division models.

How the model will be constructed is now the focus. The conference shifted through more than 30 models and has decided on two final options – an eight-game slate with one permanent opponent or a nine-game slate with three permanent opponents.

“The outcome of the models remaining would allow each of our teams to see every team at least twice in a four-year cycle, including home and away,” Sankey said.

“The ability to have our teams play within a four-year cycle is exciting for our fans,” he added. “I said that right after expansion, that we want to see our teams go through our campuses more frequently.”

Deciphering which structure is better revolves around fairness and balance, Sankey said. Not all rivalries are equal, which could set up tougher schedules for teams with tougher rivals.

Alabama’s Nick Saban has become an example after voicing his displeasure about the idea of having Tennessee, Auburn and LSU as permanent opponents in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

The Alliance failed, and Greg Sankey knows how to rub it in. He can demand a college football playoff format that behooves the SEC.

“There are a number of factors,” Sankey said. “One certainly is competitive. We want to be respectful there. But understand, we won't play a three-game schedule ever. I can assure you of that. We will play a nine-game schedule if we have three annual opponents. A schedule has to be considered in its entirety, not simply in the annual opponents. If we play eight with one annual opponent, the same reality. There's no one-game schedule. One rival will be maybe a little bit more difficult, but that balances itself out over the entire schedule.”

Another twist to the new schedule is media rights. With the SEC moving to Disney/ABC, the conference won’t have to schedule around the 2:30 p.m. CT time slot typically reserved for the CBS game of the week.

“We'll introduce what I think is a fan-friendlier and team-friendlier kickoff lineup through the day,” Sankey said.

 

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SEC spring preview: Top storyline, newcomer to watch for each team

Mar 6, 2023   Chris Low & Harry Lyles Jr.

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The SEC landscape will change after this season as Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. What doesn't figure to change is that the national championship will continue to go through the SEC, which has produced the last four national champions (three different teams) and 13 of the last 17 national champs.

Kirby Smart and Georgia have taken the belt away from Alabama with back-to-back national titles. The Dawgs are looking to become only the second team in history to win three consecutive unanimous national titles. Minnesota pulled that off in 1934, '35, and '36 -- and that's it.

Alabama will enter the 2023 season with a quarterback not named Bryce Young. Tennessee and LSU, both of whom made big moves a year ago, get a chance to show that they're here to stay, while Hugh Freeze is back in the SEC as Auburn's head coach and Zach Arnett takes over as Mississippi State's head coach after the death of Mike Leach last December.

Alabama won't be the only SEC team replacing its starter or facing some uncertainty at quarterback, the most important position on the field. Add Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee to that list. And while all eyes are on Georgia and the juggernaut Smart has built in Athens, everyone in college football will also be watching Tuscaloosa to see how Nick Saban and Alabama respond. The Crimson Tide have never gone three straight seasons under Saban (going back to 2007) without winning a national championship.

As spring practices get under way, Chris Low (West) and Harry Lyles Jr. (East) break down the top storyline and newcomer to watch for each team in the SEC.

WEST DIVISION

Alabama

Top storyline: There's a lot that's new within the Alabama football program, starting with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, although this will be Steele's third stint working under Saban at Alabama. Rees, who comes over from Notre Dame, will be breaking in a new quarterback with the loss of Young to the NFL. And whether Ty Simpson or Jalen Milroe wins the job, Rees would like to take some pressure off his quarterback by running the ball more consistently. One of Steele's priorities will be creating more negative plays on defense after the Tide finished next-to-last in the SEC last season in forced turnovers (14). Alabama will also be looking for a finisher on defense with Will Anderson Jr. heading to the NFL. Enter Dallas Turner as the top candidate to fill that role.

Newcomer to watch: Alabama was missing a deep vertical threat in its passing game last season, and junior college transfer Malik Benson has everything it takes to fill that void after showing great speed, sure hands and sound route-running in the practices leading up to the Tide's bowl game last season.

Arkansas

Top storyline: After a brutal schedule a year ago, Arkansas looks to rebound in 2023 with some new pieces in place. The Razorbacks still managed to win seven games last season after winning nine in 2021. They have two new coordinators -- Dan Enos on offense and Travis Williams on defense -- and will have a total of five new position coaches. Also, Ben Sowders comes in as the Hogs' new strength and conditioning coach. Fifth-year senior KJ Jefferson is back at quarterback after making big strides each of his past two seasons. It will be interesting to see what the offense looks like under Enos and how he uses Jefferson, who passed for 2,658 yards and ran for 640 yards a year ago. Williams will be looking to strengthen a group that finished 124th nationally a year ago in total defense (464.8 yards per game).

Newcomer to watch: Arkansas led the SEC with 42 sacks last season, and Missouri transfer Trajan Jeffcoat is a nice addition as a defensive end/pass-rusher after starting for the Tigers each of the past three seasons. The Hogs are transitioning from a three-man front to a 4-2-5 base under Williams and can use any help they can get up front to take some heat off a secondary that struggled a year ago.

Auburn

Hugh Freeze's return to the SEC gives Auburn another chance at a fresh start. John Reed/USA TODAY Sports

Top storyline: Freeze is back in the SEC as Auburn's third head coach in the past four seasons. The program never recovered after the university-directed investigation into Bryan Harsin's relationships with players and coaches following the 2021 season, so the Tigers are starting over -- again. Settling on a quarterback will be a priority, and Freeze has a strong track record of developing quality quarterbacks. Robby Ashford, who started the last nine games a year ago, would seem to be a fit in new offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery's system, which features a heavy dose of run-pass option plays. There's always a chance another quarterback could become available in the transfer portal after spring practice. Either way, the Tigers have to find a way to throw the ball better after finishing with nine touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last season and finishing last in the SEC in passing offense.

Newcomer to watch: When Auburn has been at its best, the Tigers have almost always been menacing in the defensive line. That's what makes Kentucky transfer Justin Rogers so valuable to this defense. The 6-foot-3, 330-pound tackle has gotten better each year he's been in the SEC and should be a staple in the middle of the Auburn defensive front.

LSU

Top storyline: Expectations are soaring on the Bayou for the 2023 season after the Tigers made it to the SEC championship game in Brian Kelly's first season at the helm. There's a lot to like about this LSU team, starting with the return of Jayden Daniels at quarterback. He blossomed a year ago after transferring from Arizona State, and one of the things to watch this spring is the development of his young, talented offensive line. The core five returns up front, and some help is on the way via the 2023 signing class, but the Tigers need to establish some depth. They played a pair of true freshmen, Will Campbell and Emery Jones, at tackle last season, and Jones has the ability to move inside to guard if needed. On the other side of the ball, a lot of eyes will be on defensive lineman Maason Smith and how much he's able to do this spring after tearing his ACL in the season opener last year.

Newcomer to watch: LSU's cornerback room from a year ago was wiped out, which makes former five-star recruit and Texas A&M transfer Denver Harris a key addition. Syracuse transfer Darian Chestnut and Ohio State transfer JK Johnson are two more newcomers in the secondary expected to play key roles.

Mississippi State

Top storyline: The sudden passing of Leach last December left a somber cloud over the entire Mississippi State campus. The school acted swiftly in promoting Arnett to permanent head coach. The good news is that he's not starting over. As Leach's defensive coordinator, Arnett knows the players and the program, which was 4-4 in SEC play each of the past two seasons. It's always good to have an experienced quarterback returning, especially one like Will Rogers, who already owns school records of 10,689 passing yards and 82 touchdown passes. Under new coordinator Kevin Barbay, the Bulldogs will move away from the Air Raid offense they ran under Leach and adopt more of a balanced offense with different groupings, motions and shifts. Rogers likely won't throw as much as he did the last three seasons, but Barbay has already hit it off with his senior quarterback as they head down a different road offensively.

Newcomer to watch: Mississippi State has 15 high school early enrollees/college transfers on campus this semester. Rogers is clearly the guy at quarterback, but Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright could be a valuable asset in certain packages. Safety Isaac Smith could be an early contributor as a freshman. Mississippi State beat out LSU to get Smith, one of the top recruits in the state of Mississippi.

Ole Miss

Top storyline: Some schools go into the spring trying to find a quarterback. Ole Miss goes into this spring trying to sort through its quarterbacks. Jaxson Dart was the Rebels' starter last season after transferring from USC. He will have his hands full keeping the job, as Lane Kiffin brought in Spencer Sanders from Oklahoma State and Walker Howard from LSU. Sanders was a four-year starter and first-team All-Big 12 pick in 2021. Howard is a former five-star recruit who attempted just four passes a year ago as a freshman. All three are talented and have somewhat different skill sets. Sanders has been a really effective runner at quarterback throughout his career, which could pair nicely with an Ole Miss rushing game that has averaged at least 210 yards in all three of Kiffin's seasons. Quinshon Judkins led the SEC with 1,567 rushing yards last season as a freshman.

Newcomer to watch: The Rebels brought in a couple of transfers to help on defense, but the big offseason acquisition was defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who oversaw the Alabama defense the past four seasons. Golding hopes to steady an Ole Miss defense that gave up too many long running plays last season.

Texas A&M

Top storyline: Nobody in College Station wants to go through what the Aggies did a year ago. They finished 5-7, lost at home to Appalachian State, lost six straight games at one point and had a handful of their most coveted signees from the No. 1-ranked 2022 signing class get in trouble off the field and ultimately leave the program. So finding some solidarity and regaining their focus will be paramount for the Aggies this spring. Talented quarterback Conner Weigman is back, and Texas A&M got a pleasant surprise when receiver Ainias Smith decided to return to school. What will the offense look like in 2023 after a dreadful year last season? After calling his own plays in the past, Jimbo Fisher didn't sit pat this offseason. He brought in former Arkansas and Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, one of the best playcallers in the business, and is turning those duties over to him.

Newcomer to watch: Texas A&M added what should be immediate help at cornerback in the portal with the addition of North Carolina's Tony Grimes, a former five-star recruit who played the past three seasons for the Tar Heels. And on offense, freshman running back Rueben Owens has the versatility and speed to fit perfectly into Petrino's offense. Owens signed with Texas A&M after originally committing to Louisville.

EAST DIVISION

Florida

Top storyline: The Gators are going to have fresh faces on the offensive line after losing four starters, including O'Cyrus Torrence, who will likely be the first guard taken in the NFL draft next month. The Gators hit the transfer portal, acquiring tackles Damieon George Jr. from Alabama and Kiyaunta Goodwin from Kentucky, as well as Baylor guard Micah Mazzccua. The Gator faithful should feel confident in the abilities of offensive coordinator Rob Sale and offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton to get this group together, given their track record with Billy Napier's great offensive lines at Louisiana, which produced multiple NFL draft picks.

Newcomer to watch: Quarterback Graham Mertz, who transfers in from Wisconsin. He will be competing with Jack Miller to be the Gators' starter this season behind that offensive line.

Georgia

Is Carson Beck ready to fill the shoes of Stetson Bennett for the two-time defending national champs? Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Top storyline: Georgia is losing one of its most celebrated players ever in quarterback Stetson Bennett, who transformed from a walk-on to a Heisman candidate. Redshirt junior Carson Beck and redshirt sophomore Brock Vandagriff appear to be in line to compete for Bennett's old gig, with the opportunity to lead Georgia's bid for a three-peat. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken left for the NFL, but a familiar face in Mike Bobo takes over a job he's got plenty of experience in; he was Georgia's OC from 2007 to 2014 and was an offensive analyst for the Bulldogs last season.

Newcomer to watch: Two players who will be key in ensuring a smooth transition at quarterback will be wide receivers Rara Thomas and Dominic Lovett, a pair of transfers from Mississippi State and Missouri, respectively. Having Brock Bowers available to whoever wins the quarterback battle will be great, but the Bulldogs have lacked a stable, healthy wide receiving corps the last couple of seasons.

Kentucky

Top storyline: Who stands out in the running game? Kentucky has always found a way to run the football during its current streak of bowl appearances, whether it was with Chris Rodriguez, Lynn Bowden, Benny Snell or Boom Williams. This spring, we should see Rodriguez's backup from the last two seasons, JuTahn McClain, get plenty of reps. McClain also had 18 receptions out of the backfield in 2022, but with Ray Davis transferring in from Vanderbilt, he's going to have competition. And it won't be easy for McClain, as Davis was one of just four SEC rushers to break the 1,000-yard mark last season.

Newcomer to watch: Quarterback Devin Leary transfers in from NC State, where his 2022 season was cut short due to injury after a monster 2021. Mark Stoops had success with his last transfer QB in Will Levis, and it would be fair to expect more with Leary, who should enjoy throwing to the immensely talented Barion Brown.

Missouri

Top storyline: The possible emergence of Jake Garcia. Most eyes go to quarterback competitions when spring ball rolls around, but the Tigers truly have an interesting case on their hands. Miami transfer Garcia is going to be the only healthy quarterback the Tigers expect to compete for their starting job coming into the spring. Last season's starter, Brady Cook, is recovering from surgery on a torn labrum and won't be throwing in the spring. The other quarterback, Sam Horn, strained his forearm pitching for Missouri's baseball team, but is expected to throw at some point. For now, it appears Garcia has an opportunity to get more reps than he otherwise would.

Newcomer to watch: Offensive coordinator Kirby Moore comes in from Fresno State, where he led the Bulldogs to the top offense in the Mountain West, averaging 402.6 yards and 30.6 points per game. Missouri's offense struggled in 2022 and was ranked 88th in the nation in points per game, sandwiched between Central Michigan and Vanderbilt.

South Carolina

Top storyline: The defensive end position and its depth (or lack thereof) is one to watch. Shane Beamer has mentioned this offseason that the team's depth on the edge isn't where he'd like it to be. The Gamecocks lost Jordan Burch and Gilber Edmond to the transfer portal, which will leave it up to the likes of Terrell Dawkins, Tyreek Johnson, Jordan Strachan and Bryan Thomas to step up. Strachan missed most of the 2022 season due to a torn ACL, but is the most experienced of the group. With another portal window yet to come, this group might look different after spring ball.

Newcomer to watch: Nyckoles Harbor. Ranked 39th in the ESPN 300, it's not a stretch to say Harbor might be the best incoming athlete in college football. With a frame that has many expecting him to either play the edge or at tight end, he also has incredible speed, running a 10.32 in the 100 meters.

Tennessee

Top storyline: The veteran vs. the shiny new quarterback. Joe Milton is entering his third year with Tennessee (his sixth total in college football) and reminded everyone in the Orange Bowl against Clemson what he's capable of with his absolute cannon of an arm. Milton finished that game with 251 yards through the air and three touchdown passes. But incoming freshman Nico Iamaleava has plenty of hype behind him as the 23rd player in the ESPN 300 and the fourth-ranked quarterback. No matter who wins the job, there will be plenty of pressure replacing Hendon Hooker, who made Tennessee the story of college football for a big chunk of 2022 and led the Vols to their first win over Alabama in 15 years.

Newcomer to watch: Offensive coordinator Joey Hazle should theoretically provide a seamless transition with Alex Golesh gone after spending the last few seasons with Josh Heupel (including 2020 at UCF). Hazle has worked with Heupel for years now as he's developed as a coach.

Vanderbilt

Top storyline: Will we see the necessary improvements to get Vandy back to postseason play? The 2022 recruiting class received much praise, with AJ Swann being a part of that group. In his first season, Swann completed just over 58% of his passes for 1,274 yards, 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Improvements from him, combined with continuity on the offensive line, will be big for this team. Defensive back Jaylen Mahoney said Tuesday that the first spring practice this year compared to last year was much better under coach Clark Lea, who enters his third year with the Commodores. "We've improved a lot," Mahoney said. "It's a lot faster. Faster pace, we know what's going on as players, we're not just on the field confused and stuff like that." If that pace keeps up, it'll be a big boost for Vanderbilt's 2023 outlook.

Newcomer to watch: Cornerback Martel Hight is the Commodores' highest-ranked recruit in the ESPN 300, coming in at No. 274. He's listed as the 25th-best player in the state of Georgia, and his development will be key for the team's future success.

 

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On 3/6/2023 at 12:48 PM, LTtxfan said:

Ranking the most iconic SEC football stadiums from worst to first

Joe Vitale          Fri, March 3, 2023

https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/ranking-most-iconic-sec-football-214548580.html 

 

So folks that have been to a lot of SEC stadiums, what's your favorite venue???

 

 

I went to The Grove for the Texas road game in 2012. Lots of talent, but short on hospitality. I was expecting a full Oxford chandelier spread, and I think I got some cold Chick-fil-A and a couple beers. Oh they don’t allow grills, so there’s that.

Opposing fan experience wasn’t much better. Two giant dudes straight out of Deliverance were sitting in our seats. So I went and grabbed a local cop and he of course told me to f*** off. Some Texas Cowboys took pity on us and we sat them. Good game and it ended up OK. 
 

I think we should all go once, but The Grove is not the visitors’ paradise they promote themselves as. 
 

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20 minutes ago, billfromlaketravis said:

I went to The Grove for the Texas road game in 2012. Lots of talent, but short on hospitality. I was expecting a full Oxford chandelier spread, and I think I got some cold Chick-fil-A and a couple beers. Oh they don’t allow grills, so there’s that.

Opposing fan experience wasn’t much better. Two giant dudes straight out of Deliverance were sitting in our seats. So I went and grabbed a local cop and he of course told me to f*** off. Some Texas Cowboys took pity on us and we sat them. Good game and it ended up OK. 
 

I think we should all go once, but The Grove is not the visitors’ paradise they promote themselves as. 
 

No grills??? What kind of tailgate is that? Sounds like the ESPN hype machine blew up The Grove experience, too.

Fuck 'em...it's rural Mississippi.

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10 minutes ago, DFW Horn said:

No grills??? What kind of tailgate is that? Sounds like the ESPN hype machine blew up The Grove experience, too.

Fuck 'em...it's rural Mississippi.

It-is-true-all-of-it GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grove_(Ole_Miss)

"However, open flame and propane grills are not allowed in the Grove, so food is not actually allowed to be cooked at the tailgates."

 

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On 3/6/2023 at 11:48 AM, LTtxfan said:

Ranking the most iconic SEC football stadiums from worst to first

Joe Vitale          Fri, March 3, 2023

https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/ranking-most-iconic-sec-football-214548580.html 

 

So folks that have been to a lot of SEC stadiums, what's your favorite venue???

 

 

Here’s my take on the 9 that I’ve been to. 

UK: There’s nothing great nothing terrible about the overall experience and stadium.  Overall pretty forgettable.

Tenn: Hate the stadium.  Rows are way too close together, your knees are in someone’s back and you have knees pressing in your back the entire game.  And the 3.5 hours of Rocky Top is a beating.  Vol navy is a cool novelty.

Vandy:  You go for Nashville, not the stadium or gameday experience.

UGA:  Stadium is great and campus is amazing.  Dawg fans are obnoxious at best, down right assholes at worst.

Bama: Stadium is great and fans welcoming.  I guess it’s easy to be hospitable with the winning percentage they’ve thrown up since Nick took over.

Auburn:  Enjoyed the stadium and overall gameday experience was great.  Auburn the city however is a shit stain.

Gata:  With the exception of campus, Gainesville is pretty shitty.  Stadium is ok, not my favorite, but it’s not Neyland level bad. Fans are a mixed bag, some good some still living in denial.

Cocks:  Stadium is not on campus but that opens up plenty of tailgating opportunities.  Have had a blast there before and during the game.  Gets loud and the fans are pretty easy going with minimal expectations.  Both the city and Stadium have improved dramatically the last decade.  Spending a couple days in Charleston and driving up to Columbia for game is a great trip.

Ole Miss:  Glad I did it, will probably never go back.  Grove was fun but as someone previously stated, it didn’t live up to the reputation.  Oxford is beautiful, every area around Oxford…not so much.  Stadium is ok, fans much like the SC fans are pretty easy to get along with, probably because they don’t expect to win.

 

Have not been to but will:

LSU

Zero desire to go:

Ark

Mizzou

Miss St

Aggy

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Seconded on Miss St. I do want to go to a baseball game there. 
 

LSU is tricky. That’s a pretty temperamental fanbase. I’d say yes, but I’m warming up my car if Texas is winning late 4th quarter. 
 

I’m friendly with a few aggy season ticket holders at work. I don’t foresee any problems if I sit with them. I can also catch a ride so I’m probably in. 

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Tennessee stadium didn’t bother me, and the October colors around it are stunning.  One of the prettiest settings for a football game I’ve ever experienced. 
 

Baton Rouge is like a lot of Louisiana-fun but slightly terrifying. 
 

College Station is is a shit stadium in a shithole.  But I got lost and their fans couldn’t have been- ah, I can’t do it. 
 

That’s my list. 

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17 hours ago, HeHateMe said:

Bama: Stadium is great and fans welcoming.  I guess it’s easy to be hospitable with the winning percentage they’ve thrown up since Nick took over.

So, like nebby fans? As soon as they start to lose, they'll lose that great and welcoming attitude.

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47 minutes ago, Liquor and Poker said:

College Station is is a shit stadium in a shithole.  But I got lost and their fans couldn’t have been- ah, I can’t do it.

Even aggy aren't dumb enough to get lost in Collie Station.

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17 hours ago, HeHateMe said:

Zero desire to go:

Ark

Mizzou

Miss St

Aggy

Mizzou is worth the trip.  Cool college town with the campus and the downtown area pretty intertwined.  Fans are pretty laid back as they have limited expectations.

Went to Ark last year,  Had a great time,  but the fans HATE Texas.  I had an old lady in a bar (like white haired old lady) tell me to "Fuck Off Texas" for no reason other than I was wearing a Texas shirt.  Great road trip with a group of friends,  not a great place to take the kiddos - you can feel the hostility,  half of which is good natured and the other half pretty dead serious.    Also their T-Shirt fans are super Methy.

Aggy - Well Fuck Aggy.  Went there once.  Never again.  like going to Jonestown before the Kool-Aid.  

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First and 10: Surest sign the Vols are back? Nick Saban doesn't want to play them every year

Matt Hayes | 1 MINUTE AGO

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1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

Just in case he didn’t already feel it or know it, Josh Heupel got affirmation.

Tennessee is in Alabama’s head.

Just in case Heupel had any doubt about these 2 quick seasons at Tennessee birthing something no one could’ve seen coming, Alabama coach Nick Saban himself confirmed it.

The SEC is using a 10-year metric to decide each school’s 3 permanent opponents for the new scheduling format in 2024, and that metric apparently has spit out LSU, Auburn and Tennessee for Alabama.

When discussing this with Sports Illustrated, Saban said, “Tennessee wasn’t as good as they’ve been in the previous 10 years, but now they’re as good as they used to be before those 10 years.”

Let’s all pause briefly, and stand and applaud Josh Heupel. He not only beat Alabama last season in Year 2 in Knoxville, he already has Saban complaining about having to play the Vols — which just so happens to be 1 of the top 5 rivalries in SEC history.

After Saban’s Alabama teams beat the Vols every season since his arrival in 2007 — many in unimaginably humiliating ways — Heupel showed up last season with his second team that had figured it all out offensively. They knew Heupel’s Blur Ball system inside and out, and they had a quarterback who threw accurately on all levels and wouldn’t be intimidated.

And the next thing you know, students are throwing the goal posts into the Tennessee River, and the Vols had officially arrived. Well, maybe not officially.

Because even after the wins over tortured rivals Florida and Alabama, after winning 11 games for the first time since the last time they were relevant (2001) and the win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, there was still hesitation. More to the point: the 63 points Tennessee gave up to South Carolina with the Playoff on the line.

But just in case there were a sliver of doubt, it ended last week with Saban’s tantrum. After beating Tennessee 8 times by at least 31 points, after completely destroying an historic SEC rivalry, Saban legitimized 2 years of Heupel’s rebuilding after a last-second field goal snapped 15 years of Tennessee futility in the series — and more than 2 decades since the Vols were nationally prominent.

Now Saban is complaining (again) about tempo offenses, and how they lead to player injuries. The same thing he did after Kick-6 in 2013, and after it appeared — for a moment, anyway — that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn had figured him out.

Saban then embraced the tempo offense by hiring Lane Kiffin as his OC, and has used tempo offense since. But no, not like this tempo. This is different.

This will get players hurt.

Imagine Heupel waking up one day last week to this. He’s busy organizing spring practice, and deep into a quarterback competition (more on that later) that could help Tennessee take the final step toward the Playoff.

He sees his kids off to school, he hops in his car and drives to the football facility. He walks into the office where he’s greeted by Andrew Goodman, his new director of football operations, who says you gotta read this.

Understand this: Heupel is wildly competitive, and he knows he has it turned at Tennessee. He knows this program is on the verge of making a significant move not seen in Knoxville since the late 1990s.

He doesn’t need anyone to tell him the program is dangerously close to something unique. He knows it.

But think about that: The biggest, baddest coach on the block is whining about having to play the Vols every year and complaining again about a tempo offense.

That smile must have been as wide as the Tennessee River where those goal posts still reside — a permanent reminder of the day it turned.

2. The other side

It was overlooked the entire season, and only negatively came into focus when South Carolina hit 60 in November.

But Tennessee’s defense most certainly improved in 2022. Enough, in fact, to get to the Playoff.

Tennessee was top 10 in the nation in 2021 on 1st- and 2nd-down defense, but was horrific when it mattered most on 3rd down. By the end of Heupel’s first season, the Vols were allowing more than 52 percent of 3rd-down conversions in SEC play — far and away the largest number in the league.

Tennessee was among the top 10 in the nation in tackles for loss, and was making plays in the front seven and secondary. The Vols just weren’t getting off the field on 3rd down enough to get the ball back into the hands of their tempo offense — and allow that offense to wear down the opponent.

That’s how Blur Ball works: score quick, get a 3-and-out on defense, score again. Then you’re up 2 touchdowns, and the opponent starts to press — and that’s where mistakes happen.

Fast forward to last season, where defensive coordinator Tim Banks zeroed in on 3rd down, and the Vols lopped 13 percentage points from their 3rd-down defense, improving all the way to 39.8% in SEC games.

In their 2 biggest wins of 2022, the Vols held Alabama and Clemson to a combined 13-of-32 (40%) on 3rd down. In their 2 losses to Georgia and South Carolina, the defense gave up 15-of-23 on 3rd down (65%).

The Vols must cover better and affect the quarterback. That’s why Tennessee added CB Gabe Jeudy-Lally and LB Keenan Pili of BYU from the portal. Jeudy-Lally, who started his career at Vanderbilt, is a man cover cornerback, and Pili is a 240-pound run stuffer who will move all over the front 7 to also add pressure in situational pass game.

Tennessee’s top 10 recruiting class is heavy on defensive linemen and cornerbacks, and all 3 corners (including 4-stars Jordan Matthews and Rickey Gibson III) are midterm enrollees.

The goal is to get off the field — and let the offense take control of the game.

3. The transformation, The Epilogue

There would’ve been pause for everyone — including Saban — had Joe Milton III gone out and tripped up like he had in previous seasons at Michigan and Tennessee.

He lost the job at Michigan because he made too many mistakes. Did the same at Tennessee, and that led to the rise of record-breaking quarterback Hendon Hooker.

But once Hooker was lost for the season late in the South Carolina loss, Milton changed his narrative — and that of Tennessee — with 2 strong games against Vanderbilt and Clemson. What those 2 games meant, as much as anything, was Heupel had the program turned.

Even with a backup quarterback, the offense still hummed, and still won a big game against a top-10 team. Translation: The Vols aren’t going anywhere.

Hence, the Saban angst.

This spring is the beginning of more change. Milton is back and competing with 5-star recruit Nico Iamaleava for the starting job — the same Iamaleava whom Saban and then-Alabama OC Bill O’Brien badly wanted (which fits perfectly with Saban’s other rant about the ills of NIL — see the pattern?).

Now there’s another program in the SEC, where it doesn’t matter who lines up at the most important position on the field, there’s going to be success. Where before it was Alabama and Georgia and occasional 1-offs from various programs, now Saban sees the danger in Tennessee — the rival he once owned and now likely must continue to play every season in the new 16-team SEC.

If these past 2 years have told us anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter who wins the Tennessee quarterback job — the offense isn’t going to change. That’s the validation.

Saban’s tantrum is more confirmation than anything.

4. Manning the middle

Overlooked in the regression of Texas A&M last season was the late push and play from freshman DT Walter Nolen.

A consensus top-3 recruit in 2022, Nolen started slow last season and by the end of November, was a disruptive run stuffer and pass rusher on the interior. Now he’s part of a young and potentially devastating group of defensive linemen.

“All of those young guys are physically the part,” an NFL scout told me. “You see them in practice, and the talent and explosion is clear. When the game slows down for them, like it did for (Nolen) at the end of last year, they’re going be tough to deal with for everyone in that league.”

It’s not just Nolen, who should develop into an elite interior player in the SEC this fall. Shemar Stewart, another 5-star lineman from the No.1-ranked recruiting class of 2022, can play inside and out, and had a more complete freshman season than Nolen.

They key to this fall — and the critical development this spring to watch — is DT Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy. Another 5-star from the 2022 class, Brownlow-Dindy was held out much of last season with a lingering knee injury.

Some recruiting analysts believed Brownlow-Dindy had the greatest potential of the Aggies’ 3 mega defensive line recruits (including Nolen and Stewart). His athletic ability and strong hands made him a devastating interior pass rusher, and he was drawing comparisons to former Alabama All-American Jonathan Allen.

The addition of offensive coordinator/QBs coach Bob Petrino made the biggest splash this offseason. The development of Brownlow-Dindy, and his ability to give the Aggies 3 athletically powerful disrupters along the line of scrimmage, could be as or more difficult for SEC opponents.

5. The Weekly 5

Kentucky’s national championship odds and 5 things the Wildcats need to reach the Playoff.

1. Get the ball to electric WRs Dane Key and Barion Brown. They have elite speed and are dangerous after the catch. Pass game or run game, get them as many touches as possible.

2. Find the groove again with OC Liam Coen. He worked his magic in 2021 with a new QB (Will Levis). Can he do it again with another (Devin Leary)?

3. Pass protection must improve. Levis was sacked an SEC-worst 46 times in 2022. Pressure (and shaky pass protection) led to Leary’s season-ending injury at NC State in 2022.

4. Use Vanderbilt transfer RB Ray Davis just like Chris Rodriguez Jr. He’s not as big as Rodriguez, but Davis is deceptively powerful and has good burst.

5. Affect the opposing QB. Can Keeshawn Silver, a former 5-star Top 30 recruit in 2021 for North Carolina, find his game at Kentucky and help improve the pass rush (only 20 sacks in 2022).

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: TE Darnell Washington, Georgia.

“I think he helped himself at the Combine. Not necessarily with the physical work — we all knew what kind of a physical anomaly he was. Everyone I talked to said the interview process went well. He is still raw as a player, still a guy who can be coached into an elite player. He just has so many skills, and a combination of so much rare physical ability. You can throw it just about anywhere, and he’s going to come down with it. A big target with soft hands. He doesn’t have to come off the field. He’s an inline and move (tight end). It’s just reps at this point. (Brock) Bowers got there, and (Washington) just didn’t get the reps.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: in the spirit of the NCAA Tournament, ranking the best football/basketball coach combinations:

1. Alabama: Nick Saban and Nate Oats. The greatest CFB coach ever, and a basketball coach who gets better (as a recruiter and coach) every season.

2. Kentucky: Mark Stoops and John Calipari. Stoops annually does more with less (and better than anyone else in the SEC). It could be argued that Calipari has done less with more the past 3 seasons.

3. Auburn: Hugh Freeze and Bruce Pearl. Freeze beat Alabama twice the last time he coached in the league. Pearl got Auburn to the Final Four.

4. Tennessee: Josh Heupel and Rick Barnes: Heupel is on his way to revitalizing Vols football. Barnes has been a fixture in the NCAAs at Texas and Tennessee (but needs to break through).

5. Georgia: Kirby Smart and Mike White. Why is Georgia this high? Smart is No. 1 or No. 2 in CFB coaches, and White consistently had Florida in NCAA Tournament.

6. Arkansas: Sam Pittman and Eric Musselman. The impact of Pittman for the football Hogs has been a revelation of sorts. Musselman has done even more — and it’s time for a deep NCAA run.

7. Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher and Buzz Williams. Fisher took a big step back in 2022, and Williams took a big step forward.

8. LSU: Brian Kelly and Matt McMahon. Potentially, a top-3 combination. Kelly Is the No. 3 football coach in the conference, and McMahon needs more time to develop a roster.

9. Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin and vacated. If Ole Miss hires Chris Beard to replace Kermit Davis, this is a top 3 combination.

10. Missouri: Eli Drinkwitz and Dennis Gates. A masterful 1st year by Gates, and Drinkwitz secured an extension with a late push in 2022.

11. Florida: Billy Napier and Todd Golden. Both Napier and Golden were better at previous jobs. But both are only 1 year into the grind.

12. Mississippi State: Zach Arnett and Chris Jans. Arnett takes over after the tragic death of Mike Leach, while Jans’ 1st season was solid. The potential is there.

13. South Carolina: Shane Beamer and Lamont Paris. Beamer has Gamecocks dreaming big. Paris has a heavy lift in front of him.

14. Vanderbilt: Clark Lea and Jerry Stackhouse. Both took significant steps (comparatively speaking) this season.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Why does Brian Kelly continue to use the transfer portal. Can’t he recruit high school players as well as Nick (Saban) and Kirby (Smart)? — Alan Sherman, Charlotte.

Alan:

I don’t think I’m breaking news by declaring no one recruits as well as Saban and Smart. But that doesn’t mean a coach — in this case, Kelly — can’t recruit well enough to win a national title. Because he can, and he frankly is on his way to doing so.

LSU was ranked 12th by the 247Sports composite in Kelly’s first recruiting class and 6th this year. It’s obviously very early, but the Tigers are ranked No. 2 for 2024.

It’s no secret that the key to winning national titles is consistently recruiting among the top 5 in the nation, and then supplementing that with transfer portal impact players. At this point — 1 season and 2 recruiting classes into his tenure — Kelly needs to supplement from the portal at a higher level until he and his staff can make the turn with high schools.

The No. 6 class this year is a big start. Let’s see where Kelly is after next year’s class, and then judge him on his ability to recruit high schools.

He may not have had top-3 rankings in his first 2 high school classes, but he and his staff identified and developed a handful of critical players from the 2022 class: Edge Harold Perkins, OTs Will Campbell and Emery Jones, and TE Mason Taylor.

There’s more potential in Kelly’s 2nd class, including top-100 players Edge Dashawn Womack, S Javien Toviano and WR Jalen Brown.

9. Numbers

63.6. The deficiency was clear: Ole Miss couldn’t cover in the secondary last season. Opposing quarterbacks had a TD/INT ratio of 22/8, and completed a whopping 63.6% of their passes.

It should come as no surprise that Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin added 3 impact players (and starters from 2022) from the transfer portal: CBs Zamari Walton (Georgia Tech), DeShawn Gaddie (North Texas) and John Saunders (Miami, OH) combined for 28 pass breakups and 3 INTs in 2022.

10. Quote to note

Tennessee DC Tim Banks: “Everywhere I’ve been we’ve had great success rushing 4. We would love to be able to do that. When you can do that, it’s helps everyone. We have young guys coming in that we hope can help us be more efficient rushing 4.”

 

 

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2023 SEC Football Spring Game Schedule Announced

Story by James Parks • 

The college football schedule is moving towards the spring game slate around the country as teams prepare to put a bow on spring practice.  Up first is the SEC, which announced its spring football game schedule, including 13 games that will be aired or streamed on the ESPN networks.

Missouri kicks things off in the middle of March with the annual Black and Gold Game, while LSU and Alabama wrap things up late in April.

Kentucky will not host a traditional spring game this offseason with construction still ongoing at Kroger Field, but the SEC Network has said it will show a Kentucky Football Spring Access program at a later date.

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College Football Schedule: 2023 SEC Spring Game Schedule

All times Eastern

Missouri: Sat., March 18 at 12 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Mizzou starts things off in the SEC as Eli Drinkwitz looks to secure a new quarterback and replace the loss of receiver Dominic Lovett in a crucial year in the SEC East race.

Auburn: Sat., April 8 at 2 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Our first look at what Hugh Freeze has been able to put together in his debut season on the Plains.

Vanderbilt: Sat., April 8 at 6 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Clark Lea comes into his third season at Vandy coming off a 5-win outing that included two statement wins against SEC teams.

Florida: Thurs., April 13 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Billy Napier has big questions at quarterback to answer after losing Anthony Richardson coming off a 6-7 campaign last fall.

Arkansas: Sat., April 15 at 1 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. K.J. Jefferson returns at quarterback to help the Hogs make another run at the SEC West.

Mississippi State: Sat., April 15 at 1 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Zach Arnett steps in at head coach to carry on Mike Leach's legacy in his first season.

Tennessee: Sat., April 15 at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. College football's top ranked offense loses its most important pieces, leaving Josh Heupel with a mandate to find replacements and keep the Vols trending upwards.

Ole Miss: Sat., April 15 at 3 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Our first look at college football's biggest quarterback competition as transfer Spencer Sanders looks to edge out Jaxson Dart for the Rebels' starting gig.

Georgia: Sat., April 15 at 4 p.m. on ESPN2. College football's back-to-back defending national champions return to the field having to replace Stetson Bennett at quarterback and make some changes on that tough defense.

Texas A&M: Sat., April 15 at 4 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Jimbo Fisher is under some pressure to prove last season was just a bad accident, having to replace some outgoing transfers and revive this offense with Bobby Petrino at the helm.

South Carolina: Sat., April 15 at 7 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Shane Beamer loses some notable players to the portal, including Jaheim Bell at tight end and Jordan Burch at defensive end, but retains Spencer Rattler at quarterback.

LSU: Sat., April 22 at 2 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. The defending SEC West champs are back with the bulk of their roster intact and a class of top-flight incoming transfer players to add depth.

Alabama: Sat., April 22 at 3 p.m. on ESPN+ and SECN+. Plenty of work to do for Nick Saban and his new-look coaching staff replacing outgoing stars and patching up the mistakes his team made a year ago, missing out on the College Football Playoff.

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SEC football: Best non-conference games for 2023 season

Here's an early look at the SEC's 2023 non-conference games that you need to tune into.

LANCE DAWE         17 HOURS AGO

It's March 24th.  There is no better time to discuss SEC football's best non-conference games for the 2023 season.

With spring practice underway across the sport, quarterback battles being won and new head coaches implementing their systems...

How about we discuss some of these matchups that are months away?

Here's a look at the SEC's 2023 non-conference games that you need to tune into.

Florida at Utah, Sept. 2

Utah will look to exact revenge against the Gators, who eked out a dramatic win over the Utes in Gainesville last season.

South Carolina vs North Carolina (Charlotte), Sept. 2

Both of these programs will be starting former five-star quarterbacks in a classic battle for the Carolinas.

LSU vs Florida State (Orlando), Sept. 3

The national narrative surrounding this game last season attempted to predict that neither of these teams would be relevant.

That was wrong.

Both teams should be firmly inside the top 10 heading into week one, making this arguably the biggest season-opener of 2023.

Alabama vs Texas, Sept. 9

Will the Crimson Tide have quarterback figured out before this one rolls around? How much of a threat is Texas legitimately?

This may have lots of eyes on it now, but a blowout could be looming.

Auburn at California, Sept. 9

California's offense was bad last year. Auburn's was worse.

This has sicko-game written all over it, and with Auburn fans planning to make the trip out to Oakland, this should be an interesting environment, to say the least.

Ole Miss at Tulane, Sept. 9

The Rebels haven't figured out that they can't play three quarterbacks at once... or so it seems.

Whoever trots onto the field against Tulane will likely be in a more difficult spot than originally imagined. The Green Wave are fresh off of a New Year's Six bowl victory and will be looking to continue to build on the special season 2022 was.

Personally, I would have not agreed to a home-and-home.

Texas A&M at Miami, Sept. 9

It feels obligatory to put this game on here, but if we're being honest, does either team score more than 24 points in this game? How interesting could Jimbo Fisher vs Mario Cristobal be?

Bobby Petrino, we hope you figure this offense out.

Arkansas vs BYU, Sept. 16

The Hogs won in Provo last season and will likely be favorites over the Cougs in Fayetteville. This game has major fun potential.

Missouri vs Kansas State, Sept. 16

The reigning Big 12 champs take it on the road to CoMo in week three, where a projectably mid Mizzou team will try their best to upset what should be a top 15 team in KSU. 

Tennessee vs UTSA, Sept. 23

Most may not have this on their list of non-con games to watch. Let it be know that quarterback Frank Harris, who has been in college for six seasons, will be coming back for his seventh in 2023.

Joe Milton, one of the most erratic passers in college football (taking on a solid UTSA defense) vs one of the steadiest hands in the game (taking on an okay UT defense)?

I will be tuning in.

LSU vs Army, Oct. 21

Another one fans may not have marked. Did you know LSU has never beaten Army?

Considering they have only played one game in 1931, it's less of a shock. This being on the list is based on two things: Army's ball-control running the football, and LSU vs Troy in 2017.

South Carolina vs Clemson, Nov. 25

The Gamecocks shocked the Tigers in Clemson last season. With Beamer's flair for the dramatic upsets, and Dabo seemingly on the decline, could we see SC steal another victory to make it two in a row, this time in Columbia?

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