The SEC's rivalry scheduling problem is Greg Sankey's opportunity | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

The problem, or as  Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey describes it, the opportunity, comes down to simple mathematics. The more teams the SEC places in its vast footprint, the more its traditional annual rivalries are placed at risk.

Scheduling games in college football's top conference is facing an overhaul with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma beginning in 2025, as the league becomes the biggest conference in the Power Five at 16 schools. With that comes a loosening of schedule staples that fans have come to appreciate, expect, and in some cases, demand. The most anticipated among them don't even need to be identified by school. The monikers say it all: the Iron Bowl, the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, the Egg Bowl, and, now unofficially, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Indeed, scheduling is the very reason that Alabama's rivalry with Tennessee, once labeled the Third Saturday in October, is no longer played on that date every year.

Not to be forgotten: the Red River Showdown, which SEC newcomers Texas and Oklahoma will have a keen interest in maintaining.

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There are still more SEC rivalries that hold traditional ties, but the math says they all can't continue to co-exist when two more teams must be mixed into the scheduling machine. One potential remedy would be converting to a nine-game SEC schedule, rather than the current eight-game standard. A ninth conference game would bring a great deal of relief to this dilemma, but it's likely not a cure-all. Beyond that, format must be determined: two eight-team divisions? A single division? How about a pod format that would lump four teams into four different groups?

For Sankey, maintaining rivalries isn't the only consideration. Another is rotating teams through road games at the league's other 15 campuses as quickly as possible. He spoke on the topic Monday at the Associated Press Sports Editors Southeast Region meeting, held at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

"The impact of new rivalries, existing rivalries, those things are real," he said. "What I'm encouraged about is the opportunity in different models to see everybody with some level of frequency. We'll move toward the decision-making point sooner rather than later. We still have some time based on a July 1, 2025 entry date."

SEC teams will have their 2025 league schedule in hand well in advance; the 2022 SEC schedule was announced in late September, nearly a full year in advance. But the clock for a 2025 schedule ticks a little faster because a revamped format will be required.

Sankey came across as somewhat skeptical of the pod format.

"It's really going to help the opportunity to look at how we keep things fresh and new by moving teams through," Sankey said, "whether it's divisions, single division, (and) we'll keep pods alive for conversation purposes today."

Traditional SEC rivalries like Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Georgia and Ole Miss-Mississippi State figure to be on the safest ground. Whatever format the SEC adopts will surely maintain some semblance of annual matchups, and you can bet your victory cigar that tradition will be the root priority.

As for second-tier rivalries?

If they're to survive, they'd best be not in the path of progress.

Reach Chase Goodbread @cgoodbread@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.

Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.