SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey presided over last weekend’s Conference Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Alabama and, as expected, spent plenty of time in the broadcast booth. In an interview with SEC Network’s Dave Neal during the middle of the Championship Game, Sankey addresses several topics. One of those topics was potential SEC realignment when transfer portal schools Oklahoma and Texas arrive on campus in Birmingham.
Sankey Hints at SEC Realignment
Sankey told Neal that the conference essentially has three options. First, continue with two eight-team divisions. Second, move to four four-team “pods.” Or third, do away with any division and just have a sixteen-team league.
The Commissioner noted that due to constraints and contracts with football scheduling, this decision needs to get settled sooner rather than later. Sankey also said that the most important factor in the decision will be getting each school to every other campus within a normal four-year playing cycle.
Those two simple sentences paint a pretty clear picture of where Sankey and the league are with the question of realignment.
The Status Quo
It’s obvious that the first option, two eight-team divisions, is not a viable option. Currently, SEC teams play an eight-game conference schedule with six intra-divisional opponents, one permanent cross-divisional opponent, and one rotational cross-divisional opponent. The means each team visits seven conference foes every other year and the other six conference members every 12 years (on average). That’s a non-starter for anyone.
Even with a nine-game conference schedule and no permanent cross-over opponents, each team would visit each other cross-divisional team every eight years (on average). There’s no chance that SEC realignment ends up being two divisions of eight teams each.
The Pod Option
After the Oklahoma-Texas announcement, the most discussed option for SEC realignment was the “pod” concept. Each of the four pods would contain four teams. The obvious benefit of this structure is it enables schools to get to all other campuses every four years. A team in Pod “A” would play each other Pod “A” team yearly (3 games) and two of the four teams in each other Pod (B, C, and D) every year.
The drawback is three-fold for the league. First, it complicates the Conference Championship Game selection process. Must a participant in the Conference Championship Game be a Pod winner? Is it just the two teams with the best records, regardless of schedule strength? And, if so, what does the tie-breaker look like?
Second, this format will erode some long-standing rivalries. The pods would likely look like this:
“A” Pod: Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas
“B” Pod: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State
“C” Pod: Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Tennessee
“D” Pod: Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is the big question here. But because of competitive balance, that game is likely competing against the Iron Bowl. One would think the SEC would not put Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia in the same pod, especially since you would have to put Florida in that pod or else lose the Georgia-Florida rivalry. Tennessee-Florida, Tennessee-Kentucky, and Alabama-LSU are also rivalries that would suffer in this format.
This format would also force the league into a nine-game conference schedule.
The Unspoken Message
There’s an intriguing aspect of the Pod concept, though. In the same interview, Sankey casually discussed the SEC putting on the national championship. But Sankey, like SEC Commissioners before him, has always had the long view on things. The Pod Concept institutes a structure that enables future growth.
Greg Sankey currently sitting in the booth for the SEC baseball title game.
When asked about the idea of the SEC holding its own football playoff, he says:
“Well, we kind of did that in January didn’t we?”
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) May 29, 2022
Imagine if the SEC really did want to take over college football. It would be easy to add eight teams to the current sixteen-team format and have four pods of six teams. If those eight teams are, say, Oregon, USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State, Clemson, Miami, and Penn State, then you could have Pod winners playing in a national semi-final and those winners playing for the SEC/National Championship.
Sankey moving the league to the pod option might be a message to the rest of college football that the SEC is, indeed, posturing for a take-over of the entire sport.
The One League Option
The option that Sankey seemed to like the most is the One League Option. No divisions, no pods. One league of sixteen teams.
This format allows the most flexibility. The SEC could stay at an eight-game conference schedule if it so desired, with each team playing one permanent opponent and seven rotational opponents, and still get to every campus at least once every four seasons. If they chose to go with a nine-game conference schedule, it would be three permanent rivals with six rotational opponents. That would help preserve many of the rivalries lost in an eight-game, one/seven format.
Additionally, the strength of schedule would be as even or better than in pods. This makes the Conference Championship Game selection much cleaner. The two teams with the best records, including tie-breakers, play in the Championship Game.
The Final Decision
Sankey gave no indication on when the decision will be made, other than saying it needs to be done soon. SEC Media Days are July 18th – 21st in Atlanta. Sankey surely wants to have SEC realignment put to bed before the season starts, as he abhors off-the-field attention distractions during the season. Atlanta might be the opportune time to roll out the new concept.
Time will tell what the SEC will look like after the 2022 season. But it looks like Sankey has narrowed his choices down to two.