Greg Sankey sees changes in stronger SEC with expansion, playoff

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ATLANTA — Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey proclaimed the league “is stronger now than at any other time in our history.”

But the conference can’t rest on its success, which includes the last three national championships in football, Sankey said in his address that opened SEC Media Days. He spoke of the changes to come with conference realignments, leaving open the possibility of further expansion after Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC in 2025 to make it a 16-team conference, as well as what might be next for the College Football Playoff.

The Big Ten recently countered the SEC’s move by voting to add Southern California and UCLA as conference members beginning in 2024, positioning both the SEC and Big Ten as super conferences.

Sankey said the league feels no pressure to add to its 16: “We know who we are. We’re confident in our success. … Don’t feel pressured to just operate at a number. But we’ll watch what happens around us and be thoughtful but be nimble.”

Last year, Sankey was named co-chairman of a Transformation Committee charged with reshaping NCAA Division I. He also has a voice in unresolved efforts to expand the four-team College Football Playoff.

“I walked into one of the first (CFP) meetings when we were looking at the format and said, `If we want to expand to eight teams for the playoff with no automatic bids, I’ll have that conversation,”‘ Sankey said. “But moving to an eight-team playoff and granting what were going to be six automatic bids, reducing at-large access, is unwise.”

Sankey said a 12-team playoff proposal with six at-large teams and six conference qualifiers “was a really good balancing outcome.” He added that “things have changed” and said taking the discussion “back to square one” includes the necessity to “rethink the approach, number of teams, whether there should be any guarantee for conference champions at all.

“Just earn your way in. There’s something that’s healthy competitively about that and creates expectations and support around programs,” he said.

The SEC has won three consecutive national championships: Georgia beat Alabama in last season’s all-SEC title game. LSU won the 2019 title, followed by Alabama in 2020.

Sankey was careful to mention those most recent championships before adding that four different SEC teams won four consecutive national titles in a stretch that began in 2007: LSU, Florida, Alabama and Auburn. A sixth SEC team, Tennessee, won the 1998 championship.

“I’ll let you make the comparisons between us and our colleagues as it relates to national championship success in football,” Sankey said.

But might the SEC have interest in another power grab when it comes to conference realignment? Sankey didn’t go that far, saying, “it is a compliment that people from all across the country and all across the globe want to be a part of the Southeastern Conference.”

New LSU coach Brian Kelly compared the expansion of the two conferences to a game of musical chairs, saying there’s not enough chairs for every school. Kelly’s former school, Notre Dame, may be the biggest prize in the expansion race. It continues to operate as an independent school in football but would be an attractive addition for any league.

Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin, who previously was at USC, said with expansion comes the end of traditions and rivalries.

“When you go to places, you’ve been to USC, all these different places, you see how passionate fans are about certain things, what matters, rivalries,” he said. “For those to be dismantled for money is kind of a shame.”

Kiffin also said the challenges for USC and UCLA moving to the Big Ten are not the same as what Texas and Oklahoma will face when adjusting to the SEC.

“You know, they’ve been playing in great conferences and against great opponents,” Kiffin said of the four schools. “I mean, I just say how it is. I don’t know that there’s a huge jump into the Big Ten. I think going to the SEC is a whole another animal. … Said it for a long time: The SEC just means more. And it does. It’s different, it’s ahead of the game.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.