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.”