Is there a version of realignment that’s best for Tennessee?

It was kind of USC and UCLA, all things considered, to let their news loose on June 30. Nine weeks til kickoff, three weeks til SEC Media Days, baseball season moving into the rear view. It’s great content, thanks!

So now, is there a great version of where all this might be headed for Tennessee?

To me, two questions guide the thought process for the SEC moving forward:

  • Who makes it worth it to continue to expand?
  • How big is too big?

Football takes the lead on all of this, so a lot of what we’ll look at here in terms of size and scope is based on football scheduling. But I think you have to start with, “Would the league be good at 16 no matter what else happens?”

Who makes it worth it to continue to expand?

Back in the early pandemic days when we were uncertain when football would be played again, we had some fun building a 32-team football superconference. The framework we used is the same one making the decisions now, as usual: which programs are most valuable?

From that 2018 list from the Wall Street Journal, we found 13 programs valued at more than $500 million. With Texas and Oklahoma coming to the SEC, each of those 13 programs was already slated for the Big Ten or the SEC…except for Notre Dame. The Irish remain the white whale in this exercise (which makes them even less likely to be on any fantasy SEC radars).

From there, another 19 programs were valued at $250+ million. Those 32 teams represent:

  • 11 of 14 current SEC programs (soon 13 of 16 with Texas/OU)
  • 8 of 14 current Big Ten programs (soon 10 of 16 with USC/UCLA)
  • 4 of 10 current Big 12 programs, with wide disparity between Texas/OU and Kansas State/Oklahoma State
  • 5 of 12 current Pac 12 programs
  • 3 of 14 current ACC programs
  • Notre Dame

If the SEC and Big Ten remain committed to their existing structures, the biggest winners yesterday were Vanderbilt, Rutgers, Missouri, Purdue, etc. Those programs get a seat at the big table they wouldn’t be able to pull up to on their own.

Based on those 2018 Wall Street Journal rankings, after Notre Dame the next two most valuable programs outside the current 32 team SEC & Big Ten are Oregon and Washington. Again, unlikely to be considered for the SEC. As Stewart Mandel points out in his overarching piece in The Athletic, Oregon holds a lot of power here. If they want to stay, the Pac-12 has a future. If they want to go and the Big Ten is willing to say yes, we’re deep down the path to the Big 2.

From an SEC perspective, in value the two most obvious targets are Clemson and Florida State. Those are three of your last nine national championships, and Clemson just played for another in 2019. Those two would get you to 18. If you wanted to expand from there? Virginia Tech is the next most valuable football program in the ACC, the last in the $250+ million club. Miami is further down the list (behind Georgia Tech among ACC schools, but that seems unlikely from a football perspective), but certainly adds name recognition, history, and expands the footprint.

One other thought among many: the SEC’s last two rounds of expansion always went outside existing territories and rivalries: Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992, Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012. Would South Carolina and Florida protest the most obvious additions of Clemson and Florida State, even in this landscape?

If so, I wonder about Duke and North Carolina from an all-sports perspective, which would immediately change the calculus in basketball. If Duke is a no go for various reasons, North Carolina and Virginia Tech would still fit the previous model.

Here’s the real question: how many of these teams are worth it?

And if the league decides they’re good at 16, would they still be good if the Big Ten went shopping? Does a 16-team SEC still carry enough weight to lead the conversation if the Big Ten adds Clemson, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Washington?

Some of this will also get down to the future of the College Football Playoff. Does the SEC view the Big Ten as an equal, or at least equalish? As early as 2026, could we see the champion of the SEC play the champion of the Big Ten, and nevermind what anyone else thinks?

There are plenty of dominoes to fall from there, including future non-conference scheduling, etc. But there is certainly a scenario where the SEC looks at all of this, even potential future expansion from the Big Ten, and says, “Nah, we’re good.”

If the league does say yes to expansion, then…

How big is too big?

Let’s start with what feels like the football move that would earn the most head nods: add Clemson and Florida State to go to 18, then stop there. At that point, the league doesn’t need Miami, or the North Carolina and Virginia markets to make that case that it clearly has the only championship-caliber argument in the south.

For scheduling purposes, we’ll attempt to stick to the one thing everyone seems to agree on: teams in the same conference need to play each other more often! Eighteen teams lends itself to two models:

  • One annual rivalry, then rotate the other eight opponents every year.
  • Five annual rivalries, then rotate four other opponents every three years.

One annual rivalry among 18 teams is a mess, particularly for a team like Tennessee. A quick pass at what made the most sense to me left the Vols and their opponent with the third-best option every year:

  • Alabama vs Auburn
  • Florida vs Florida State
  • Clemson vs South Carolina
  • Georgia vs Tennessee
  • Texas A&M vs LSU
  • Texas vs Oklahoma
  • Ole Miss vs Mississippi State
  • Arkansas vs Missouri
  • Kentucky vs Vanderbilt

Maybe it’s moderately fair, and in this system you’re seeing everyone every other year anyway. But in this format, games like Alabama/Tennessee, Florida/Georgia, Auburn/Georgia, etc. are getting played on home fields only once every four years. Seems unlikely, even in the midst of so many traditions falling by the wayside.

Five annual rivalries with four rotating opponents? Let’s get nuts.

18-Team SEC, Five Annual Rivalries (Plus 4 rotating opponents)

AlabamaAuburnLSUTennesseeTexas A&MClemson
ArkansasLSUMissouriTexas A&MMississippi StTexas
AuburnAlabamaGeorgiaLSUMississippi StFlorida State
ClemsonSouth CarolinaFlorida StateGeorgiaAlabamaVanderbilt
FloridaGeorgiaFlorida StateTennesseeSouth CarolinaKentucky
Florida StateFloridaClemsonAuburnVanderbiltSouth Carolina
GeorgiaFloridaAuburnSouth CarolinaClemsonTennessee
KentuckyTennesseeVanderbiltFloridaMississippi StMissouri
LSUArkansasAlabamaTexas A&MOle MissAuburn
Mississippi StOle MissArkansasAuburnKentuckyOklahoma
MissouriArkansasSouth CarolinaOklahomaTexasKentucky
Ole MissMississippi StLSUVanderbiltOklahomaTexas
OklahomaTexasTexas A&MMissouriOle MissMississippi St
South CarolinaClemsonMissouriGeorgiaFloridaFlorida State
TennesseeKentuckyAlabamaVanderbiltFloridaGeorgia
TexasOklahomaTexas A&MArkansasMissouriOle Miss
Texas A&MTexasArkansasLSUOklahomaAlabama
VanderbiltTennesseeKentuckyOle MissFlorida StateClemson

It’s imperfect, for sure, and carries some compromise for many, especially new additions like Oklahoma with few natural fits for so many protected rivalries. But for a team like Tennessee (and others), this system preserves every one of our biggest rivalries, then you’d see everyone else every three years, and in Neyland every six years.

So in addition to playing Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt every year, you’d get something like this:

YEAR A: Clemson, at Texas A&M, at Texas, Missouri

YEAR B: at LSU, Florida State, Ole Miss, at Mississippi State

YEAR C: Oklahoma, at Auburn, at South Carolina, Arkansas

(then switch the home-and-away for the next three years)

Or go to 20, and you’ve got:

20-Team SEC, Four Annual Rivalries (Plus 5 Rotating Opponents)

AlabamaAuburnTennesseeLSUOle Miss
ArkansasLSUMissouriTexasTexas A&M
AuburnAlabamaGeorgiaMississippi StLSU
ClemsonSouth CarolinaFlorida StateVirginia TechMiami
FloridaFlorida StateGeorgiaTennesseeSouth Carolina
Florida StateFloridaMiamiClemsonVirginia Tech
GeorgiaFloridaAuburnSouth CarolinaVanderbilt
KentuckyTennesseeVanderbiltMississippi StVirginia Tech
LSUArkansasAlabamaTexas A&MAuburn
MiamiFlorida StateVirginia TechClemsonSouth Carolina
Mississippi StOle MissAuburnKentuckyMissouri
MissouriArkansasOklahomaTexasMississippi St
OklahomaTexasTexas A&MMissouriOle Miss
Ole MissMississippi StVanderbiltAlabamaOklahoma
South CarolinaClemsonGeorgiaFloridaMiami
TennesseeKentuckyVanderbiltAlabamaFlorida
TexasOklahomaTexas A&MArkansasMissouri
Texas A&MTexasOklahomaLSUArkansas
VanderbiltTennesseeKentuckyOle MissGeorgia
Virginia TechMiamiFlorida StateClemsonKentucky

No matter which way you do it, there are compromises. These are just first draft ideas.

These exercises are fun, especially in July. Are either of them better for Tennessee than the SEC staying put at 16 teams?

The real answer to that question, I think: what will access to the College Football Playoff look like?

You need enough carrots out there for everyone in your league, as we wrote when Oklahoma and Texas headed our way last July. One way to make such a thing at least possible: an eight-team SEC playoff, which would instantly become a pass/fail benchmark for the entire league. Send the winner to face the champion of the BIG Whatever, and you’ve got a deal…it’s just one that cuts out everyone else in college football from the national championship chase.

If the sport isn’t headed in that direction, you’re still talking about x number of SEC teams chasing College Football Playoff bids…but for the rest? Is the Outback Bowl or whatever it’s called today still going to cut it when an increased playing field inherently leads to more losses to go around?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, though I do enjoy the conversation.

The best thing Tennessee can do: keep getting better.

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