ATLANTA – Three years ago, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey began touting the book “The Club,” the origin story of soccer’s wildly successful Premier League. This week at SEC Media Days, Sankey and many of his coaches touted the joys of streaming TV, notably “Stranger Things.”
There's a connection here. The Premier League began when several of soccer’s most powerful clubs decided they were tired of sharing revenue with smaller teams and broke away to form their own super league. “Stranger Things” broke new ground this year when it shrugged off normal limits on episodic TV — its first episode ran 49 minutes, its most recent one ran 142 — and achieved new cultural relevance as a result.
In both cases, dominance led to even greater dominance. Neither the clubs that formed the Premier League nor the mystery-hunting scamps of “Stranger Things” were comfortable with being comfortable.
The lesson for the SEC couldn’t be any more obvious, and the SEC has taken it to heart: if you’re already out in front, it’s time to mash the gas pedal to the floor.
The 2022 iteration of SEC Media Days lacked the seismic upheaval of last year’s version, when news broke that Texas and Oklahoma would be coming to the SEC in the coming years. This year’s version, held among the history on display at the College Football Hall of Fame, was more of a foundation-building affair, with warnings-slash-threats about the sport’s future.
Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, the last of the 14 head coaches to take the podium, summed up college football’s new challenges effectively, if not succinctly: “There's such chaos. You got conference realignment, you got NIL, then you got NIL on top of the transfer portal. I mean, that's three major, major changes in everything we've done for how long? I don't even know how many years it's been,” he said. “What does human nature make you scared of? The unknown. We have so much unknown. That's why we're all on the edge and panicked about what's going on.”
But “panicked” wouldn’t quite be the right word to describe anyone in the SEC right now. Sankey said as much in his opening comments, when he noted that in his eyes, “the Southeastern Conference is stronger now than at any other time in our history.”
“There's no sense of urgency in our league, no panic and reaction to others' decisions,” Sankey continued. “We know who we are. We are confident in our collective strength.”
That collective strength is what should have every conference that’s not the Big Ten concerned. Sankey referenced the way that several conferences rejected an expanded 12-team playoff that would have offered six guaranteed slots — unwisely, as it turned out — and noted that the playoff structure offer that existed before isn't on the table any longer.
“If we're going to go back to square one,” Sankey said, “we're going to take a step back from the model introduced and rethink the approach, number of teams, whether there should be any guarantee for conference champions at all.” In other words: winning the ACC or Pac-12 would no longer be a guaranteed pathway to a playoff spot if the SEC’s third- or fourth-best team is a stronger candidate.
The topic on the minds of every coach, over and above the optimism for the coming season: NIL, and the effects it will have on players and recruiting.
“I don't dislike name, image and likeness. I'm all for the players. I want our players to do well,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said at his Tuesday morning session. “But there's got to be some uniformity and protocol of how name, image and likeness is implemented.”
“If you have boosters out there deciding who they're going to pay to come play, and the coach isn't involved in it, how does that work?” Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin said. “They could go pick who they want, pay him however much. Are the boosters going to tell you who to play, too? When they don't play, how is that going to work out?”
“I don't think what's going on in college football right now at some places is sustainable,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said, “meaning, can you do that year in and year out and repeat that? Can you honor the commitment that some people are trying to make to kids to get them to go to their school? It's not good for college football, what's out there.”
Smart, who also happened to sign a 10-year, $112.5-million deal during the week, also hinted that changes could be coming — would be coming, if he has his way — to one of the conference’s most notable games: Georgia-Florida, in Jacksonville.
“I’m competing all across the SEC, who host recruits at their biggest game,” Smart said on "SEC Now." “When Auburn plays Alabama, guess where the recruits are? When LSU and Alabama play, that’s where the biggest recruits want to go. It’s an opportunity for us to bring these kids, who fly in from all over the country — what game do they want to come see Georgia play? They’d like to see Georgia play Florida, but they can’t do that. It’s very important. Recruiting is very important. I just can’t get a Florida coach to agree with me."
And as long as Georgia holds the upper hand on Florida, he won’t get that agreement. It's one of the few battles Smart won't win this year.
As August draws near, college football today is in a vastly different position than it was at this time last year — and, likely, a different position than it will be a year from now. Actual games begin in five weeks. At that point, the SEC will flex its muscle at the mountaintop … and almost every other conference will be running up that hill.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.