GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On Saturday afternoon, the University of Florida’s venerable Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will percolate with passion when the Gators host a rare regular-season matchup with Alabama. It’s the first time the two programs have played in The Swamp since 2011, and the game could serve as a bellwether to how the SEC will look in its next iteration.
The game between the No. 11 Gators and No. 1 Alabama offers a rematch of the wild SEC championship game from last season, the biggest test for Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young and a potential breakout game for Florida backup quarterback Anthony Richardson. There’s star power on the sideline, as Alabama’s Nick Saban and Florida’s Dan Mullen have combined for 38 seasons as SEC head coaches.
“This game shows what the excitement of the league should be like,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said recently in his office. “When you have Florida playing Alabama in The Swamp, and the opportunity to do that more than once every [decade], we should do that and I think it'd be great for the league.”
It will register as one of the biggest regular-season events of the 2021 college football season. And that’s something the SEC is looking for more with more regularity.
The 10-season gap between the Tide visiting the Gators in Gainesville is likely to shrink when the SEC grows. While the league has yet to recalibrate its structural alignment for the arrival of Oklahoma and Texas, which is in 2025 at the latest, there will be a premium on the league allowing events between the big brands to occur more frequently than once every decade.
Florida hasn’t visited Tuscaloosa since the dying days of the Will Muschamp regime in 2014, for example. Georgia still hasn’t played at Texas A&M since the Aggies joined the league in 2012. They won’t until 2024, and they’ve played only once back in 2019.
“Keeping things fresh while respecting traditions is what’s on my mind,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Yahoo Sports. “Once every 12 years sending a West team to the East or an East team to the West, that’s a long time.”
There’s a feeling from the league office, athletic directors and coaches that SEC teams seeing each other more frequently will be prioritized.
The most likely outcome for the 16-team SEC is to move from an eight-game league season to a nine-game league season, although that’s far from being set. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 and Big Ten have openly spoken about using their new alliance to shrink their league schedules from nine to eight to play each other in non-league matchups.
Those leanings could mark a distinct shift in the sport. The SEC is doubling down on itself, hinting at playing more league games and trying to be sure that teams face each other more frequently. The Pac-12 and Big Ten are looking outside to generate fresh matchups and buzz, which is in some ways an indictment of how leaders and television view the depth of those leagues. Some of that is because the Pac-12 and Big Ten will be smaller in number, but the distinct philosophical shifts could dictate the direction the sport goes in the next decade and beyond.
And it would be a shift layered in irony considering the volume of complaints over the SEC’s eight-game league schedule over the years. Now, the talking points will change as distinctly as a politician switching parties during a campaign.
This Florida-Alabama conference matchup, essentially, has a non-conference feel in its rarity. SEC stakeholders would like to capture that energy and be sure these types of matchups happen with more frequency.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin jokes that Alabama fans won’t appreciate the comparison to Auburn. But he said that the buzz accompanying Alabama’s visit to Gainesville is similar to when No. 7 Auburn came to Gainesville in 2019. Auburn’s visit was an event, as the Tigers hadn’t been in Gainesville since 2007 and the game rekindled a classic Southern rivalry that dates back to 1912.
Stricklin is an advocate that schools within the SEC need to visit each other more than essentially once a decade. “It speaks to why it's so important to have the kind of scheduling model where you can roll in — on a regular basis — an LSU, an Auburn, an Alabama. And preferably, it's not the same team every two years, but it's, you're not going 10 years.”
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne added that there’s a premium on these types of high-profile SEC matchups. “I think obviously the value of SEC football is well known,” he said. “Those big SEC matchups are watched nationally. Anytime you have the opportunity to strengthen your national view of the conference, that’s good for everyone involved.”
Right now, for example, Florida plays LSU every year as its Western division crossover. Alabama plays Tennessee. The so-called “permanent crossover” type of games would end. That could translate to an increase in events, as games like Texas-Alabama, Oklahoma-Georgia and Florida-Texas A&M, just to name a few potential monster matchups, would happen with increased frequency.
No one is certain what the next iteration of the SEC will look like. And it may not be determined for a year. But Saturday’s meeting of two of the league’s hallmark programs, most talented rosters and elite brands will serve as a guiding light. The SEC needs to keep annual tentpole rivalries like Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Georgia while maintaining the flexibility for games like Florida and Alabama.
Sankey doesn’t shy away from the word “event.” He spoke to Yahoo Sports soon after leaving Fayetteville, Arkansas, following the Razorbacks’ mugging of future league rival Texas. He considered that game and overall weekend of revelry an event. He predicts that Alabama’s visit to The Swamp will be one as well. He mentioned Kentucky fans flocking to Texas A&M in 2019 and seeing the Memphis airport packed with Texas fans when the Longhorns visited Ole Miss in 2012.
The SEC’s specific 16-team alignment is still ambiguous. But there will be a guiding force in those conversations.
“How do you move [teams] through on a more frequent basis?” Sankey said. “That’s the work to be done. I want to use a principle and think through what options are generated from that principle. What options allow us to do that? I’m not walking away from some of those great events. Those create who we are. We’ll have to see how those play forward.”
Until then, games like last week in Fayetteville and Saturday in the Swamp will serve as a tease of what could be. And that’s something that will play a large role in shaping what the sport looks like going forward.
“I don't need to play Oklahoma every year and Texas once every 13 years,” Mullen said. “That's what you hope doesn't happen.”