Will expansion discussion overshadow football talk at SEC Media Days?

Happier times: Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, and Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, right, shake hands during pre-game of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Happier times: Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, and Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, right, shake hands during pre-game of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Will they get around at all to talking about the coming football season?

That’s the primary question surrounding the 2022 SEC Media Days, which commence Monday at the College Football Hall of Fame. The preseason football talk-fest will be held in Georgia’s capital city for only the second time. After first hosting in 2018, Atlanta was scheduled to again in 2020 before the pandemic cancelled the proceedings. The Birmingham area has hosted SEC Media Days every other year since their start in 1985.

This year’s media event, which typically credentials more than 1,000 sports journalists from across the country, is expected to feature much discussion about off-the-field topics. Conference expansion and realignment have dominated college football headlines in recent weeks. The Big Ten recently announced that Southern Cal and UCLA are leaving the Pac-12 to join its conference starting in 2024.

This time last year the news leaked during SEC Media Days that Oklahoma and Texas are joining the SEC for the 2025-26 academic year after the Big 12′s media-rights contract expires. There remains speculation and discussion that the two schools won’t wait until then to join the SEC, which is scheduled to begin a new 10-year, $3 billion TV rights deal with ESPN in 2024. With the new additions, that contract also is being reconsidered.

Meanwhile, the advent of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights for athletes, the alumni “collectives” that they unexpectedly created and the one-time transfer exception are rapidly changing the face of college athletics.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who has become the most powerful voice in the industry, certainly will address those and other concerns when he gives his annual state-of-the-conference address to kick off media days late Monday morning.

For now, at least, the SEC does not have imminent plans to expand beyond 16 teams. But Sankey didn’t shut the door and lock it on the possibility.

“Conference membership change has been a constant in college athletics over the years, and modern issues facing college sports have only accelerated further realignment,” Sankey said in a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the SEC. “While college athletics is undergoing transformational change on many levels, the Southeastern Conference and our member universities are uniquely positioned to continue to provide our student-athletes with unequaled opportunities to compete for championships, pursue academic success and realize personal growth, as well as provide access for our fans to support their schools in unprecedented numbers.”

Eventually, SEC coaches and players will take over and hopefully redirect the conversation toward what might happen this coming season. The interview schedule is expected to get off to a lively start as LSU’s Brian Kelly – one of two new coaches in the league this year along with Florida’s Billy Napier – will be first up on the main stage Monday afternoon. He’ll be followed by the always entertaining Ole Miss coach, Lane Kiffin.

Alabama and legendary coach Nick Saban are first up Tuesday and will highlight a day that will feature coaches and players from Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina. The Crimson Tide, which has been picked by the media to win the SEC in eight of the past nine years – successfully five times – are expected to get the nod again this year. Alabama is a consensus No. 1 pick in the many preseason predictions circulated to date.

For the first time in history, the Georgia Bulldogs will enter this event as the reigning national champion. Coach Kirby Smart will step on the main stage at the College Football Hall of Fame at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. He’ll be accompanied to Atlanta by sixth-year quarterback and folk hero Stetson Bennett, senior linebacker Nolan Smith and sophomore center Sedrick Van Pran. The Bulldogs defeated Alabama 33-18 in last season’s national championship game. UGA has been picked to win the league by SEC media one time in the history of this event. That was in 2004, when Auburn won and the Bulldogs finished second in the SEC East.

Players and coaches from Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky will complete Wednesday’s round of interviews. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher will be last up as SEC Media Days concludes late Thursday morning.

At one time this summer, Fisher’s war of words with Saban about the Aggies’ reliance on NIL deals to facilitate recruiting dominated the headlines in college football. A&M’s 2022 signing class ranked No. 1 in the nation after logging an average recruiting ranking of No. 9 in the previous five classes.

Players and coaches from Auburn and Tennessee will precede the Aggies on Thursday. A predicted order of finish by the media will be announced by lunchtime.

Don’t sweat the results. SEC media has picked the champion correctly just nine times over the 30 years it has been polled during this event.

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