Good news for fans of tradition: the Tennessee/Alabama rivalry will remain protected when the SEC unveils a new scheduling format in 2016.
There had been much speculation about the league going to a nine game conference schedule as many others have done. But with life hard enough in the world's best conference, some feared an eight game schedule with a more balanced rotation and no annual rivalries could end the Third Saturday in October.
But instead the SEC has chosen balance through other means. Tonight the SEC announced the existing conference scheduling format will remain in place in 2016 and beyond. In addition, every SEC school must schedule one major conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12) opponent every year beginning in 2016. This is a significant change, one that comes with "assistance from the league office". Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina already have annual arrangements with ACC foes. Tennessee has Virginia Tech (2016) and West Virginia (2018) on the books already in neutral site games. But this arrangement will force all schools to play along. This fall Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt do not have a game scheduled against a major conference foe (though Ole Miss is playing Boise State).
Really, this changes nothing for Tennessee fans: the Alabama rivalry stays, and a major non-conference opponent is now required. But other than facing Cincinnati and Butch Jones from the Big East in 2011, Tennessee has played a major non-conference opponent almost every season as far back as I can remember.
Most importantly, the SEC's most historic rivalry remains intact. Some will question why we would want to continue playing Alabama when they're so dominant right now, but they could've asked the Tide the same question 15 years ago. I for one am thankful Dave Hart, Bill Battle, Butch Jones, Nick Saban, Mike Slive and whoever else worked to keep this thing alive. The Third Saturday in October is one of the cornerstones of the SEC, and I am very happy to see the best conference in football continue to build on it.
With a major non-conference opponent required, the conversation about who the Vols should schedule in the future is open. I'd look for Butch Jones and others to continue to pursue the neutral site route for those games.