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With changes coming, Josh Heupel talks potential permanent SEC opponents for Tennessee

Things are about to change in a big way.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

With Texas and Oklahoma set to join the SEC soon, the structure of the conference as we know it will be changing. A 16 team conference is going to kill the current division setup, and it remains to be seen how the conference will be structured going forward. We’ve heard about a four-team pod system, but that seems to be off the table.

As of now, the two most popular ideas are:

  • An eight-game conference schedule with one permanent opponent.
  • A nine-game slate with three permanent opponents.

This would obviously change things in a big way for Tennessee. The annual meetings between Alabama, Florida and Georgia are moments that we as fans plan our falls around, but those traditions are likely to change soon.

So which games might be protected? That naturally becomes the next question — and Tennessee has several options.

“Certainly for us, there’s a lot of teams that we consider rivals,” Josh Heupel said this week in Destin. “As I’ve gotten a chance to understand the history of Tennessee football and just how the calendar and the schedule used to unfold, you can tell that there’s a lot of games that are really important to our fan base.”

Heupel went on to single out two matchups as possibilities for Tennessee.

“We’ve got a bunch of really good historic games that our fans have been really passionate about,” he said. “Want to play in those big games. Obviously there’s some that have been historic for a long time, inside of our own state and with Alabama.”

The Alabama game has been a hot topic over the last decade. Tennessee would certainly benefit from avoiding Nick Saban’s death machine every once in a while, but giving up the tradition of that matchup would be tough to walk away from. If there are three protected opponents, you can bet Alabama would be one of Tennessee’s.

Now if there’s only one, that gets interesting. Tennessee definitely could benefit from locking in Vanderbilt every season. Who else would Vandy have as a protected matchup? It almost has to be Tennessee. Alabama would have Auburn, Florida would have Georgia, Ole Miss would have Mississippi State. You can probably lock in a couple more off the top of your head.

A nine game conference slate with three locks seems like the best route to take to keep certain traditions in tact. It’s early, and this could change still, but who would be your three protected opponents?

Alabama and Vanderbilt pretty much have to be on the list, right? If that’s the case, who is the third? Florida, Georgia and Kentucky all have legitimate arguments to them, and it’s a really interesting conversation to have.


Assuming Alabama and Vanderbilt are locked in, who should Tennessee’s (potential) third protected opponent be?

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