Florida Gators wide receiver Ricky Pearsall (1) makes a one-handed catch for a first down during the first half against the Charlotte 49ers at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Saturday, September 23, 2023. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

No. 22 Florida tackles road woes, series losing streak at Kentucky

There was a time when the Florida Gators could beat Kentucky with one hand tied behind their backs.

Florida wideout Ricky Pearsall may need only one hand to make a spectacular catch, but the No. 22 Gators will have their hands full against the unbeaten Wildcats in Southeastern Conference action Saturday in Lexington, Ky.

Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 SEC) returns home after opening the conference calendar with a 45-28 victory at Vanderbilt last Saturday.

The Wildcats have won the last two meetings with Florida and three of the last five in a rivalry that once saw the Gators sweep 31 straight meetings from 1987 to 2017. Kentucky won 26-16 last season in The Swamp and entered this week as a slight favorite at Kroger Field.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops insisted that the past “really doesn’t have any bearing” on Saturday’s game.

“There’s a term that we use a lot in our program and that is divine discontent,” he said. “We know there’s more out there. We know we can play better. And that ought to be our motivation. …

“We’re still hungry and nobody’s content with what we’re doing and we’re looking forward to a great opportunity here this week with the Florida team that we know is always extremely talented (and a) very good team.”

The Gators (3-1, 1-0) enter with three straight wins since a season-opening setback at then-No. 14 Utah. Florida defeated Charlotte 22-7 last Saturday but hasn’t played outside Gainesville since that Aug. 31 loss in Salt Lake City.

Florida held Charlotte to 10 first downs and 211 total yards, including 78 rushing yards on 29 attempts.

“Defensively we were lights out outside of one possession,” said head coach Billy Napier, whose Gators are giving up just 13.5 points per game.

Graham Mertz completed 20 of 23 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown against the 49ers. Pearsall posted six catches for 104 yards, including a fantastic one-handed grab in the first quarter — despite absorbing a huge hit from two defenders.

Mertz hasn’t thrown an interception since the opener and Pearsall leads the team in catches (26) and receiving yards (362). Trevor Etienne has rushed for 329 yards, including 172 in a Sept. 16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee.

Including the loss at Utah and a pair of neutral-site defeats in his first season on the job in 2022, Florida is just 1-6 outside of Gainesville under Napier.

“I think this is a big week,” Napier said. “Obviously Kentucky has a really good football team. We’ve got a ton of respect for Coach Stoops and the program that he’s built there, the consistency in which they play and the brand of football that they play — the fundamentals, the philosophy.

“It’s a tough place to go play.”

Devin Leary, a transfer from NC State, has thrown for 1,060 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions for the Wildcats. Ray Davis, a Vanderbilt transfer, leads Kentucky with 314 rushing yards and five TDs. While with the Commodores last season, Davis ran for 122 yards in a 31-24 upset of a 20th-ranked Gators squad.

–Field Level Media

Jul 17, 2023; Nashville, TN, USA; SEC commissioner Greg Sankey  talks with the media during SEC Media Days at Grand Hyatt. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Sankey: SEC not ‘reaching’ for any more schools

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday that his league is not aiming to add any more member institutions amid the latest round of realignment.

The SEC will welcome Texas and Oklahoma in 2024, a domino initially toppled in 2021 that caused a massive shakeup of the college sports landscape. Two years later, the Pac-12 faces a likely collapse, once eight of the 12 members leave for the Big Ten and Big 12.

Sankey admitted to a “tinge of sadness,” if not necessarily regret.

“I take responsibility where we’ve made moves,” Sankey told “The Paul Finebaum Show” on Tuesday. “But there was something different last week about the questions around the existence of the Pac-12 Conference, given its long and storied history.”

Sankey said his conference, which will stand at 16 schools as of next year, isn’t actively searching for more members.

There have been behind-the-scenes conversations regarding the recent changes elsewhere around the country. But a videoconference last week with SEC presidents and chancellors revealed a “really strong alignment with that group, very clear that there’s not something out there that we should be reaching for or engaging in,” Sankey said.

Last month the Big 12 agreed to add Colorado, which in turn led Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to follow while a Pac-12 media rights negotiation dragged on. The Big Ten swooped in to add Oregon and Washington, one year after plucking UCLA and Southern California from the Pac-12 and the Los Angeles media market.

Sankey said it doesn’t bother him that the Big Ten now stretches from New Jersey to California.

“We don’t need to be in four time zones to generate interest on the West Coast or really across the globe, and so that’s been a hallmark,” Sankey said. “Who knows what will happen, and that’s where I go back to one of my original statements: We’re always going to be attentive to what’s happening around us. And perhaps there’ll be some opportunity, but it needs to be a lot of philosophical alignment. And it’s not something where we’re actively out recruiting institutions right now.”

All of the change has left uncertainty over what the next move may be. The Atlantic Coast Conference has been linked to Cal, Stanford and SMU by multiple media reports.

There is also the question of the “Power Five” versus “Group of Five” conference structure if the Pac-12 dissolves. The College Football Playoff is supposed to expand to 12 teams in 2024, and the commissioners (plus outgoing Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick) agreed to a model wherein the six highest-ranked conference champions will qualify, plus the next six at-large teams in the rankings.

If the “Power Five” becomes a “Power Four” — or smaller — that model could be revisited.

“I think it’s wise for us to take a step back and reconsider what the format might look like given these changes and circumstances,” Sankey said. “We’ve not met on that, I’ve not had any meaningful conversations, but I think we have to acknowledge that it is on everyone’s mind pending the outcome of some of these additional membership movement pieces.”

–Field Level Media

Ole Miss Head Coach Lane Kiffin speaks at the 2023 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days at the Nashville Grand Hyatt on Broadway, Thursday, July 20, 2023.

Lane Kiffin calls NIL ‘poor system getting worse’

If Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin had his way, the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) initiative would be out of college football and more schools would integrate mental health training into their programs.

One of those he has no control over, but he’s become somewhat of a pioneer on the latter front.

Kiffin took the podium at SEC Media Days on Thursday in Nashville and, per usual, had a lot to say.

Regarding NIL, Kiffin said it’s a “poor system that’s getting worse.”

Kiffin is in favor of the transfer portal and also a believer in players getting compensated. But it’s the combination of those that Kiffin says is potent and dangerous.

“You just told donors you could pay players,” Kiffin said.

“Now, we have professional sports. That’s what’s been created now,” Kiffin went on. “There are no caps to what guys can make or payrolls, so when this first came out, I said, whatever programs have the most aggressive boosters with the most players are going to get the best players. Now, we are adding some states that don’t follow the NCAA.

“It’s where we are at.”

When pressed further, Kiffin said he doesn’t have answers — he just knows it’s a problem.

“I’m not complaining because we take advantage, obviously, of free agency,” said Kiffin, likening the portal to free agency in pro sports. “It isn’t good for college football, these overhauls of college rosters. It really isn’t in the best interest of college football.”

Meanwhile Kiffin’s team is believed to be the first program to establish mandatory mental health training for all coaches and players.

“This mental health area is not in that old-school coaching book at all,” Kiffin said. “It was, ‘Hey, shut up and go practice and play,’ especially in the sport of football. Just over the years in going through so many mental health issues with our players and coaches and not having tools or a good system in place — besides just sending them across campus to a mental health specialist.

“I was excited to do (training) with that and excited for the education with that,” he added. “The ability to see things and help our players is really neat. They just go through so much.”

Kiffin also touched on the SEC expanding by two in 2024, when Oklahoma and Texas arrive from the Big 12.

“I actually joked to (Texas coach) Steve Sarkisian yesterday, I don’t know why any coach would want to go to the NFL,” Kiffin said. “We’re in it now. I mean, our schedule is like playing in the NFL … especially adding (Texas and Oklahoma).”

Kiffin, 48, went 8-5 last season and is 23-13 heading into his fourth season with the Rebels. Ole Miss opens the season at home against Mercer on Sept. 2 in Oxford, Miss.

–Field Level Media

Alabama head football coach Nick Saban waves to the crowd after throwing out the first pitch before the Crimson Tide  s game with Samford at Sewell-Thomas Stadium Tuesday April 25, 2023.

College Baseball Alabama Vs Samford

Alabama, Nick Saban to ‘let the cake bake’ entering 2023

Georgia won the past two college football national titles, but Alabama coach Nick Saban learned the Crimson Tide’s reach remains significant over the offseason.

In Italy to celebrate 50 years of marriage with his wife Terry, Saban toured Ferrari’s headquarters and production facility. He left without a car but found an unexpected turbo boost from the company’s employees.

“We got ‘Roll Tided’ everywhere we went,” Saban said Wednesday at SEC Media Days in Nashville. “Even at the Ferrari plant. These cats don’t even speak English and we’re getting Roll Tide. I guess we have a pretty decent brand, I’m talking about the University of Alabama.”

Saban and “Miss Terry” put off Italy for two years but took the time this summer to head overseas. Now Alabama wants to put a charge in the rest of the SEC after watching the Bulldogs reign as national champs the past two seasons.

There are goals for the Crimson Tide, but Saban doesn’t discuss expectations, a taboo term in his program.

“Expectations are a premeditated way to create disappointment,” he said, “and that’s why you stay process-oriented.”

Alabama, like rival Auburn and Georgia, is unsettled at quarterback entering fall camp. Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, leaves a crater for the Crimson Tide offense to fill.

Saban said none of his quarterback options created separation in the spring and so, as with “Grandma Saban’s best cake in the world,” the plan is to “not rush it.”

“She’d say ‘if I take it out of the oven too soon, it’s gonna turn to mush.’ We have to make sure we let the cake bake,” Saban said.

Alabama also has new coordinators following the exit of Bill O’Brien on offense, but Kevin Steele returned to fill the void at defensive coordinator for his third stint on Saban’s staff.

Tommy Rees has the dual role of coordinator and quarterbacks coach and drew raves from Saban on Wednesday. Rees was offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, where he played quarterback, for current LSU coach Brian Kelly.

“Tommy Rees is one of the brightest young minds I’ve seen in a long time in this business,” Saban said.

Rees and whomever claims the quarterback job might have an easier time considering the talent Alabama features on the offensive line. That includes junior offensive tackle JC Latham, who wore a massive necklace with the initials “TK” on Wednesday at media days.

“I wanted to have my own name, that’s why I came up with Trench King,” Latham said. “Everybody o-line, d-line, they live in the trenches. I want to be the best.”

–Field Level Media

Jul 18, 2023; Nashville, TN, USA;  Auburn Tigers head coach Hugh Freeze speaks with the media during SEC Media Days at Grand Hyatt. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Hugh Freeze sees Auburn in ‘upper echelon’ of SEC in ’23

Hugh Freeze returns to the SEC as head coach at Auburn, where expectations are rising for the Tigers to be one of the league’s contenders.

Freeze signed a six-year deal with an average annual value of $6.5 million after four seasons with eight or more wins at Liberty.

“I would see us in the upper echelon of this conference,” Freeze said of Auburn. “We have the facilities, we have the support, we have the administration and you’re in an area that football’s important.”

Freeze, 53, was coach at Ole Miss for five seasons and inherits an Auburn program desperate to rediscover the glory days. He said he wasn’t expecting the door to re-open to the conference after he was dismissed by Ole Miss in the wake of a scandal involving female escorts.

The Plains opted for the change following the in-season dismissal of Bryan Harsin, who compiled a 9-12 record at Auburn before his contract was bought out. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, a former star running back for the program, was named the interim coach after Harsin’s 3-5 start, and the Tigers finished 5-7. They’ve won only two bowl games — in 2015 and 2018 — the past 11 seasons.

One pressing question entering August practices: Where will Freeze turn at quarterback? There are four quarterbacks vying for the job in a competition Freeze said he prefers over anointing a No. 1 right now.

“Quarterback-wise, that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Freeze said.

Among them is Robby Ashford, a player Freeze is confident can help — somewhere — this season.

“He’s probably the absolute best athlete I’ve ever coached at that position,” Freeze said. “I think he’s dynamic in so many ways.”

–Field Level Media

Jul 18, 2023; Nashville, TN, USA;  Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart speaks with the media during SEC Media Days at Grand Hyatt. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Champion Georgia not afraid of three-peat talk

Three-peat talk in Athens draws little reaction from Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who has bigger concerns as the Bulldogs bid to win the national title for the third consecutive season.

“We’ve certainly looked at some three-peat scenarios of teams like the Bulls and different sports teams that they might actually know about,” Smart said Tuesday at SEC Media Days in Nashville. “No offense to the Minnesota 1935 team, but I don’t know if it’s going to resonate with my audience.

“And I don’t care about the three-peat, the two-peat or the one-peat. I care about complacency. If the focus is on that and the outcomes, I think the rest will take care of itself in terms of allowing our guys to focus on being the best they can be.”

Smart said he and the administration have communicated and discussed hazing and related incidents with players since Pat Fitzgerald was fired at Northwestern. But already part of the program is Smart’s introduction meeting in which he strictly shares team rules and roles.

“We do education,” he said, recalling his freshman year having his head shaved and being told to carry meal trays for upperclassmen. “We do more of a brotherhood. Take this guy in. He’s at your position. Can you go out and teach him and walk him through, embrace those guys and make sure they understand that hazing will not be tolerated, and if it is, they need to let us know.

“We do more of a brotherhood. Take this guy in. He’s at your position. Can you go out and teach him and walk him through, embrace those guys and make sure they understand that hazing will not be tolerated, and if it is, they need to let us know.

As is custom in the SEC, Georgia won’t have a cakewalk to a conference championship in 2023.

The Bulldogs don’t go on the road until playing Auburn on Sept. 30, but travel to Florida (Oct. 28, Jacksonville, Fla.) and Tennessee (Nov. 18) with a shuffled roster. They replaced offensive tackle Broderick Jones, quarterback Stetson Bennett, defensive tackle Jalen Carter, linebacker Nolan Smith, cornerback Kelee Ringo and tight end Darnell Washington, all 2023 draft picks among the 23 players selected in the NFL draft the past two years.

Smart downplayed having been in three-peat mode at Alabama as defensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013.

“I’ll be honest with you. I don’t remember that next season or anything that carried over from that season because you’re not thinking about the last season,” Smart said of the 2014 season with Alabama. “I think sometimes as media you guys want to make it about, well, what are you going to learn, how are you going to combat this.

“All we’re thinking about is the next 24 hours. Like how can we get better in the next 24 hours. I’m not sitting here thinking of some motivating factor. … We expect to be good at University of Georgia. We want sustained success. So we have to do that by winning every day. That’s not going to change whether we win it or not this year.”

Georgia does have continuity on the coaching staff. Every full-time staff member with the Bulldogs for the 2022 title returns.

“Retention for us is the key to sustaining success. Again, retention is the key to sustaining success,” Smart said. We can’t do that without a supportive administration, and we sure as hell can’t do that without a great culture of people wanting to be part of our program and pouring into our kids.”

Smart briefly addressed the growing number of traffic-related tickets and speeding incidents the program has dealt with, including the fatal accident in January that claimed the lives of Devin Willock and Chandler LeCroy.

“It’s very evident when you look at it, we’ve had traffic citations and incidents throughout the history of being at the University of Georgia. We actually don’t have more now than we’ve had in the past,” Smart said. “What concerns me most is the safety of our players, and when you drive at high speeds it’s unsafe. We don’t want that to happen. We’re going to do all we can to take that out and make sure that’s eradicated.”

–Field Level Media

Greg Sankey, commissioner for the Southeastern Conference, during a lunch break for an infractions hearing with the NCAA at the Westin Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

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SEC signs commish Greg Sankey to multi-year extension

The Southeastern Conference and commissioner Greg Sankey have reached a contract extension through at least 2028.

Sankey, 58, has been the commissioner since 2015, when he took over for Mike Slive. His extension was approved by the presidents and chancellors of the 14 SEC schools.

“I am grateful for the continued opportunity to serve and support the universities and student-athletes of the Southeastern Conference and I appreciate the confidence placed in me by the SEC’s presidents and chancellors,” Sankey said.

Sankey helped to author a new television contract with ESPN/ABC that will pay the SEC up to $3 billion per year beginning in 2024.

Sankey has presided over 48 national championships won by SEC schools since he took over.

–Field Level Media

Oct 18, 2022; Birmingham, Alabama, US; SEC conference commissioner Greg Sankey speaks to the media prior to the tip off of the Women s SEC Media Days in Mountain Brook, AL  Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

SEC axing divisions, sticking with 8-game conference slate for 2024

With Texas and Oklahoma set to join the league in 2024, the Southeastern Conference announced Thursday that it will nix its divisions while sticking with an eight-game conference schedule.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said the league has approved a temporary eight-game schedule for 2024, but there could be scheduling changes come 2025, which would be Texas and Oklahoma’s second season in the conference.

The current eight-game schedule allows teams to play one game against all six opponents within their division plus two interdivisional games. A proposal for a nine-game slate included three permanent opponents to maintain rivalries, while the other six games on the schedule would be against rotating opponents.

An eight-game schedule that features one permanent opponent with seven rotating has been discussed at this week’s spring meeting. While that proposal would keep major rivalries safe, such as Alabama-Auburn, it does put other historic rivalries at risk.

The SEC will reveal its complete schedule for 2024 on June 14.

When it came to the financial aspect of a ninth conference game, Sankey made it clear that money was not his main concern.

“Money follows. It doesn’t lead,” he said.

Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and Vanderbilt currently make up the SEC’s East Division, while the West Division consists of LSU, Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Auburn and Texas A&M.

Vanderbilt will be the first SEC team to kick off its 2023 season when it hosts Hawaii on Aug. 26 in Nashville, Tenn.

–Field Level Media

Oct 8, 2022; Dallas, Texas, USA;  Texas Longhorns defensive end Justice Finkley (1) and Texas Longhorns defensive lineman Keondre Coburn (99) sack Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Davis Beville (11) during the second half at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Texas, Oklahoma reach deal to leave Big 12 in 2024

Texas and Oklahoma agreed to a $100 million fee to exit the Big 12 Conference a year earlier than their contractual obligation, meaning they will join the Southeastern Conference for the 2024-25 school year.

The Big 12 announced Thursday that the schools and the reached an agreement in principle regarding the exit fee.

“As I have consistently stated, the Conference would only agree to an early withdrawal if it was in our best interest for Oklahoma and Texas to depart prior to June 30, 2025,” Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark said in a statement. “By reaching this agreement, we are now able to accelerate our new beginning as a 12-team league and move forward in earnest with our initiatives and future planning.

“I appreciate the approaches of OU President Joe Harroz and UT President Jay Hartzell to ensure an amicable conclusion to this process, and look forward to the bright days ahead for the Big 12 Conference.”

Hartzell said in a statement, in part, “We have always been committed to fulfilling our contractual obligations to the Big 12. The collegiate athletics landscape has continued to evolve rapidly, and working together to accelerate our exit produced benefits for all parties. The Big 12 has been a respected partner for nearly three decades, and we look forward to a final season of spirited competition with our friends and rivals.”

“The exciting matchups and passionate rivalries of the past quarter century will always be a celebrated part of our shared history,” Harroz added in a statement, in part. “We look forward to showcasing that intensity this season, next season and beyond.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wrote in a statement that the conference will “proceed with facilitating the transition of Oklahoma and Texas to become full members of the Southeastern Conference on July 1, 2024.”

He added, “We look forward to welcoming the conference’s new members and moving into the future as a 16-team league.”

BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston are set to join the Big 12 for the 2023-24 school year, giving the conference 14 teams for one season before the Longhorns and Sooners exit.

–Field Level Media

Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) blocks a field goal attempt by Alabama Crimson Tide place kicker Will Reichard (16) on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, during the College Football Playoff National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Syndication The Indianapolis Star

SEC revenue declines, 14 member schools receive $49.9M

Commissioner Greg Sankey said the Southeastern Conference earned $721.8 million of total revenue for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31.

Sankey said Thursday the revenue split for the 14 member schools in the SEC was nearly $50 million — $49.9 million apiece.

The schools were paid $54.6 million as part of the split for the previous fiscal year, 2020-21, Sankey said.

“The SEC’s annual revenue distribution significantly enhances the ability of our universities’ athletics programs to provide the highest level of support for the thousands of student-athletes who participate in sports each year on our campuses,” Sankey said in a statement released by the conference. “This commitment to an impactful and life-changing experience encompasses superior support in coaching, training, academic counseling, medical care, mental health, nutrition, life-skills development and extended health coverage for our student-athletes.”

For 2021-22, the sum of $698.5 million was distributed by the league with $23.3 million retained by schools for travel and other expenses related to travel and other costs associated with going to bowl games.

In the 2021 fiscal year, ending Aug. 31, 2021, the SEC reported $833.4 million in revenue.

–Field Level Media