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Front Page - Friday, June 23, 2023

Vols keep most traditional SEC foes in schedule shakeup

Tennessee will keep traditional foes such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt in 2024 when the SEC does away with division play. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

It might only last for one year, but the Tennessee football team will retain its traditional rivalry games once Oklahoma and Texas enter the Southeastern Conference.

The SEC last week revealed the 2024 football schedule for all 16 teams. It’s the first season in which the Sooners and Longhorns will participate in SEC competition.

The Vols will play host to Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi State in Neyland Stadium in 2024. Tennessee will travel to Arkansas, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma.

The dates of the games will be announced later this year.

The SEC is eliminating divisional standings beginning in 2024, meaning the SEC Championship Game will feature the two top teams in the conference standings at the end of the regular season.

Opponents for the 2024 season were determined by factoring in tradition and overall schedule strength, which was based on each school’s conference winning percentage since 2012.

Five of UT’s eight games will come against opponents who have made up its traditional SEC schedule over the years, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

UT won’t play current SEC East opponents Missouri and South Carolina. The Vols have played South Carolina every season since 1992, when the Gamecocks started playing SEC football. The series against Missouri started when the Tigers began play in the SEC in 2012.

Mississippi State will return to Neyland Stadium for just the second time in the last 15 years and first since the 2019 season. The Volunteers will make their seventh all-time trip to Fayetteville to face Arkansas.

The SEC slate of home and away designations in 2024 was built with the provision that no school will travel to the same location to which it traveled in 2023.

The eight-game conference schedule is temporary. The SEC has considered moving to a nine-game conference schedule, which would feature three permanent opponents to help preserve long-standing rivalries as well as six rotating opponents.

The SEC and ACC are the two Power Five conferences that play eight-game conference schedules. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all have nine-game conference schedules.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters at the recent SEC spring meetings that the league will continue exploring scheduling options for 2025 and beyond. Having OU and Texas enter the conference a year earlier than initially planned created some “scheduling complexities,” Sankey says.

“Creating a one-year schedule will provide a longer on-ramp to manage football scheduling around existing nonconference commitments of our members,” Sankey says. “It will also provide additional time to understand the impact of an expanded College Football Playoff and engage with our media partners as we determine the appropriate long-term plan for SEC football scheduling.”

Tennessee originally announced a nonconference home-and-home series with Oklahoma in 2017. The two were set to meet in Norman in 2020, but that contest was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2022, the SEC directed UT to postpone its 2024 home nonconference game against the Sooners as they transition to the SEC. The 2024 conference matchup between the two will mark the Vols’ first trip to Norman since Sept. 13, 2014.

It will also mean a trip back home for Josh Heupel. The Tennessee head coach quarterbacked OU to a national title and was on the OU coaching staff for many years.

In addition to the Vols’ eight SEC contests in 2024, Tennessee will play four nonconference games with three of those occurring in Neyland Stadium. The Vols open the 2024 season at home against Chattanooga Aug. 31, before traveling to Charlotte to face NC State in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on Sept. 7. UT’s other nonconference home games are Sept. 14 versus Kent State and Nov. 23 against UTEP.

Tennessee has already sold out of its 2023 season ticket allotment with 70,500 purchased. Given the upward trajectory of the program and the strength of the schedule, the ticket demand should be just as high for 2024.

Whether the SEC stays with eight conference games or transitions to nine beyond 2024, Heupel believes the Vols will be ready.

“At the end of the day in this conference, you come to this conference because you want to compete and play against the best every Saturday,” he says. “You love those big games. Certainly when you’re playing a conference opponent, you’re playing that type of game.”