College football playoff would take a step backward if the SEC goes it alone | David Whitley

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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It’s good to be the king. With that in mind, we turn to the trial balloon being floated by the ruler of college football, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

How about an SEC-only playoff?

Ohio State, Oregon, USC, Clemson, Notre Dame would be on the outside looking in. The SEC champion would declare itself the de facto national champion. And if other conferences have a problem with it, we’ll channel Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Southern Man don’t need them around anyhow.

No, he don’t.

But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. So here’s hoping the SEC-only playoff balloon doesn’t gain altitude at next week’s SEC spring meetings in Destin. But let’s also hope the rest of the country thinks the SEC might go it alone.

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The battle over the college football playoff

The Georgia Bulldogs celebrate after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide to win the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

What we have here is a high-stakes poker game. Sankey threw down a card this week when he told ESPN the SEC-only playoff is a real possibility.

He’d like to put a little more fear into the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC, aka “The Alliance.” In February, it torpedoed the 12-team playoff proposal Sankey had masterminded. That meant we’re stuck with the four-team setup through the 2025 season.

Nobody really wanted that, but negotiations got mired in arguments over automatic qualifiers, NIL uncertainty and the Big Ten/Pac-12 fealty to the Rose Bowl.

That did not sit well with the king and his court.

“You want to do something that’s more national in focus,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin said. “But at the end of the day, the SEC is in a unique position. We probably have more options because of the strength of our league.”

That’s a diplomatic way of saying a full-scope national playoff needs the SEC a lot more than the SEC needs a full-scope national playoff.

All those big, shiny objects in SEC trophy cases back that up. And a members-only tournament has its lures.

The top six or eight teams could qualify, with first-round games being played on campus. Miami or Atlanta or New Orleans or Nashville or Orlando could vie for the title game.

Sellouts would be automatic. TV would write a huge check. Dolly Parton could present the championship trophy.

The downside is a whole lot of college football fans would be turned off. They’d resent the SEC taking its ball and going home. It’d feel as if the South were seceding from the football union.

And what if the other conferences conjure up their own playoff and the winner ends up looking SEC-esque?

What will the future bring? 

Would a 14-0 Ohio State or Clemson beat Alabama or Georgia or whatever Billy Napier might cook up in a few years? We’d be regressing 40 years to the days of “mythical champions” and polls deciding who is the Big Enchilada.

Some may fondly recall the days of arguing whether Georgia Tech or Colorado was the real champ, or Alabama or Notre Dame, or LSU or USC. That’s like fondly recalling “The Brady Bunch Hour.”

The endless squabbling led to the creation of the Bowl Championship Series, which led to the College Football Playoff, which led to more squabbling since so few teams make the Final Four and so many are from the SEC.

Sankey was fine with that but decided to play nice with the have-nots. A conglomeration of conference leaders came up with the 12-team playoff, but The Alliance had other ideas.

It’s possible all this could lead to dual playoffs. The SEC winner could play the Non-Dixie Playoff in a mega game, sort of like the old AFL and NFL meeting in the Super Bowl. Such a mega game would generate Elon Musk-like money, and the SEC would pocket half of it.

It’s possible that could happen. It’s also possible it could not.

Right now, everybody is looking out for themselves at the expense of the overall product. I don’t think Sankey wants to go it alone. I also don’t think he’s just whistling Dixie when he floats an SEC-only playoff.

“It’s my opinion we shouldn’t take anything off the table,” Stricklin said.

The SEC can afford to say that. Southern Man doesn't need the rest of them around. But college football is a lot better when they are.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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