Skip to main content

The SEC's newest scare tactic

With negotiations for a new College Football Playoff format on the horizon, the SEC wants us to know it has a nuclear button and it isn't afraid to push it.

Last June, the College Football Playoff working group presented a 12-team proposal. Many in the public assumed this proposal would soon become a reality, because why would they tell us about it if it wasn't going to happen? By February, it officially was not going to happen.

The proposal would have required unanimous approval to change the original 12-year contract, and its approval was not close to unanimous. The Big Ten and Pac-12 voted it down because they disagreed with the format, the ACC because it thought college football has more pressing issues than the CFP format.

This was especially frustrating for the 4-member management committee, comprised of three commissioners (the SEC's Greg Sankey, the Big 12's Bob Bowlsby, the Mountain West's Craig Thompson) plus Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. Aside from the personal issue of the two years they spent brainstorming various possibilities and problems officially getting washed down the drain, they were also professionally frustrated. Their format -- 12 teams, six spots for the six highest-rated conference champions, six at-larges, top four seeds reserved for conference champs -- was the best for college football as a whole, in their opinion. 

A late November game between an 8-3 Oregon State and a 7-4 Washington State could matter in the national championship hunt, because the Pac-12 North champion would be one win away from an automatic playoff bid. The Group of 5 leagues would be guaranteed at least one berth, and possibly two. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC would be virtually guaranteed spots -- when's the last time the B1G champ was the seventh-highest ranked champ? -- while also avoiding inevitable anti-trust accusations generated by a Power 5 Champs Plus One Group of 5 Champ format. 

"This is a very exciting moment for college football," the working group members said last June. "We think we can capture what student-athletes and fans love about the game and extend it to more people in more places, while enhancing what's great about the regular season."

In Sankey's mind, the SEC gave more than it took with the 12-team format he championed, but it was a sacrifice the conference was willing to make for the greater good. The 4-team format has worked just fine for the conference, he said on multiple occasions. And if the CFP were to expand to 12, the SEC would be best served by no automatic bids -- the 12 highest-ranked teams go, everyone else stays home.

Alas, the 12-team format was officially voted down in February. The 4-team format will play out its original 12-year contract, concluding after the 2025 season. 

After that? The future remains unwritten. Each league can forward its own proposed format, and it won't take a unanimous vote to approve a new bracket, upping the possibility that the Alliance could be forced to live with a less favorable format than the one it turned down.

Within that vacuum, a nuclear option has emerged. The SEC could just take its ball and go home, fully exiting the CFP discussions and staging its own playoff.

The prospect first emerged in The Athletic in February, and on Monday Pete Thamel reported for ESPN that the topic will be discussed during next week's league meetings in Destin. 

Rather than pit its East and West champion (or, in a division-less structure, its 1 vs. 2 teams) on the first Saturday of December, the SEC could play its 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5, over the entire month of December. Maybe the other leagues could stage their own playoff, with the two winners playing in a standalone title game. Or maybe the other leagues could just return to the old bowl system, and the SEC champion could go ahead and declare itself the national champion anyway. That's not too far off from how the college football postseason has functioned since 2006, is it not? 

ESPN paid $300 million for the SEC's top game (the 3:30 p.m. ET game that currently airs on CBS) through the 2033 football season, so how much more money might six extra, high-leverage SEC games be worth?

Furthermore, the SEC is also in the possible of re-designing its entire football structure with Texas and Oklahoma coming aboard no later than 2025. It's anticipated that the East/West, 8-game structure could be eliminated in favor of a less structured, 9-game schedule, one that would allow each team to play its conference mates as often as every other season.

If the SEC is going to stage its own postseason, why not go to 10 conference games? The league liked its SEC-only, 10-game season of 2020, and the reason it didn't adopt that format permanently was because more intra-conference games meant more losses for each team, which hurt the SEC's CFP and bowl eligibility chances. But if you're playing your own postseason tournament, what does that matter? More SEC v. SEC games means more inventory to sell to ESPN and season-ticket buyers, which means even more money for the conference.

"As we think as a conference," Sankey told ESPN, "it's vitally important we think about the range of possibilities."

At the end of the day, is this topic a legitimate option or just a negotiating tactic? Is the league trying to get writers to talk up this possibility just so rival conference commissioners will fold their cards before they sit at the poker table? Is this all just an elaborate game of saber rattling? 

Likely, the answer is yes to all of the above. 

Do I believe the SEC wants to play its own postseason tournament? No. Do I believe the SEC wants the Alliance to believe it would play its own tournament if they don't agree to a new format that the SEC finds favorable? Absolutely.

And the most crucial question: Would the Greg Sankey and the university presidents that employ him actually push the big, red nuclear button if the Alliance calls their bluff? I don't know, and that's what makes this so fascinating.