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College Football Playoff expansion may just mean more for the SEC and Alabama football | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Although the release of a proposal to expand the College Football Playoff from four teams to 12 may need some tweaking between now and the fall, rest assured the change is coming. The working group that made the proposal, including SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, was made up of the sport’s heaviest hitters. There may be some tinkering here and there, but no one, presidents or commissioners, is going to dismiss their suggestions.

So as early as the 2023 season, the playoff is going to be entirely different.

First, will it have a profound effect on Alabama? With Nick Saban as head coach, the Crimson Tide has found a way to win the national championship in a two-team format (the old BCS), then a four-team format (the CFP) that was implemented in part because Alabama was so successful in the two-team format.

Teams change over time, but anyone whose sole reason for backing the expanded field is Chronic Alabama Fatigue (or Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State Fatigue) is likely to be disappointed. Those teams – and a few others like Oklahoma, Georgia and some other SEC teams – are still going to dominate the top four spots. There is the mathematical fact that winning three games is tougher than winning two games, but, more years than not, one of the elite teams will win the title.

Could there be first-round upsets in a 7 vs. 10 game? Sure, but the chances of that Cinderella No. 10 team winning against No. 2 the next week will be slimmer than people think. Football is not basketball. 

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There are things to like about the proposal from an SEC standpoint, certainly. The six at-large teams, along with an automatic berth for the league champion, mean the SEC will rarely, if ever, have less than three teams in the field. Many years, the SEC will have four. That means that sometimes, even when you would have gotten rid of Alabama, the Crimson Tide will be in anyway.

Jan 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates with the national championship trophy after beating the Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-388025 ORIG FILE ID: 20190107_pjc_se2_284.JPG

That doesn’t mean that trying to have a broader geographic appeal for the playoff is a bad thing. The Pac-12 champion should get into the field most years, and maybe a Boise State or Hawaii might make it, given that at least one conference champion out of six will be from the Group of Five.

There are some question marks left, and some clear-cut losers. The value of conference championship games will have to be weighed. The SEC Championship Game will be highly relevant in some years and not much more than a high-risk exhibition in others. Notre Dame reportedly will be excluded from receiving a bye because it doesn’t play in a conference, but could frequently find itself with an off-week and a first-round home game, which isn’t a terrible deal.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood hold the trophy after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama won 52-24. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The two definite losers? Any player who has to go through a 17-game season, which is possible. My personal opinion was that 15 games was grueling and adding two more (with no extra compensation, even if you are in the “a scholarship is enough” camp) is an overload. Also, for fans who like to follow their team to every game, you’d better be wealthy or prepared to devote a significant chunk of the annual budget to playing three or four road games at premium ticket prices. The battle between the fan in the stands and the television audience was settled long ago, with television winning. And this is, like it or not, a television event.

I’m not going to prejudge expansion as a disaster. Plenty of people will like it. But, as with every system that has gone before, there will be people who won’t: unless, of course, their team wins it all.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt 

Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.