Rejection of 12-team football playoff gives the SEC incentive to go lone wolf | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

The SEC might not support expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams by the time the current contract expires, because the SEC by then might have little use for a 12-team playoff. At least, not a 12-team playoff that invites members of the Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and other leagues.

For months, the SEC expressed willingness to grow the playoff, as long as expansion produced a 12-team format.

The 12-team plan never received unanimous support from the other conferences, though, a requirement if the current contract was to be amended before expiring at the end of the 2025 season. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 – three conferences that call themselves the Alliance — voted against the 12-team format, according to multiple reports. The CFP committee announced Friday that no expansion would occur until at least 2026.

What if the SEC is no longer interested in a collaborative playoff?

The SEC doesn’t need support from other conferences for a playoff that doesn’t include other conferences.

Surely, the Alliance isn’t naïve enough to think Oklahoma and Texas are the only universities that covet SEC membership. If the SEC desires, it could raid the most desirable members from other conferences until they’re left with scraps, then stage its own playoff.

Sorry, Pac-12. You're out. Adios, ACC. Have fun with basketball.

If the SEC still desires some companionship, it could invite the Big Ten to join its playoff. Football-fueled media rights deals drive college sports, and the SEC and Big Ten are the most attractive conferences to television networks, because they generate the most eyeballs.

Consider the mega media rights deal that would be generated if the SEC and Big Ten joined forces for one super-league, or aligned as two conferences that funneled teams into an exclusive playoff. Think AFL-NFL, except featuring the NCAA’s two most powerful conferences.

The Power Five and Group of Five would evolve into the Power Two and Extraneous Eight.

An alliance with clout would feature the SEC and Big Ten

Breaking its non-contractual commitment to the Alliance should be an easy choice for the Big Ten, if faced with the possibility of being left out of the only playoff that mattered.

Already, the Alliance shows cracks.

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When the three conferences announced their pact, one planned initiative was a football and basketball scheduling component to generate nonconference matchups.

The Big Ten, apparently, already lost its appetite for Alliance football games.

Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said during a news conference last week that the Big Ten plans to retain a nine-game conference schedule. The conference “moved away, … pretty quickly,” he said, from the idea of reducing to eight Big Ten games, a move that would have freed space for an Alliance matchup.

“If we were just looking at TV value, we’re more valuable to Pac-12 and the ACC than they are to us,” Smith said.

That’s a cold, hard truth.

So much for the Alliance.

When Smith referenced the Alliance, he used air quotes, as if to say he knows it’s a charade.

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Ohio State’s nonconference games in upcoming seasons include scheduled matchups against Alabama, Georgia and Texas – that’s two SEC members and another that will be in the SEC by the time the teams meet. Matchups like those, Smith said, "are huge."

TV networks that pour millions into athletic department coffers desire more games between Ohio State and Alabama, not Ohio State and Oregon State.

Exclusive SEC playoff would be boon for conference, bad for others

The SEC plundering other conferences of their top members and staging its own playoff – or collaborating with the Big Ten for a playoff – would serve the SEC well, much like adding Oklahoma and Texas serves the SEC well.

The rest of college football would suffer. 

An SEC exclusive playoff would not be good for fans of Boise State, Iowa State, Utah and Pittsburgh. Rather, the 12-team playoff the Alliance rebuffed would have been good for those programs. In fact, a 12-team playoff seemed like an all-around winner.

The expanded format appealed to the SEC, because a mix of six automatic qualifiers plus six at-large bids would create an avenue to the nation’s best conference claiming several bids. But it would have ensured playoff bids for teams from at least six conferences. Comparatively, last season’s playoff featured representation from just three conferences for the second time in five years.

The four-team playoff doesn't hinder the SEC. The conference has produced 10 playoff qualifiers, including five national champions, in the playoff’s eight installments, and it has claimed three consecutive national titles with three different programs: Georgia, Alabama and LSU.

The current model favors the establishment, and the SEC rules the establishment. 

Strangely, though, the SEC favored a 12-team playoff more than some of the conferences that have been shut out of the playoff in its current iteration.

Maybe this still ends with a 12-team playoff, featuring widespread representation, come 2026. But SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey isn't committing to that.

The SEC must “rethink” where it stands on expansion in the aftermath of a 12-team format being shelved, Sankey told told Sports Illustrated.

The nation’s other conferences better hope that doesn’t result in the SEC thinking it should further expand and stage its own playoff.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.