Greg Sankey's not bluffing about SEC-only playoff. Here's how I know. | Toppmeyer
The four-team playoff works for the SEC, the conference's commissioner has steadfastly said, as evidenced by the league producing the national champion five times in the format's eight years.
Sankey was part of a committee that proposed a 12-team playoff with six automatic bids going to conference champions, plus six at-large qualifiers. That plan failed to gain the required unanimous support from his fellow commissioners.
OK, then how about this one? An eight-team playoff with no automatic bids. Top eight teams make the field, regardless of conference. Sankey said Tuesday he's open to that, too.
Oh, and lurking in his back pocket? An SEC-only playoff, an idea that Sankey says the conference has stowed in "a folder some place."
College football's most powerful commissioner doesn't sound too serious about the SEC breaking off and staging its own event after the CFP contract ends following the 2025 season.
Rather, he says, it's part of "blue-sky" ideation.
The threat of an SEC-only playoff also serves as perfect leverage, even if Sankey says that's not the intent.
“It wasn’t created as a threat. It’s not intended as a threat," Sankey said. "It’s an acknowledgement of reality. We need to prepare for our scheduling purposes.”
And yet, when this playoff contract ends, if other conferences think there's a chance the SEC would break off if it doesn't get one of its preferred playoff options, that should cause those leagues to embrace one of Sankey's preferences for the playoff's future.
Sankey has expressed a willingness for two expanded options that seem fair:
- A 12-team model would preserve regular-season value by offering first-round byes to the top four teams. It guarantees at least one bid to a Group of Five conference champion. It creates more meaningful games late in the season as teams jockey to be among the six at-large qualifiers, even if they're unlikely to earn an automatic bid.
- The eight-team all-at-large model doubles the representation of the current format, offering more variety.
The plan Sankey opposes: An eight-team playoff with six automatic bids awarded to conference champions. Such a format would cap the SEC's possible representation at three teams. That's a non-starter for the SEC.
Sankey raised a fair criticism of that plan Tuesday: How is it fair that an inferior conference champion could get a playoff bid over the nation's eighth-best team?
“In an eight-team playoff with six (automatic qualifiers), when you’re replacing the eighth-based team with the 20th-best team (that wins a conference), ... I don’t think that playoff is sustainable," Sankey said.
So, how does Sankey ensure he gets a format he wants after the current CFP contract expires?
For starters, keep floating the threat – or, "blue-sky" idea, excuse me – that the SEC might stage its own party.
Anyone who thinks Sankey is bluffing when he says the SEC might consider its own playoff would be wise to consider the events of 2020. Sankey surely experienced quite a power trip that year, when he showed just how big of sword he swings within college football.
That summer, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were cancelling their football seasons in response to the pandemic.
Sankey remained unperturbed, and when he decided the SEC would play, the Big Ten and Pac-12 came out of their shelters and onto the field.
Love or loathe the SEC, the conference usually gets what it wants.
So, if the other conferences lean into an eight-team playoff with six automatic qualifiers after this contract expires, I don't rule out Sankey taking his ball and going home to find that folder housing the SEC-only playoff idea.
Some members of Sankey's conference are skeptical of such a plan.
"I don't think it is best for college athletics in general, for the SEC to go out and do their own thing," Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek said on "The Paul Finebaum Show" on Tuesday, "but Commissioner Sankey has great foresight, and he is making sure that he puts everything in front of us that is a possibility."
Sankey also is ensuring the other commissioners see that possibility.
With the idea of an SEC-only playoff floating in Sankey's blue sky, that should force other conferences to come to heel and support one of Sankey's preferred models.
In Sankey's 12-team proposal featuring six automatic bids, the SEC could regularly pump out four or five qualifiers.
Such a format would be ideal for programs like Texas A&M, Florida, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Kentucky and Auburn, which have never qualified for the CFP but could become contenders in a 12-team field. It also would ensure a bid for teams like undefeated UCF in 2017.
If other conferences refuse to accept one of Sankey's playoff ideas, don't expect him to fold. He usually holds the best cards.
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.