SEC-only playoff is the nuclear option, which is why it's no option at all | Goodbread
It's early January, 2027.
Ohio State has just pummeled Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and coach Ryan Day raises a trophy that's never before been raised.
It says "national champions" on it, but it's the big prize in name only.
FOX Sports' Matt Leinart is standing on the stage with Day, as confetti settles on both their heads, and asks the Buckeyes coach all the softball questions – "How does it feel? … How proud are you of these players?" – while avoiding the question on every fan's mind:
How is this title even legit without the best conference in college football being involved?
A week earlier in this hypothetical scenario, the SEC ends its season in Atlanta with the culmination of an intra-conference playoff: an SEC Championship Game held on New Years Day. Alabama has topped Florida after navigating a field of eight SEC schools battling through a December tournament. A 75-year-old Nick Saban raises an SEC trophy, but the Crimson Tide's run ends here. ESPN's Chris Fowler doesn't ask Saban the pertinent question, either: Why is the SEC no longer engaging with the rest of college football?
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has planted the college football catastrophe detailed above in the back of four minds: those belonging to the commissioners of the Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. He insisted at SEC meetings last week that the possibility of the SEC breaking away to conduct its own playoff after the current College Football Playoff contract expires is not a threat.
“It wasn’t created as a threat. It’s not intended as a threat. It’s an acknowledgement of reality," Sankey said. "We need to prepare for our scheduling purposes.”
He also noted that the SEC-only playoff model is "in a folder somewhere," distancing it from playoff models much closer to the front burner, while deftly acknowledging its existence.
It is, in political terms, the nuclear option.
Which is to say, it's no real option at all.
Nothing could be worse for college football than to divide a conference housing 12 of the last 16 national champions from the rest of the sport. Neither the SEC champion nor the best-of-the-rest champion could credibly claim a national title. It would set the game back decades, worse off than it was in the poll era, when national champs were determined by a cast of votes rather than on the field. At least with the poll era, which at times undermined the sport's legitimacy until the BCS was born in 1998, every program was chasing the same prize.
Chasing two prizes is no solution, and Sankey is more than smart enough to know that. He's also smart enough to posture in the most clever way possible, pointing out a month ago that the SEC is just fine with continuing a four-team playoff format. Couple that with the threat (or rather, non-threat) of an SEC-only playoff, and the conditions for playoff reform are SEC-favorable. If other conferences want an expanded format that gets them more participation, they'll have to sit at a table set by Sankey; he won't need to sit at theirs.
One way or another, that table will draw cooler heads.
And bank on this: Sankey will never have to go hunting for that pesky folder.
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread