It just means more – teams, apparently.
While there are still contracts to be sorted out and exits to be negotiated, it appears that a 16-team SEC featuring new members Oklahoma and Texas will become a reality. It won’t happen this year, of course, but all indications are it will come to pass sooner rather than later, even before the Sooners’ and Longhorns’ obligations to the Big 12 are up.
Up until all of this realignment news broke, remember, the offseason talk in college football was dominated by the proposed expansion of the playoff from four to 12 teams. This, too, is not going to happen immediately, but it seems likely some new format will be adopted even before the CFP’s 12-year deal expires at the conclusion of the 2025 season.
One need not be Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots and conclude that the SEC’s endgame is to be in position to maximize the number of teams it sends to the expanded playoff on a yearly basis, thus assuring itself as big a share of the revenue pie as possible.
This raises a couple of questions. First, will it work? And then, how will the other conferences respond? The answer to both at this early juncture is, it depends.
Will it work?
We’ll address the first question first. Given the SEC’s track record during the first seven years of the four-team playoff format, which includes four titles, three other championship game appearances and one all-SEC final, the conference is already in a solid position.
Oklahoma, which has made four playoffs itself, would give the league another perennial candidate. Texas football would bring another large and passionate fan base under the SEC’s umbrella, but the on-field product hasn’t been at national championship caliber for the Longhorns since the mid-aughties. That could change with a new coaching staff starting this year, of course, but for now, the Sooners are the more valuable property for the SEC in regard to securing playoff slots.
So how many can the league expect to get on an annual basis? It depends in part on what playoff framework is actually agreed to by all parties involved. Specifically, it hinges on whether some berths would be reserved for conference champions and how many.
But even with six reserved berths for conference champions as currently proposed, the SEC could probably still count on claiming at least three of the six at-large bids every year. The committee’s final rankings heading into last season’s playoff had four current SEC members in the top nine, with Oklahoma at No. 6 — a total of five teams that would easily be in the top 12 in the league’s future configuration. The 2020 season was atypical in many regards, of course, but the conference’s overall strength can’t really be disputed.
It would also depend to an extent on the scheduling model the league institutes when the new teams join. Should the SEC stay with two divisions, it still seems likely a ninth league game would be added to maintain two crossover games for each team. The 10-game model necessitated by last year’s COVID procedures isn’t likely to be repeated, but it made clear that adding a conference game wouldn’t hurt the league’s playoff position.
The one drawback for the SEC might be its championship game losing some of its value. It would naturally be beneficial for the winner, which would in all likelihood land a top-four seed and a first-round bye in most years. But it might prove more advantageous for some teams safely in the top 12 to miss the league title game, instead using the week to rest and prepare for a first-round playoff game in which they’d probably be favored.
What about the other leagues?
So yes, the SEC should continue to be a major playoff player, even more so when the coming changes take hold. This brings us to question two – what will other conferences do to stay relevant in this rapidly shifting landscape? They’re not likely to stand pat, although bigger might not necessarily mean better in some cases. But even if berths are guaranteed for conference champs, the concept of the Power Five as we know it today will likely be a thing of the past.
Among the many moving parts in these considerations, of course, is what becomes of the Big 12 Conference itself. Yes, Iowa State has a strong team right now, and Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech have had flashes. But without Oklahoma and Texas, the conference could struggle to produce a genuine playoff contender yearly, which could hurt its case for annual automatic inclusion to the playoff organizers.
So would the eight remaining members then try to make a go of it by adding new schools, or will the Big 12 break up completely as the schools look to join other conferences? The former scenario could prove detrimental to the future of the American or the Mountain West, as we discussed last week. In the event the Big 12 does disband, there might be an opportunity for the Pac-12 to extend its reach.
But there might be another possibility. Will the SEC’s expansion lead to pushback from the likes of the ACC and Big Ten against the 12-team playoff proposal? Clemson and Ohio State have enjoyed success under the four-team format, after all, and an extra round or two might not be appealing to them, especially if that means regular quarterfinal confrontations with, say, Georgia or LSU.
We’re a long way from done here, folks. Let’s just hope that when all the dust settles, college football still resembles something we can enjoy.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus.