On Monday in Indianapolis, right in the heart of the Big Ten, two SEC schools played for the national championship.
Georgia won, defeating Alabama to give the SEC its third consecutive title. What should be even more concerning for the rest of the sport is this was the third different team in those three years (Alabama and LSU were the others). It’s also the 12th title by five different SEC schools (add in Auburn and Florida) since the 2006 season.
You can talk about Nick Saban’s juggernaut in Tuscaloosa all you want, but it’s the league as a whole that keeps churning out champions. And, oh, Texas A&M just signed a recruiting class that could rank as the greatest ever.
This is the SEC’s sport right now, with a rare Clemson or Ohio State popping up. And that’s before the league begins to enjoy the fruits of a $3 billion television deal with ESPN that starts in 2024 and should further enrich the rich.
So powerful is the SEC that last year the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas bailed on their longtime home in the Big 12 to join up, even though the path to successful seasons and championship contention will be exponentially harder. If you can’t beat them, join them.
This should trigger alarms all over the sport. It should create an all-hands on deck approach to make the game matter everywhere again. The SEC isn’t just the most powerful, it’s growing more powerful. The SEC isn’t just the biggest, it’s getting bigger.
To the victors go the future.
SEC’s recruiting dominance is laughable
The only way to change that is to spread out the talent, to stop having tight ends from the Napa Valley head to Georgia or quarterbacks from L.A. go to Alabama or Texas A&M land star recruits from Pennsylvania and Washington and so on.
Talent is the key variable. Programs and entire leagues are only as good as the players. It’s why professional sports have drafts and salary caps. None of that works for college athletics, though, where students should be free to choose their school.
Right now, for a generation of top recruits, the SEC is seen as almost the only place to go to win a national championship. So that’s where they go. When, say, the Pac-12 hasn’t had a single entrant in the tragically flawed four-team playoff since 2016, how do you blame West Coast kids for leaving?
The four-team playoff was so small, that it choked off interest in most places while elevating it in others.
In the Class of 2022, 37 of the top 101 players per Rivals.com are headed to just three schools – Alabama, Georgia and A&M. (And that number may go up.) Georgia signed 10 of the top 48 recruits in the country, and yet A&M’s class is ranked higher.
This is beyond lopsided. This is unhealthy. And when it’s Aggies vs. Bulldogs for the national title in January of 2024, well, it’ll be no surprise.
Name, image and likeness should help chip away at SEC recruiting dominance. Yes, SEC teams will spend big on talent, but there is money everywhere. Compensation is an economic tool to overcome location, prestige and stability in every job market. It’s what lures workers to oil fields in North Dakota and fishing boats in the Bering Sea and garage start-ups in the Silicon Valley.
It won’t solve the problem, but even just this year, top-five national recruits signed with Jackson State, North Carolina and Missouri. Maybe it’s the start of a trend. If in a few years three schools sign “only” 25 of the top 100 players, well, that’s meaningful.
None of the above is a secret to those in college football. They are all staring down the barrel of a major gap emerging between the SEC and all but two or three other schools.
They also all agree that one of the best options to combat this – again, just impacting the margins of talent acquisition is an important improvement – is to expand the College Football Playoff.
Why CFP expansion gives others a fighting chance vs. SEC
It won’t necessarily alter who wins the title immediately, or perhaps even in the long haul, but it will change the paradigm for schools and conferences that are currently boxed out and falling further behind.
It will generate more excitement in more places. More interest. More paths to competing for the championship that can help spur ticket sales and booster donations and, perhaps most important, convince more recruits that staying home, or even heading somewhere other than the top of the SEC, doesn’t preclude them from championship contention.
Playoff games, especially those played on campus, will be a boon to college football. Showcases. Points of excitement.
Games such as this year’s Michigan State vs. Pitt bowl game would have been huge local events and big national television draws in a playoff. It would have celebrated and showed off two great seasons by two often overlooked programs. Instead, under the current playoff, it was an afterthought with moderate ratings and star players sitting out.
The playoff won’t directly weaken the SEC (indeed, the league will do fine under almost any system). It will, however, make other places stronger. Had the 12-team format been in place rather than the four-team field, the Big Ten would have secured the most bids and places such as Wisconsin would have hosted games three different times. That would help.
The commissioners of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC acknowledge this. What are they doing with a 12-team playoff proposal sitting on their doorstep like an unwrapped gift though?
Screwing it up.
The Pac-12 wants to protect the Rose Bowl’s television slot. The Big Ten is hung up on whether the six automatic bids should go to the six highest-rated conference champions or the so-called Power 5 leagues, plus the best of the rest (a distinction with hardly any practical difference). The ACC is trying to bully Notre Dame into becoming a full-time member so it can then renegotiate its horrific long-term TV contract.
In other words, fiddling while the sport burns.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who is pushing hard for the 12-team format, decried the “parochiality” of the other leagues that are “more concerned about their own silos.”
The SEC, meanwhile, is willing to go to 12, but keeps popping championship Champagne and signing the best players with the status quo. “I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but we’re doing very well in the current system,” commissioner Greg Sankey quipped on Monday.
Sankey keeps shaking his head while watching conferences that desperately need expansion block expansion over small and often insignificant reasons. This is folly. This is ridiculous. Every year of the four-team playoff the SEC has moved further from the pack. The SEC is 12-3 in playoff games facing non-SEC competition, including six consecutive wins by an average of 23.5 points.
Yet you don’t want to do everything possible to address that?
And what of 2026, when the four-team agreement ends? Why would anyone think – especially after the additions of Oklahoma and Texas – the SEC will still be willing to play ball like it is now? Maybe the conference is so untouchable by then, it breaks off into its own playoff, or it even leaves the NCAA entirely, or takes a few more select schools here or there?
That’s the risk taken to protect the Rose Bowl’s sunset or die on a 5+1 hill?
“Don’t assume if we’re at a tipping point,” Sankey warned, “that we’ll re-engage.”
These are perilous times for those who want a true national sport, where a measure of parity exists. For many, it’s the diversity of the sport that makes it so fun, so rich, so worth the time. College football is a game, but it’s also life to millions. The idea of 60-plus kickoffs each Saturday, or traditions even at losing programs. Of MACtion and Blue Turf and Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a buffalo rumbling pregame across a field in Boulder.
Give more teams a chance to compete for a title, give more recruits more options to play in big playoff games and even contend for national championships, make more conference races and more postseason contests matter.
Or watch the sport wither over obstinance, tribalism and mismanagement.
It’s not just SEC v. SEC that is overwhelming college football now, and even more so in the future.
It’s the Alliance v. Common Sense.