Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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SEC leaders argue 9-3 record is good enough for expanded College Football Playoff; Do they have a point?

DESTIN, Fla. — A few years ago, a tight-knit, forward-thinking group of powerful athletic directors hatched a unique idea to upgrade their schedules. Texas, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama — among others — were all in on it.

If they didn’t explain the reasoning, they were certainly thinking it: Anticipating an expanded College Football Playoff, they were going to make it next to impossible for the CFP Selection Committee to ignore them.

The plan was more brilliance than conspiracy.

“[We added] Ohio State, Michigan, Georgia, Florida, immediately on the schedule,” Texas AD Chris Del Conte said Wednesday at the SEC Spring Meetings. “We went Big Ten, Big Ten, SEC, SEC solely based on trying to add value to the home ticket having no clue this was coming down the path.”

He wasn’t alone. Each of the next two seasons, Florida will play some of the toughest schedules in the history of the game. Each year features what can conservatively be projected to be eight ranked opponents.

Alabama has long scheduled quality non-conference games for years under Nick Saban. Beginning in 2025, Bama plays two Power Four opponents in the non-con for 10 consecutive years. Georgia isn’t exactly ducking anybody.

With that expanded playoff quickly approaching, they’re suddenly saying the hard part out loud to the CFP selection committee in the SEC: Reward us for that schedule strength. Specifically, give us playoff berths at 9-3. That, of course, has never been done before.

Not even close, actually. In the BCS era (since 1998) only one two-loss team has ever played for a championship. LSU won it all in 2007.

“If you played a tough schedule, a 9-3 team better be considered,” Alabama AD Greg Byrne said. “I’ve heard we’re pretty good in football in the Southeastern Conference.”

“If all they [selection committee] look at is a shiny win-loss record at the expense of teams that have played good schedules, then people stop playing good non-conference games,” said Florida AD Scott Stricklin, a member of the selection committee from 2018-20.

“There’s a weight on the committee that’s new … I want to see how the committee processes that,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said.

That 13-person selection committee has seldom been under such scrutiny before a season started. Beginning this year, the top-five ranked conference champions automatically get in. It will be those seven at-large berths that will cause issues inside and outside the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas, where the committee meets.

The coming inherent conflict on the horizon is obvious.

“The interesting thing is the team [from another conference] that doesn’t play a regular schedule that goes 11-1 or 12-0 and how that compares to a 9-3 team that plays eight top 25 teams,” Stricklin said.

That happened in miniature last season. Florida State became the first undefeated power conference team to be left out of the BCS/CFP since 2004. Instead, one-loss Alabama was allowed in despite losing by double digits at home to Texas. Compounding the issue, then-No. 1 Georgia was left out after suffering its only loss by three points to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

The state of Florida attorney general launched an anti-trust investigation into the CFP. It was later revealed members of the selection committee were assigned security after threats from FSU fans

“‘We have an undefeated team so they’re in,’ is not the standard,” Sankey said Wednesday. “It never was the standard. Obviously that stirred up controversy last year.”

Most playoff consideration going forward will center around the 34 teams in the Big Ten and the SEC. They’re the best and brightest brands. Realignment was consolidation and vice versa. The thing is, when those teams play each other, someone has to lose.

“It’s breaking a seal if you’re at four [teams in the playoff],” Del Conte said of 9-3 teams. “But you’re at 12. You’re going to go back and say, ‘Time out. Look at who they played, how they played, where they played.’ I don’t think that’s breaking a seal.

“We can play a lot of teams, they have no meat to their bone. You play a school that has meat on the bone and has a loss or two – that’s what the committee is about [in deciding].”

In one sense, that groupthink is another indicator of the SEC’s obvious superiority. That Texas-Alabama clash from last year is now a conference game. LSU begins the season against USC. Florida plays Miami, Florida State, and UCF in the non-conference. Texas and Georgia await in the league.

But on another level, do they have to shove it in our face? Three times since 2011, the SEC has been guaranteed a national championship before the title game was played (2011, 2017, 2021).

A three-loss team in the playoff was inevitable. But 9-3 just seems so … mediocre. Never mind such a team getting on a run and winning a national championship.

Perhaps the best conclusion is to just get used to it. Going back to 1998 and plugging in the 12-team bracket, a total of 28 teams with at least three losses would have made the field over those 26 years. All of those 28 would have been from the current Power Four. Sixteen combined came from teams currently in the Big Ten and SEC. In only seven years would there have been no three-loss teams.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • SEC (nine)
  • Big 12 (eight)
  • Big Ten (seven)
  • ACC (four)

Still out there hanging in mid-air is the structure and format for the playoff beginning in 2026. When the Big Ten and SEC floated getting four automatic qualifiers each earlier this year, the message was clear. They wanted those spots locked down without any subjectivity.

“What [those conferences are] basically saying is, ‘We don’t trust the selection committee. Therefore, we basically want to take away their power,'” a person familiar with the discussions told CBS Sports.

Perhaps with good reason. The CFP has never publicly revealed how it decides the Football Four each season. The NCAA basketball selection committee at least reveals its top 16 seeds in February. The voters in both the AP (media) and coaches’ polls in football reveal their top 25s at different points in the season.

“They’re an opinion poll that doesn’t feed into the actual placement of teams in the playoff,” Sankey said of the human polls. “They show the result of their work. They do explain. Now, whether that’s the depth you want, there may be a disagreement.”

Actually, the AP poll did factor into the BCS rankings. Citing a conflict of interest, the Associated Press asked the BCS to remove it as a rankings tool in 2004.

“One of the things that is screwed up about college athletics is that all these postseason things are done subjectively,” Stricklin said. “It’s one of the great things pro sports has. You don’t wake up the day after the regular season ends and wait for somebody to tell you [who’s in] …

“The only thing you can do is give conferences automatic bids and take more decisions out of the committee’s hands and decide things on the field,” he added. “I understand the pushback … I’m not advocating it. I’m just saying that is a way you can make the committee less important.”

Sankey emphasized: “We’ve entrusted [the selection committee], period. They have a hard role. I think they’ve performed well over time.”

Seals will continue to be broken. After Alabama got into the field last season, Byrne said the easy thing to do was to have replaced Texas with a beatable Group of Five opponent.

“There would have been no debate, we’re in,” he said. 

The hard thing was to risk everything against Texas and lose.

“There was so much excitement in the country that week. You want good matchups like that,” Byrne said. “I certainly hope that those last few spots when it comes to seeding for the playoff that strength of schedule is recognized. Otherwise, why play the games?”

Especially when 9-3 will get you in.

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