In the doldrums of college football off-season, while we sit in a becalmed sea awaiting the gusty breezes of fall practice starting, there are 2 over-arching stories being discussed ad nauseam: conference realignment and playoff systems.
While there are natural relationships between the two (a 4-team playoff of conference champions naturally leads to a consolidation into 4 power conferences), it seems like a waste to spend too much time speculating on conference realignment.
Unless of course your alma mater is the highest profile free-agent since LeBron James and then it makes sense to spend every waking hour imagining a semi-annual road trip to Austin to see the Noles take on the Longhorns, but I digress. Until I can book my flight to ATX or set my DVR for FSU’s live televised ‘The Decision’-like announcement, I am more interested in the various playoff scenarios and the stances taken by each team.
Setting aside the completely obvious and most practical solution of an 8-team playoff involving each major conference champion, plus the next 2, 3 or 4 best teams (depending on how you define ‘major conference’; sorry Big East, you lost us at ‘Memphis’), there are 2 major camps for the 4-team playoff being discussed: 4 best teams or 4 conference champions.
The SEC is the driver of the 4-best team RV, which makes sense given they just handed a national championship to a team that not only didn’t win the conference, it didn’t even win its division inside the conference.
The conference champions-only approach is being heralded by conferences like the Big Ten and Big East, who believe this may be the only way one of their underperforming teams gets a seat at the table.
All of these stances are logical, but also flawed because they all make the same mistake.
They are all based on the assumption that the current hierarchy of football dominance is static.
The SEC has multiple dominant teams now, so naturally they want as many teams as possible in a playoff. But what if an SEC team wins the conference championship by going 11-2 while USC, Oregon, Oklahoma and Florida State each skate through weaker conferences with zero or one loss? Then the SEC is shut out of the playoff and every pundit in the south will spend hours lamenting how this system discriminates against the SEC because it doesn’t reward playing in the toughest conference in the land.
On the flip side, the Big Ten’s support for conference champs-only is equally near-sighted as just a few years ago in 2006; the conference possessed possibly the 2 best teams in the country (Ohio State and Michigan) yet would have had only one representative in the playoffs.
Basing long term structural decisions on the recent past is the height of foolishness. No one knows what the landscape of college football power will look like in 5 or 10 years. Can you imagine someone telling you in 1998 that Boise State, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Stanford would be national title contenders in 2012? You would of course laugh at them and then ask why their jeans were so tight.
The SEC seems to think their dominance is a God-given right and will last as long as Chick fil-A is closed on Sundays. Yet if you look at the national championship picture in the 25 years leading up to their recent run of dominance, the SEC is an afterthought.
Following Georgia’s 1980 national championship up through Florida’s 2006 national championship started the run of 6-straight SEC champions, the conference won 4 national titles by 4 different teams (Bama ’92, UF ’96 – still bitter, Tennessee ’98, LSU ’03). During that same period, here is how the other conferences fared (based on present school affiliation, not affiliation at time of title – also includes both teams in split titles):
- ACC: 9 national titles by 4 different teams
- Big Ten: 7 national titles by 4 different teams
- Pac-Twelve: 4 national titles by 3 different teams
- Big Twelve: 3 national titles by 2 different teams
- Independents: 2 national titles by 2 different teams
The SEC and every other conference are only looking at the most recent five years and seem to assume this trend will continue forever. Sure, the SEC has the money and power today but so does the Pac-12. With historic programs like USC, UCLA and Washington as well as upstarts like Oregon and Stanford why couldn’t the next decade belong to the Pac-12?
What if the speed merchants out west find the key to unlocking the SEC’s defense-first/offense-maybe-sometime-later power game and the SEC falls back to its previous role as home to the craziest fans, and a number of good but not great teams while other teams come to dominate the national title hunt each year like Oklahoma, Nebraska, Miami, Florida State and USC have done at various times in the past?
By only looking at such a small sample and extrapolating it forever into the future, the SEC could be setting itself up for years of frustration and disappointment as their teams are left out in the cold while others play for the national title.
In 2000, a book was written entitled Dow 36,000 which argued that the world had changed and the previous years’ stock market surge was destined to continue forever. Of course, now we know it was more internet bubble than new world and twelve years later the Dow sits just 1,000 points higher than the peak reached in that year.
We may be sitting on the great SEC bubble in college football so making systemic changes based on the present will seem just as silly in 10 years as the title of that book does now.