WILL SEC DOMINANCE INCREASE WITH A FOUR-TEAM PLAYOFF?

Playoff

If the college football recruiting evaluation services are accurate, which over the long-haul they usually are, Tennessee had a heck of a day on Wednesday. The Vols, who have raced through coaches while racking up five losing seasons since 2008, signed the seventh best recruiting class in the country.

The problem is that Tennessee’s recruiting class ranked only fifth in the SEC, behind Alabama, LSU, Texas A & M, and Auburn. What’s more, Georgia and Florida, who compete with them in the East division, finished eighth and ninth.

In other words, Tennessee would top their conferences recruiting rankings if they were a member of the Big 12 or the Pac 12, and they would place second if they were in the ACC or Big Ten–but they find themselves in a dog-fight for fifth in the SEC.

The fact that seven of the top nine classes come from the SEC–the same conference that has captured seven of the last eight BCS titles (and came within seconds of making it a run of eight)–suggests the biggest is just getting bigger. The SEC already has the most fervor, the biggest stadiums and TV contracts, and the most local talent to recruit–and all this recent success is translating into an unprecedented ability to recruit elite players from other regions.

Is this good for the long-term health of college football, especially when it is about to embark on a four-team playoff, where a huge share of the additional billions of revenue will go to the conferences of the teams that qualify?

Consider the final regular season rankings for teams that would have been playoff-eligible the past eight seasons:

2006: Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, LSU

2007: Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia

2008: Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama

2009: Alabama, Texas, TCU, Cincinnati

2010: Auburn, Oregon, TCU, Wisconsin

2011: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma St., Stanford

2012: Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Oregon

2013: Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan State

Let’s add up the number of participants by current conference affiliation that would have been invited to a playoff, assuming that Condalisa Rice and her fellow selection committee members would have ranked teams like AP:

SEC: 14

Big 12: 7

Big Ten: 5

Pac 12: 3

ACC: 1

Other: 2

The SEC would have earned 14 of the 32 bids, twice as many as the second-place Big 12.

And, remember, the SEC appears to be getting even stronger. And it is already far richer. Bret Bielema left Wisconsin, which he helped turn into one of the most successful programs in the Big Ten, for Arkansas, a middling program in the SEC, in part because he could spend 50% more money on assistant coaches.

The coming playoff figures to make the financial playing field even less level.

The best solution might be to go to an eight-team-playoff, with the five major conferences getting automatic births and conferences being limited to a maximum of two bids. This would foster greater parity for four reasons:

(1) The five major conferences would be guaranteed a greater share of the playoff loot every season. By the way, the value of the conference championship games would also rise dramatically because they would effectively become play-in games. Finally, as it stands coaches are loathe to  schedule games against tough out-of-conference opponents because the downside of losing is far greater than the upside of winning, A win does not make the conference schedule any less imposing, but a loss could cost a team a tournament invitation even if they win their conference. ln other words, teams might schedule more tough inter-conference match-ups under an eight-team format because they would know that conference success would gain them an automatic bid.

(2) Since the SEC would be limited to two spots, the other at-large teams would often come from other conferences. The SEC would end up with a smaller percentage of entrants then it will using a four-team format.

(3) This format would save the selection committee the difficult dilemma it figures to face with schools from the smaller conferences. As it stands, they will either have to exclude undefeated teams, like Boise State and Cincinnati were in 2009, or include them despite the fact that they faced subpar competition. There will be a lot less controversy about selecting one of these teams if the major conferences are guaranteed at least one place.

And (4) the fact that each major conference would have at least one participant every season, and often two, might stem the recruiting migration to the SEC. In part, elite student-athletes choose the SEC because they know they have the best chance of playing for the national title–even at a school that has suffered recent hard-times like Tennessee–but that would not be true if the conferences were represented more equally.

Let’s be clear: the SEC is not at fault for being so successful. But we really need to ask whether college football is at risk of becoming a regional sport. And, if it is, the NCAA, the other major conferences, the smaller conferences–and even the SEC–would be wise to consider taking structural steps to promote greater competitive balance.

–Ken Pendleton