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Column: SEC-only playoff idea is nothing more than political leverage for CFP expansion talks

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has plans for an SEC-only playoff if the College Football Playoff expansion doesn’t happen soon.

Syndication: News-Journal Gregg Pachkowski/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

The SEC is hosting their annual meetings in Destin, FL to discuss the current state and future plans of the conference. As the coaches and administrators convene in the Sunshine State, there are tons of questions that only effect the SEC, but there are also a few conversation topics will have national implications.

After the media got through their questions about NIL, conference scheduling, and the realignment plans coming in the near future, there came some interesting remarks from one of the SEC coaches. New LSU head coach Brian Kelly was asked about Greg Sankey’s plans about the expanded playoff field.

In those comments Kelly said there was talk about an SEC-only playoff that may come in the future. When pressed further Kelly stated that, “(Sankey) left it open to when he gets to June where they begin some conversations with other conference commissioners.”

This comes as no surprise to anybody who has followed college football realignment, but over the last few months, Sankey has shown his hand in his aggressive nature of expanding the SEC footprint. After gaining the commitment of Texas and Oklahoma to join the conference, a conversation exploded surrounding other possible realignment fits around the country. When it comes to the SEC playoff comments, this only says that if the other conferences don’t play ball, the SEC will once again act in the best interest of the SEC.

When Sankey was asked about this later, he said that, “It’s still in a folder someplace. I’m not offering that as leverage. We were talking about our own reality.”

The second part sounds like a quote from one of the Matrix films, but Sankey is not wrong to think about only his conferences reality as the commissioner. Now, this statement can be taken at its word, but many of the conference leaders also did not believe that Sankey would make the move he did stealing Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12. Maybe this is not leverage, but the second part about their own reality should raise everybody’s eyebrows. The current reality for Sankey and the SEC is that if the other conferences don’t play ball, the SEC will once again take matters into their own hands.

This all comes at the precipice of the annual conference commissioner meetings coming up in June this year. There is no question this is a political ploy to get playoff expansion in place sooner than some other leaders might envision. Despite most of the leagues being in agreement that playoff expansion benefits everyone, there are still disagreements on the timetable, number of teams, and automatic bids. Not even every commissioner is open to expanding in the next couple of years.

The ACC commissioner Jim Phillips went on record and said, “(The ACC) is very much aligned in its position that now is not the time to expand the College Football Playoff.”

This position is arguably the sole reason Sankey made those comments with these meetings on the horizon. If this position is still held at the end of June and there is no progress made on getting playoff expansion in place, this could make the thinly veiled threat a reality.

Should these comments be taken seriously?

No. The reason these comments should not be taken seriously is because the regionalization of the sport has already impacted ratings on major games. As we can see in the chart below, the highest rated games include teams from different conferences and fresh faces.

We see that the more regionalized the games, the lower the ratings. The only outliers are games with wide scoring margins. If Sankey is willing to regionalize the sport, it may pay off in the short term, but would be very harmful for his conference’s product long term. When conference powers play for the first time at the national championship stage, there is an increase in the ratings.

An SEC-only playoff would be one region playing football and would take away from the unpredictability factor that makes college football so great. The money is made when the big brands play, and by isolating yourself to a conference-only world, you lose a big chunk of potential revenue.

TV Ratings of National Championship Games since 2010

Year Teams Margin Rating Total Viewers Network
Year Teams Margin Rating Total Viewers Network
2010 ALA-TEX ALA +16 17.2 30.776M ABC
2011 AUB-ORE AUB +3 15.3 27.316M ESPN
2012 ALA-LSU ALA +21 14 24.214M ESPN
2013 ALA-ND ALA +28 15.1 26.380M ESPN
2014 FSU-AUB FSU +3 14.8 26.205M ESPN
2015 OSU-ORE OSU +22 18.6 34.148M ESPN Megacast
2016 ALA-CLEM ALA +5 15 26.182M ESPN Megacast
2017 CLEM-ALA CLEM +4 14.2 25.266M ESPN Megacast
2018 ALA-UGA ALA +3 (OT) 15.6 28.443M ESPN Megacast
2019 CLEM-ALA CLEM +28 13.8 25.280M ESPN Megacast
2020 LSU-CLEM LSU +17 14.3 25.588M ESPN Megacast
2021 ALA-OSU ALA +28 10.3 18.653M ESPN Megacast

Playoff Expansion

From a playoff expansion standpoint, where the SEC stands is pretty clear. They want to be in control, and they want expansion to happen their way. This is why conference leadership is so important. New commissioners Kevin Warren, Jim Phillips, and George Kliavkoff will need to be able to negotiate in their best interests. Many of them will feel pressure from some of their conference members — especially with this added wrinkle.

For the Buckeyes, Gene Smith stated in an interview earlier this offseason that, “I would be surprised if we don’t go to 12 (teams) at some point.”

Smith did not give a timetable, but this echoes that most leagues are close to meeting on requirements and demands. The main disagreement between the B1G’s proposal and Sankey’s comes with how the auto bids are dulled out. The Big Ten wants the Power-5 champions and highest ranked Group of 5 champion to get the auto-bids, while the SEC’s proposal stated the highest six ranked conference champions and highest six ranked at large teams would be included.

This is only a small part of the hold up, and one of the criteria that can be compromised on. The ones that may be harder are the bowl tie-ins and network(s) that will be hosting the playoff games. The B1G’s television deal is about to expire as well as the PAC-12’s and Big 12’s, which has already led to a huge bidding war on the newly available TV products. This might be the biggest hold up in the end.

All of this coming after Gene Smith said in an interview that there might be change in the governing body of the sport. In this conversation, Smith discussed the possibility of a new entity that’s not the NCAA, going as far as saying he could see a future where the College Football Playoff is the main governing body for college football.


There will hopefully be more on the playoff expansion side of the news come June, but until then, comments made by Sankey will be circulating all over the internet. Pieces about playoff expansion are about to be all over your Twitter feeds, and the discussions of how real of a possibility an SEC-only playoff would be will fill the void of the offseason.

If you take Sankey at his word (you shouldn’t), these plans are on the back-burner if nothing is accomplished in the upcoming meetings. Once again, we are all in our own reality here, and as fans of the sport we should hope the SEC doesn’t make a rash decision about the future landscape of college football. The comments made this week were definitely planned, and if they aren’t taken seriously, we can be in for an incredible battle between conference leaders. Outside of ego, there is no reason this threat should become a reality.

All the conferences want a future of expansion, but as we learned this week, the pressure is on to get this done — and soon. If progress isn’t made in June, we will see people in charge start to make their own progress happen.