A strong leader looks out for the meek and less fortunate, and in that vein, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey tried to help the Pac-12.
A once mighty conference that fell from relevance, the Pac-12 has produced two qualifiers for the College Football Playoff in the playoff’s eight years. Last season, the ACC and Big 12 joined the Pac-12 as Power Five conferences that weren’t powerful enough to supply a playoff qualifier.
Sankey joined a few other college sports leaders last year to motto a plan that would rectify that, while also creating more spots for Sankey’s SEC: a 12-team playoff featuring automatic bids for the top six conference champions, plus six at-large bids.
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That structure would have created more playoff access while preserving regular-season value. But modifying the four-team playoff before its contract expires after the 2025 season required full support from conference commissioners. No unanimous expansion agreement was reached, so the four-team playoff will remain in place for at least the next four seasons.
Sankey gloated this week about the SEC’s playoff dominance – Alabama, LSU and Georgia have combined to produce five national championships from the format, including the past three – but more importantly, he warned that although this format works for his conference, it hamstrings the sport overall.
“We can stay at four. This conference will thrive at four. Period,” Sankey told reporters Monday in Birmingham. “That’s not healthy for the rest of FBS college football. But we can stay at four.”
“We have regions that don’t access the playoffs,” he continued.
Pretty big region, actually. Like, everything west of Norman, Oklahoma.
Teams in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones have combined for two CFP bids – most recently, Washington made the playoff in the 2016 season.
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Meanwhile, Alabama and Georgia – campuses separated by 270 miles – teamed up in January to provide an SEC-only national championship for the second time in five years.
After Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, which will occur by 2025, the conference should annually capture at least two bids in a four-team format, for however long it continues.
Say it louder for the folks in the back: The four-team format is a boon for the SEC, particularly the SEC’s elite programs, but it stinks for the health of the sport.
College football is ingrained in the soul of the South. The same is true for places like Columbus, Ohio; Lincoln, Nebraska, and Norman.
Elsewhere, interest is more fleeting.
Contrary to what certain coaches or administrators might say, the biggest threat to college football isn’t athletes profiting off their fame or boosters funding collectives that peddle name, image and likeness deals.
The biggest threat to college football is the product growing stale.
On the whole, the four-team playoff has been a boring enterprise that’s fairer but less compelling than its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series.
The highest-rated national championship game for either the BCS or the CFP era was the Rose Bowl between Southern Cal and Texas to culminate the 2005 season. Televised by ABC, it attracted 35.6 million viewers and scored a 21.7 rating, according to data compiled by Sports Media Watch.
Second-highest in the TV ratings was the CFP’s first championship, Ohio State vs. Oregon, to cap the 2014 season.
Various factors influence TV ratings, and viewers today have more options than they did when USC and Texas clashed. Who hasn’t been tempted to stream “Ozark” on Netflix rather than watch sports?
Nevertheless, it’s no coincidence that each of the two highest-rated national championships included one West Coast team and no SEC teams.
College football and its national championship always will captivate the South. This year’s national championship lagged in the ratings, overall, but enjoyed strong viewership in markets like Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; and Greenville, South Carolina.
Maximizing audience and popularity requires representation from other regions.
That made a perfect 12-team playoff. Such a format last season would have included teams from Pittsburgh to Utah.
Unlike an eight-team playoff, favored by some, the 12-team format preserves value for the regular season by awarding first-round playoff byes to the top four teams.
Also, unlike an eight-team format, the 12-team’s six at-large spots would heighten interest throughout the season, rather than confining the drama to conference championships and the playoff.
Sure, the SEC might snap up roughly half the spots in a 12-team playoff, but it’s already doing that.
Sankey envisioned a scenario in a 12-team format where, come November, at least 30 teams throughout the FBS would remain in playoff contention.
“That creates excitement and hope for college football that seemed enormously healthy,” Sankey said.
Alas, for the next four seasons, it’s not to be – not for lack of trying.
Sankey led the meeker conferences to water but couldn’t force them all to drink.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.