With the four-team College Football Playoff beginning after the 2014 regular season, one of the biggest storylines will be how many SEC teams get into the bracket. The conference has dominated the national landscape of late, winning seven straight national titles before Florida State snapped that string in January.
A quick glance at the latest Associated Press poll shows that four of the top five teams in the country reside not just in the same league, but in the same division. In all, Mike Slive’s conference has five representatives among the first nine ranked teams: No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, and No. 9 Georgia. Yes, the SEC West is absolutely loaded, and although it’s been widely assumed that the conference would get one and probably two teams in the playoff, it’s time to start thinking past that. Is it possible that the SEC could put three teams into the tournament? Or what about, heaven forbid, all four?
While most college football fans would immediately laugh at the notion of an SEC monopoly on this year’s playoff, it’s not really as farfetched a scenario as you might think. Here is one possible recipe, in eight easy steps, that could result in that exact unprecedented situation. We’ll throw in the obvious disclaimer that, should this even come close to unfolding, there would be an enormous amount of political pressure from everywhere except the south to get at least one outsider into the bracket, and no one knows how the committee would respond to that. But this is at least one way an all-SEC playoff could theoretically happen.
1. Three SEC West teams finish the regular season 11-1
It doesn’t matter how strong the SEC West is or isn’t: Those teams won’t all be able to keep such pristine records because the schools aren’t done playing each other yet. With the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, most notably, still to come, there’s a good chance that Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss will spend the next month and a half knocking each other out. But, for the sake of argument, it is possible to have three of the four schools finish the year with identical 11-1 records. For example, if one-loss Auburn wins out, currently undefeated Ole Miss only loses to Auburn, and currently unbeaten Mississippi State only slips up against Ole Miss, there would be a three-way logjam of 11-1 (7-1 in the conference) teams at the top of the West standings when the regular season wraps up Thanksgiving weekend.
2. No. 9 Georgia runs the table and beats an SEC West team in a classic championship game
Even though the SEC East appears to be the weaker of the two divisions, if Georgia were to run the table and beat whichever West team wins the tiebreaker in the SEC championship game, the 12-1 Bulldogs would be a shoo-in for the first College Football Playoff. The SEC will be hoping for a thrilling ‘Game of the Century’-type battle that comes down to the final play in this scenario. Overtime wouldn’t hurt. That would leave Georgia at 12-1, the other title game participant at 11-2 — let’s just say it’s Auburn to make things simple — and then Ole Miss and Mississippi State would both own identical 11-1 records.
3. There are no unbeaten teams in the country after the regular season
There are only four undefeated FBS teams currently left in the country, and two of them reside in the SEC (and more specifically, in the state of Mississippi). So while this part of the scenario may have seemed much more unlikely even a few weeks ago, as long as Florida State and Marshall falter in the season’s second half, we can continue moving right down our checklist.
4. The Big Ten champion is unimpressive, with at least two losses
The Big Ten only has three ranked teams in this week’s poll, led by No. 8 Michigan State. The Spartans will host No. 13 Ohio State in a highly anticipated showdown on November 8 that will likely determine one of the two participants in the B1G title game. With no undefeated teams remaining in the conference, the MSU-OSU winner slipping up in Indianapolis in December would go a long way toward the SEC’s dreams of world domination (Nebraska and Minnesota are the only other Big Ten teams with less than two losses, and they still have to play each other).
5. The Big 12 champion is unimpressive, with at least two losses
Every team in the Big 12 has already suffered at least two defeats with the exception of one-loss TCU, one-loss Kansas State, and one-loss Baylor. The SEC would need each of those three programs (currently ranked No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12 in the nation, respectively) to drop at least one more game, a cause helped by the fact that Kansas State still has to play TCU in November and Baylor in December. It helps the Big 12 not to have a conference title game, which would be one more obstacle for whatever team comes out on top, but still, it’s not unimaginable that the league ends up completely out of national championship contention assuming the Bears, Wildcats, or Horned Frogs don’t absolutely dominate in winning out.
6. The Pac-12 champion is unimpressive, with at least two losses
Of all the outside races the SEC can’t control, the standings out West pose one of the more severe threats to an all-SEC tournament in January. The Pac-12 has five of the top 20 teams in the land, led by No. 6 Oregon. The Ducks will need to drop at least one game and the teams in the Pac-12 South that haven’t lost a second time yet (Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah) beat each other up a bit. Expect plenty of television sets in the southeast to be tuned to the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night, December 5.
7. The ACC champion is unimpressive, with at least two losses
No non-SEC team looks like more of a lock for a playoff berth right now than Florida State, as the Seminoles have won 23 games in a row after a thrilling victory over then-No. 5 Notre Dame Saturday night. The good news for the SEC here is that Duke is the only other ACC team that hasn’t lost twice yet, so if the ‘Noles falter, there’s at least a chance. At this point, there’s no reason to assume Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston will miss any more games, but with all of the off-field headlines swirling in Tallahassee, never say never. Best-case scenario for SEC fans: FSU stubs a toe at Louisville or Miami in the next few weeks and then gets upset in the ACC title game.
8. Notre Dame is unimpressive, with at least two losses
The Fighting Irish are halfway there after losing at FSU, but, in good news for the Golden Domers, Brian Kelly’s team was at least respectable in defeat. The schedule down the stretch could be difficult for Notre Dame, though, with trips to Arizona State and USC still looming as possibilities for an all-important second loss.
Bottom line: We’re not by any means going to predict that all eight of these things are definitely going to happen — but in theory, they could. While we shouldn’t dismiss the chances of a two-loss Florida State or two-loss Notre Dame to get in the bracket (especially after Saturday night’s thriller), if the committee’s decision ultimately came down to an 11-2 Auburn against an 11-1 Marshall, an 11-1 Ole Miss versus a 10-2 Baylor, or an 11-1 Mississippi State against an 11-2 Michigan State for the final spots in the playoff, what a debate it would be. College football already seems to be divided into the SEC and then everyone else — imagine the reaction to a college football playoff that looked an awful lot like the SEC version of a Final Four. Probably won’t happen, we’ll give you that … but then again, it could.