After decades of subjectivity deciding who was the best college football team in the country, followed by 16 years of the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series, the NCAA finally gave in and implemented a playoff system in 2014 to crown their national champion. The four-team playoff, know as the College Football Playoff (CFP), does not factor computer rankings or national polls into their selection process. Instead, a 13-member selection committee hand picks each of the four teams and seeds them accordingly.
The traditional bowl schedule goes on as usual, but now two of the six New Year’s Day bowl games will be used as playoff games. Last year, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl served that role, and in this year it will be the Cotton Bowl and the Orange Bowl that will be used as national semifinal games. When it comes down to it, the CFP is essentially nothing more than plus-one format.
While the inaugural CFP was undoubtedly an improvement over the BCS, it proved to be far from a perfect system for deciding major college football’s national champion. Two one-loss teams that both had CFP-worthy resumes, TCU and Baylor, were left out of the mix in large part due to the Big 12 not having a conference championship game. This made it painfully clear that there will almost always be at least one team that gets snubbed every year. And let’s not forget, it’s virtually impossible for a Cinderella team from a non-Power Five conference to earn one of the four coveted spots. However, the most-impactful result of the CFP may be the fact that it is going to make it extremely difficult for the Southeastern Conference to continue their run as the most dominant conference in the country.
In 2014, the SEC ended up with one representative, the Alabama Crimson Tide, in the CFP. At one point during the season, though, the SEC West alone had four teams – Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State – that had built solid CFP resumes. By the end of the year, however, the conference had cannibalized one another and the only team with a fighting shot at land a spot in the CFP heading into conference championship weekend was Alabama. This phenomenon is not going unnoticed, either.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t been shy about publically voicing his opinion that not only is the SEC at a disadvantage when compared to the other four Power Five conferences, but that the CFP needs to expand to eight teams as soon as possible. In his mind, an eight-team CFP would basically guarantee that the SEC would get two teams in the field every year. Here’s what the 49-year-old coach had to say when asked if the SEC was at a competitive disadvantage:
“Compared to everyone else? Yeah. Look at the SEC West. All of the teams are in the top 25. What other conference can say that? Then, if you win that, you’ve got to play another really good team from the East. And then you’re in the (playoff) semi, having to win two more games. That’s why I think it’s critical that we move to eight teams.”
Likewise, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel firmly believes that schools operating as independents should be required to join conferences if they wish to be included in the CFP. Pinkel was blatantly referring to Notre Dame, but his stance on the matter would also affect BYU and Army, as well. Here’s his direct quote on the subject:
“I think all independents should join a conference, as a general rule. I didn’t say Notre Dame in particular…everybody. You don’t have independents in the NFL. Leagues are leagues. I just think it’s difficult to assess a team that’s not in a league. It’s nothing against Notre Dame, it’s just my opinion. You have some people that don’t play championship games because now they only have 10 teams. I get that, but if down the road, you really want to do it right, I think, everybody’s in a league and everybody plays in a championship game, ideally.”
While it would be easy to sit here and pick apart both Malzahn and Pinkel’s arguments, we simply cannot argue that it will be extremely difficult for the SEC to ever land more than one team in the CFP with the current setup. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibilities that the strength of schedule for SEC teams could result in the conference being left out of the CFP altogether. When you factor the strength of schedule for the other four Power Five conferences into the equation, you can quickly understand the concern of Malzahn and Pinkel. Let’s face it; there are no teams like Indiana, Wake Forest, or Iowa State in the SEC. With that, there are no guarantees that we will see an SEC team in the CFP every single year, which means that we could realistically see the gap between the SEC and the rest of the country shrink more and more every year.