Ever since Greg Sankey became commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, “it just means more” has been the motto and mantra the league has lived by.
This past Sunday, that statement…er…meant just a little bit more, as two teams from the SEC made the College Football Playoff, the first time the committee has slotted two teams from the same conference in its final four. Obviously, this decision is huge for the folks in the SEC office in Birmingham, and the excitement is high for a league that genuinely felt like it would only see one team in the field. When I was around the SEC staff in Atlanta for the SEC Championship game, people felt like it was longshot to get both Alabama and the winner of Georgia/Auburn in the field. After the announcement, there’s a shared sentiment that the committee made the correct call.
“Honestly, I did not,” said one conference staff member when I asked if he thought that two teams from the league would make the playoff. “It was a tough decision for the committee, but being tasked with choosing the best four teams in the country, in my unbiased opinion, they got it right.” A former Power Five athletic director I spoke to Monday agreed, saying, “[I’m] proud of the committee for sticking to its principles of choosing the four best teams in their evaluations.” Claude Felton, a senior associate athletic director at the University of Georgia, wasn’t as stunned as most of the country was about the decision of the Crimson Tide over the Buckeyes. “I’m sure you could make an argument either way, but I was not totally surprised that Alabama got the final spot,” he told me over the phone. Former Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, who was instrumental in the structuring of the College Football Playoff, said that a rousing cheer came from his household Sunday when the four teams were announced. “I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled that we were able to get two teams in. It wouldn’t matter to me which teams so much, just the fact that a second team got in.”
The dollar figures are huge for the league, according to a Forbes article published early in 2017. “Conferences…receive $6 million for each team that is selected for a semifinal game. Conferences receive $4 million for each team that reaches a non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl game. On top of that, each conference whose team participates in a playoff semifinal or national championship game will receive $2.16 million to cover expenses for each game.”
That means the league will tally up $12 million dollars with Georgia and Alabama in the CFP, plus an additional $4 million for Auburn’s berth in the Peach Bowl. Adding in the expenses for both semifinals, the conference is receiving $21.2 million dollars for the committee’s decision on Sunday. While $4.32 million of that will be spent on the conference’s costs at both semifinals, the rest of the money will go out to each member institution. “Whatever dollars that are earned by virtue of the College Football Playoff is then distributed out…fundamentally, the SEC shares equally all of its revenues.” Slive explained to me over the phone. “The basic premise is that we’re all in this together and everybody makes a contribution in their own way so we share equally.” Slive also pointed out that, while the money is shared equally, the teams in certain bowls will get a heavier share from the game in which they play. So, no matter how you slice it, that’s still a paycheck considerably bigger than any other league is receiving, especially the semifinal-excluded Big Ten and Pac-12.
From a purely logistical standpoint, Mike Slive further explained some of the measures that the selection committee is instructed to use based on the formula that the commissioners created for the Playoff. “When the commissioners put together the College Football Playoff…one area of discussion was the criteria for picking the teams and, after a lot of discussion, it was decided that it was the four best teams. That means without preconditions.”
Slive pointed out that one of those prerequisites, conference affiliation, was noted but never explicitly considered by the various commissioners. “If you have the four best teams without preconditions, then the inference [is] conference affiliation would not disadvantage a team if it was one of the four best. That’s the way to think about it. Not so much for a conference perspective, but from the perspective of the committee trying to pick the four best teams without conditions.” That explanation sheds light on the muted reaction from Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. On ESPN’s Rankings Reveal Show, Delany expressed his disappointed at the exclusion of Ohio State, but never called into question the Playoff itself, as many anticipated. Why? Probably because Delany was one of the figures instrumental in making the current format.
Slive doesn’t think this year’s playoff field will stir the expansion waters that many media members have been swimming in this season either. “Again, if the premise is the four best teams, one could argue, ‘Is Alabama one of the four best teams,’ and the committee said it was, then if that’s the criteria, I don’t see this particular selection spurring an expansion of the college football playoff.”
What this decision really builds is the pride that the Southeastern Conference has for its football teams. “It’s a tremendous boost, particularly after all the conversation about the SEC not being the same kind of football league that it’s been in the past,” Slive explained. “The fact that there are three teams, two teams in the semifinals and a third highly-ranked team in the group of six bowls, was a nice response by the conference to the naysayers.” The conference office staff member I spoke with agreed, saying, “this without question speaks to the strength and the competitiveness of the SEC.” Felton called it a “point of pride” for the SEC, explaining, “From our standpoint (Georgia) and from most every standpoint around our league, [the SEC] is the best league in the country. So, if it’s the best league in the country, you would expect that we might be the first one to have two teams that were of significant quality to be selected.”
Slive thinks that having two teams in the playoff should be a wake-up call for those claiming that the league is down. “I think it at least puts up a yellow caution light to those people that who continue to downplay the SEC.” And for those claiming #SECBias? Well, they’ll just have to wait and see if the SEC was over-hyped this season, or if the league actually houses two of the best teams in the country. “Objectively, if you are of the opinion that the SEC is the best league, then it would not be surprising to have two in the championship game,” said Felton. “No matter who you are, what team you are, a lot of things have to go right for any team to get to this point. It’s just a tremendous compliment to the league to have two teams in the position that they’re in.”
While the nation itself may not be sold on the thought of two teams from the same conference making the fourth edition of the College Football Playoff, folks in SEC Country are taking it in stride.
Said an SEC staff member, “The committee showed the ability to think out the box.” Slive is just thrilled that an SEC team is in the Sugar Bowl now, as he was planning on attending the game anyway with his family to honor some friends on the Sugar Bowl committee. “Now, when we go to the Sugar Bowl, instead of being neutral like we would’ve been had there been no SEC team, we can be a part of the cheering throng when we go there.” For the SEC to be the first conference with two teams included in the bracket, it really does just mean more. Now, we’ll have to wait until New Year’s Day to see if Georgia and Alabama truly belong.