Georgia’s Kirby Smart unmoved by playoff expansion

ATHENS — Under coach Kirby Smart, Georgia figures to be a factor in the College Football Playoff going forward, no matter its current or future format. For now, at least, we know it’s expanding to 12 teams no later than the 2026 season. That was decided by unanimous vote Friday by the CFP’s board of managers.

Smart had been hesitant to share his feelings about an expanded playoff in the past. However, like most SEC coaches, his comments indicated that he favored it.

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Now that a 12-team playoff is a done deal, Smart was asked about it Monday at his weekly news conference.

“I’m hesitant to say that I supported (expansion),” Smart said. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve been clearly in one camp over the other. I think there’s some good and bad to both. And I don’t think we know the repercussions of going to 12 over four. There’s been some good things about four. There’s probably some good things about 12. It’s just everybody loves change. It’s on a continuum.”

If the powers that be have their way, expansion will happen sooner rather than later. FBS conference commissioners are meeting in Dallas on Thursday to discuss how they might be able to make it happen as soon as 2024. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey will be among the 10 FBS commissioners, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick also will be involved in that initial brainstorming session.

Sankey will arrive motivated and skeptical.

“It won’t be easy,” Sankey said Saturday as he awaited the Georgia-Oregon kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “But as we’ve seen, minds change, motivations change. There’s a bunch of moving parts. That’s where I wish we could have used the last nine months to work out the details. We’ll have to accelerate our consideration to make it happen.”

Sankey has remained the nation’s leading proponent of expansion since last year when the SEC added Oklahoma and Texas to the conference’s future roster. But also last year, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 formed an ill-fated alliance that initially opposed expansion. At least some of the opposition was over the conference-representation limits. In short, they feared too many SEC teams getting in annually.

Now all three of those leagues are on board. The new format calls for the six highest-ranked conference champions to receive automatic bids, followed by the selection of six at-large teams.

Of even more urgency to the SEC now is getting Oklahoma and Texas into the league. Currently they’re contractually obligated to remain in the Big 12 until July 2025. But 2023 or 2024 remains the goal for their move to the SEC.

Whenever those teams are officially added, the SEC is expected to increase its conference schedule from eight to nine games. That, in turn, is expected to decrease the number of “gimme games” that its teams can schedule, such as Saturday when FCS-member Samford visits Georgia. The Bulldogs, who are favored by 52 points, are paying the Southern Conference program $500,000 to come play.

Smart insists such games are extremely important not just to the bottom line of the schools that play in the lower divisions but for the overall good of the game of football.

“Look, high schools are our feeder programs, just like we are for the NFL,” Smart said. “And if you’re going to have good high school programs, you’ve got to have opportunities for kids to play at all levels. There are a lot more kids playing at a non-Power Five level than at the Power Five level. So, if you’re a supplier of talent, and the growth of the game comes from your youth sports and your high school sports, you’re going to diminish that as these programs fade away. And some of these programs cannot, cannot survive without these games.

“That doesn’t mean that I embrace them and love them. It just means that these programs can’t survive without this kind of funding (from) these games.”

Thanks to the newly expanded playoff, the Power Five – or Autonomous 5 as the CFP board prefers to call it – has never been further apart from the lower divisions. Even smaller FBS programs are getting pushed to the side in the current rush to realign and reconfigure.

Two to four super conferences is the predicted model of the future. Based on TV contracts and recent membership additions, only the SEC and Big Ten are assured of eating at that table.

That’s only one reason Smart isn’t overly excited about the recent CFP expansion news.

“It’s, like, there will be somebody complaining about 12 (teams),” he said. “So, I don’t really get into whether or not it’s going to be beneficial for us or not, because I think it’s year to year on what kind of team you have and how the other teams do in the country.”

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