An SEC-only playoff? Probably won’t happen, but it could

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey officially announces during Tuesday’s news conference at the College Football Hall of Fame that a 10-year deal has been reached to play the SEC Championship game in new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, starting in 2017. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

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SEC commissioner Greg Sankey officially announces during Tuesday’s news conference at the College Football Hall of Fame that a 10-year deal has been reached to play the SEC Championship game in new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, starting in 2017. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

ESPN’s Pete Thamel reports that next week’s SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., could see the conference discuss the possibility of a playoff including only SEC teams. Nothing figures to happen anytime soon. It’s possible nothing will happen at all. Still, the league where It Just Means More has grown impatient with conferences where football presumably means less.

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In February, the Power 5 leagues plus the Group of 5 plus Notre Dame held a vote regarding expanding the College Football Playoff from four participants to 12. The SEC had, as usual, taken the lead in the attempt to go bigger. The vote was 8-3 in favor of expansion. For expansion to happen, a unanimous vote was required.

The three conferences voting nay were the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, which have formed something called the Alliance. Said ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, speaking with ESPN’s Heather Dinich: “We have sufficient concerns surrounding a proposed expansion model, though we’d be supportive once and if these concerns are addressed.”

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The SEC, meaning commissioner Greg Sankey, wasn’t pleased. He told SI.com’s Ross Dellenger: “The outcome hasn’t been a healthy representation of decision-making.”

Loose translation: “I’m tired of working with morons.”

Go back to the summer of 2020. Owing to COVID-19, the Big Ten and its little buddy the Pac-12 announced they wouldn’t be playing football in the fall. The ACC and the Big 12 waited to see what the SEC would do. Even at surge moments when staging a football game seemed impossible, the SEC was determined to play.

Through force of will, Sankey herded his 14 member schools into a 10-game conference-only schedule, which marked a snub of the ACC, which the day before had revealed it was planning an 11-game schedule with room for one out-of-conference game – Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, or Florida vs. Florida State, or South Carolina vs. Clemson. This was the SEC’s way of saying: We don’t need anybody else.

In the months since, that feeling has only grown. After the proposed expansion was tabled in February, Sankey told Dellenger: “I’ve got five teams in eight years that have won (national) championships – three different teams in the past three years. So we’re fine.”

As reported by Nubyjas Wilborn of AL.com, Sankey appeared at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham this month and said: “I don’t think people heard me when I said we are fine with it staying at four … That’s not healthy for the rest of college football, but we can stay at four.”

Speaking with Thamel, Sankey said: “As we think as a conference, it’s vitally important that we think about the range of possibilities … We need to engage in blue-sky thinking, which is (when) you detach from reality.”

The CFP’s contract runs through 2025. Texas and Oklahoma will be part of the SEC by 2025. That would leave the SEC with four programs that have graced the playoff over its first eight seasons, three of which have won it. With the transfer portal in full operation and NIL money becoming the coin of the realm and the NCAA falling to pieces, the ACC’s Phillips suggested at his conference’s spring meetings that the oversight of the biggest college sport could be assumed by the CFP.

Back to 2020. Some SEC bigwigs were furious that the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their seasons so soon. (Both would renege on those retreats.) In early August, it wasn’t clear if any league would follow the SEC in trying to play through a pandemic. By that point, the SEC didn’t care. One athletic director said that if the last game of the college season was the SEC Championship game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, that’d be fine.

What we’re hearing now is the SEC reminding us that it’s the only league that matters. Say the conference, come 2026, opted to stage an eight-team intraleague playoff: It could include Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn and Florida. It wouldn’t be an all-encompassing field of football excellence, but even if they banded together, the other four Power 5 leagues couldn’t match it.

College football is changing at warp speed. The SEC wants to move with its times. The past few years have emboldened the league that didn’t need emboldening. It needs no wingmen. It can go wherever it pleases. Technically, there’s a Power 5. In reality, the SEC stands alone.