Bradley’s Buzz: With a 12-team playoff, will the SEC championship matter?

Alabama head coach Nick Saban (from left) looks on with MVP quarterback Bryce Young as Will Anderson and Phildarian Mathis lift the SEC Championship trophy after beating Georgia 41-24 on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Alabama head coach Nick Saban (from left) looks on with MVP quarterback Bryce Young as Will Anderson and Phildarian Mathis lift the SEC Championship trophy after beating Georgia 41-24 on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

From idea – Roy Kramer’s – to innovation to object of imitation: That’s the history of the SEC championship.

In 1992, Kramer’s conference tacked a title tilt onto its schedule, and soon other leagues wanted one of their own, even those that once scoffed at the concept. Getting to Atlanta, which became the game’s permanent home after two years in Birmingham, became the big deal in a conference that has long carried itself as the biggest of deals.

The 31st SEC championship pairs No. 1 Georgia (12-0) against No. 14 LSU (9-3). The game could wind up being a lollapalooza, but on paper it’s nothing special. The Bulldogs should win. If they don’t, they’ll still make the playoff. There have been years – in 2008 and 2009, when Alabama and Florida met, and in 2012, which yielded first Alabama-Georgia epic – when this game served as a de facto BCS semifinal. Now, though, we survey the landscape and wonder about its future.

On Thursday, the CFP announced its intention to triple in size. Come 2024, 12 teams will make the field. That will add two more tiers of games – the top four seeds get byes; the four Round 1 games will be played on campuses – and push the college schedule nearly into February. When Alabama and Georgia played here for the national championship in 2018, the game was on Jan. 8. The first final of the expanded playoff will be staged, also here, on Jan. 20.

Time was, a team didn’t just have to get to Atlanta to play for a national title. It had to win in Atlanta. Ask Phillip Fulmer, whose 2001 Tennessee Vols were bound for the BCS final until they tripped over the LSU of Nick Saban. Ask Mark Richt, whose 2012 Bulldogs were the second-best team in the land but, due to a four-point loss in the Georgia Dome, landed in the Citrus Bowl against Nebraska, ranked No. 23.

Then came the playoff, with its weekly rankings and its chairperson offering non-explanatory explanations. Come 2024, we’ll have the 12-team playoff, which guarantees three times the blather. This week’s CFP rankings number three SEC teams among the top 12. Two of those – No. 6 Alabama and No. 7 Tennessee – won’t be playing under the retractable roof.

Winning the SEC should always count for something: It Just Means More, right? It did not, however, mean much to Alabama in 2017, when the Tide won the national title after not winning the SEC West, or Georgia last year, when the Bulldogs won it all despite losing the SEC championship by 17 points. For once, Bama didn’t win the game that mattered.

The playoff is a fine thing. Let’s be clear about that. (Let’s also try to forget all those years when voters determined the national title.) The playoff has also rendered non-playoff bowls irrelevant. The CFP plans to hold its first set of quarterfinals in the Fiesta, Peach, Rose and Sugar Bowls. The semis will be in the Cotton and Orange. This still leaves 37 bowls, none of them necessary.

When Georgia took the 1980 national title, it played 12 games. In 2024 plus Januarye 2025, Georgia could play 17 games. The least essential could be the SEC championship. With so many games, wouldn’t being able to skip one become a prize unto itself?

Just as conference hoops tournaments are forgotten the moment the NCAA announces its field for March Madness, Power 5 football titles will pale alongside what comes next. The SEC dragged college football into an era when championships were decided – what a concept! – on the field. Maybe I’m catastrophizing, but I fear Atlanta’s annual Big Dance is about to get small.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and curated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d be obliged if you’d give it a try.

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