Could the SEC stage its own college football playoff? It's all on the table at spring meetings

Kirby Smart and Nick Saban are racking up top-five recruiting classes. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With all respect to the rapt attention that will be paid to the verbal donnybrook between Alabama's Nick Saban and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher, there are more pressing matters that will unfold when SEC officials meet in Destin, Fla., for their annual meetings next week.

With the SEC poised to expand to 16 teams when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2025, the way the league plots its future may also reverberate deeply through the future of college football and the entire collegiate landscape.

Sounds dramatic, right? Well, the SEC has delivered plenty of drama in the last calendar year -- on and off the field. And the way the SEC constructs its future will be felt by all leagues, as any SEC scheduling decision must take into consideration what the College Football Playoff will look like. And that's where things get interesting, as no one knows what that will look like after 2025.

One variable that shouldn't be underestimated is that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is still mad about the way the College Football Playoff expansion talks collapsed earlier this year. He's been openly vocal about his displeasure, and that's going to guide league decision making. There's been a general erosion of trust on the collegiate commissioner landscape since the chaotic COVID-19-addled summer of 2020.

"Whatever collegiality existed among those five commissioners appears to be gone," said a veteran collegiate official. "Sankey's in such a catbird seat right now."

The notion of the playoff expanding to 12 teams during the current contract was officially dashed in February, meaning a four-team playoff through the 2025 season. From there, uncertainty has increased about formats.

One idea certain to be discussed by SEC officials in Destin is the notion of the SEC creating, running and profiting from its own intra-SEC postseason. The most obvious model is an eight-team one, but there are others that will be discussed.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey stressed that no seismic change is imminent. But he did mention that an SEC-only playoff, in a variety of forms, was among the nearly 40 different models that SEC officials discussed at their fall meetings.

"As we think as a conference," he told ESPN on Monday, "it's vitally important we think about the range of possibilities."

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin echoed that notion to ESPN: "We have an incredibly strong league, one that will be even stronger once Oklahoma and Texas join. The focus should be on how we as a league use that strength to further position the SEC as we face new realities. Commissioner Sankey has encouraged our athletic directors to think creatively, and an SEC-only playoff is a different idea that we should absolutely consider an option."

What would that look like? We'll explore more later. But could we see an eight-team tournament that eventually faces the winner of some other group -- The Alliance? The Big Ten? The rest of the leagues playing in a different postseason? Or, perhaps they all get mad at the SEC and don't play their winner. We're in a world of hypotheticals on hypotheticals.

"We need to engage in blue-sky thinking, which is you detach from reality," Sankey told ESPN. "What are the full range of possibilities?"

Sankey is calculating. And he's made abundantly clear he wasn't pleased there was a lot of time, sweat equity and outreach to other leagues that was wasted when talks of expanding the playoff to 12 collapsed.

In Sankey's view, there was significant sacrifice that may not come around the next time there's talks. The SEC had two teams face off for the CFP championship last year and has won 12 of the last 16 national titles. The SEC's five different title-winning programs over that span -- Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Georgia -- are more than the rest of the sport's other three winners: Clemson (2), Florida State and Ohio State. It's not lost on Sankey where the leverage lies.

Right now, everything is on the table for the SEC. And it's a cloudy picture with no finite postseason future.

"Those unknowns are on our mind as we think about decision making down the road," Sankey said. "This is a fully dynamic environment. ... It's hard to understand where things will end up if you wait for this to play out.

"We wanted to be good be good collaborators. We think we gave up a lot ... what was viewed as a balanced approach given the up-front demands eventually feel apart. We also have the responsibility to think broadly about different possibilities. The SEC will continue to do so."

Here's what to look for in the SEC meetings next week and beyond:

The SEC scheduling model, which is expected to be heavily discussed in Destin and decided in the upcoming months, offers a window in the future of the sport. Prime among the topics will be how many league games the SEC teams play. (They are currently at eight, which has caused much griping from other leagues.)

Future scheduling formats are generally the type of wonky topic that fills beat reporters' notebooks during spring meetings. But this year, for the SEC and everyone else, there appears to be more at stake.

Oklahoma and Texas join the league in the final year of the current four-team playoff format, as the next CFP format -- whatever that will look like -- begins in 2026. And whatever the SEC decides is potentially tricky, when the size of the playoff is currently unknown past the 2025 season.

Sankey told ESPN that for now, "we'll be focused on more traditional scheduling models" as there needs to be some decisions made in the short term.

Sankey has made it clear that SEC teams seeing each other is the priority. "We have to put teams through campus with greater frequency," he said. "Once every 12 years is not a wise approach."

There are two favored scheduling models that are most likely for the SEC:

  • 1 and 7: If the SEC sticks with eight league games, this model would be best for the overall exposure and variety of league games, which Sankey values. (More Texas vs. Alabama and less of annual Georgia vs. Kentucky matchups.) Teams would get one rivalry game that's played every year -- think Auburn and Alabama or Oklahoma and Texas -- and then rotate through the other seven. The eight-game schedule would be better suited to the current four-team playoff system, as it allows for the customary cushy SEC non-league game late in the season. When there's a four-team playoff, there's little margin for error, and that could bring hesitation to play more league games and risk missing out on a CFP spot.

  • 3 and 6: If the SEC goes to a nine-game league scheduling format, this is the favored potential model. This involves each program having three teams that it plays every season. For example, it's thought that Georgia would play Auburn, Florida and South Carolina. It's not as restrictive and repetitive as pods and would still keep new programs rotating through SEC stadiums so it feels more like a league. (Georgia and Texas A&M have played just once, for example, since A&M joined the league in 2012.) The nine games would be better for the league and gladly embraced by TV partners, but it would be difficult if the College Football Playoff field remains narrow. (Saban has been vocal about wanting nine league games.)

There will be discussions about both pods and divisions, but those don't appear to have much traction as the other two models right now.

What could the SEC starting its own postseason look like?

This idea is in such infancy stages that no one really knows. But the scope of how it would impact the league, the bowl system and sport is significant. The only certainty is that it would likely generate a lot of television interest, as the inventory would be coveted.

How could an eight-team SEC-only postseason work? This is just spitballing, but basically when the season ends, there'd be an eight-team, seven-game format that would unfold over the span of about a month. There was also discussion this fall about a dynamic scheduling model that left a week or weeks open at the end of the season to play games to build toward the playoff.

Perhaps there's four divisions and each one has a winner. And then they face four wildcards? (Again, part of the reason this macro thinking is happening is because the league structure will inherently be designed around a postseason model.)

Another factor here if the SEC doubles down on itself is that the league could potentially play up to 10 conference games. That would significantly expand television inventory, appeal to the league's parochial pride and issue a blistering rebuttal to the CFP talks dissolving.

There'd have to be significant changes. The intra-SEC playoff could essentially move the SEC title game to the New Year's Day neighborhood. The weekend where the league typically plays the SEC title game -- Dec. 3 this year -- would host four games. Perhaps there's a week off before the next set?

What could it look like? From the 2021 SEC standings, the SEC Playoff could look like this. (Obviously, there likely wouldn't be East and West if this is ever created, but this is the easiest hypothetical.)

  • 1 East Georgia vs. 4 West Mississippi State

  • 2W Ole Miss vs. 3E Tennessee

  • 1W Alabama vs. 4E Missouri

  • 2E Kentucky vs. 3W Arkansas

With a 12-game regular season schedule, that would mean the teams facing off in the SEC title game would play 15 regular season games. If they played another league for the national title, that would mean 16 games. Alabama and Georgia both played 15 games this season.

If this allowed the SEC to both expand the amount of league games and create a new postseason, it would certainly be attractive to television. (ESPN has the league's rights exclusively for 10 years starting in 2024.)

It would be the ultimate gauntlet toss to the rest of the sport after Sankey felt burned by the three new commissioners who ultimately formed The Alliance and played a role in stalling the College Football Playoff expansion talks.

To stress, this is just an idea that will be discussed. But the possibilities and ripples are relentlessly interesting.

What would it all mean?

From the Supreme Court ruling in the Alston case that empowered the conferences to the widening financial gap between the SEC and Big Ten and the rest of the leagues, there are significant pressure points emerging.

Talk to enough smart people around the college sports landscape, and few think that in five years it will look similar to how it does now. The ACC and Pac-12 being so far behind financially is going to apply significant pressure on their brand-name programs like Clemson and USC. The ACC has a grant of rights that would present significant legal challenges to anyone attempting to leave before 2036. The Pac-12's contract and grant of rights are up after just two more football seasons.

While the Big Ten joined The Alliance to help calm the landscape, it will be interesting to see how long that lasts. Will pressure increase on the Big Ten to add members and attempt to keep up with the SEC? Could the SEC's next postseason exploration include more realignment ploys? Again, the Supreme Court has dictated that leagues can forge their own paths, accentuating the lack of leadership for decades from the NCAA. (Sankey was no fan of outgoing NCAA President Mark Emmert. But few were.)

If the SEC did create its own postseason -- or even took significant steps to plot it -- it could expedite the seismic change that market forces are portending. With the Big Ten on the cusp of a historic television deal expected to be announced in the next few months, it's only going to make financial inequities more pronounced to everyone not in the SEC.

It's so difficult to project the near future in college football and college athletics because there's so many potential options -- a breakaway, a football-only scenario, more seismic realignment or some type of structure dictated by Congress or more court rulings.

But the safest guideline for the near future is that the size and scope of the postseason is inevitably going to guide how leagues are structured. And with nothing certain about the future of the College Football Playoff beginning in 2026, the window for creativity has opened.