Despite his league winning 12 of the last 16 national championships, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said one of the most important components of an expanded 12-team College Football Playoff would be helping the sport not to be so regionalized.
“My view is how do you bring more people into November, including in our league,” Sankey told ESPN. “Our league would be fine, even at 16 teams with a four-team playoff. At 14, we’ve taken half the field a couple of times. Nobody else has done that. When we go to 16 and add Texas and Oklahoma, we’re not going to have less opportunity by adding those two. We’re going to have more.
“But we’ve excluded the West Coast and everything west of the Rockies for all but two years. We want college football to be strong nationally, and I think that’s the responsibility we all have.”
Sankey was a member of the College Football Playoff working group, and after another wave of realignment in August that included USC and UCLA moving from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten, there’s a renewed push to expedite the proposed 12-team playoff to the 2024 season. Currently, the four-team format remains in place through the end of the 12-year television contract that runs through the 2025 season.
Since the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014, Oregon (2014) and Washington (2017) are the only two Pac-12 teams to make the playoff. By contrast, at least one SEC team has appeared in all eight playoffs. Alabama and Georgia have faced off in the championship game two different times — 2017 with Alabama winning 26-23 in overtime and last season with Georgia winning 33-18.
“I’m fine if we win the championship every year, but we have a responsibility to think about the game from a bigger picture,” Sankey said. “I want to win and am not going to apologize for that, but I’m also going to challenge myself and us collectively to think about the big picture.”
Sankey acknowledged that expanding the field doesn’t necessarily mean that more teams will win championships. During the CFP era, Alabama has won three titles, Clemson two titles, Georgia one title, LSU one title and Ohio State one title.
“But the beauty of going to 12 is you could have as many as 40 teams with a chance to get into the playoff entering November,” Sankey said.
Sankey said the main obstacles in moving up expansion to 2024 remain lining up bowl dates, campus involvement, interaction of TV networks and not bumping up against the NFL and not extending the playoff too far into January. He remains frustrated that the current 12-team proposal is the same one that was first revealed in June 2021 but opposed by the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12.
“The unfortunate piece to me is that rather than walk through these issues for the past year, people just said, ‘No,’ so now we’re trying to move it along,” Sankey said.
“All of a sudden, things changed magically. I still think it’s doable, but people have to come to the table.”
Asked if he were more confident than he was a year ago that playoff expansion could be expedited, Sankey joked, “After the last year, I don’t use the word ‘confident’ a lot.”
Sankey stressed that the SEC has been on board with expansion the whole time.
“Go back to 2019 in Santa Clara (site of the national title game to cap the 2018 season), the presidents said they were going to control the decision, but you had clamoring from every corner but ours about expansion, either at the commissioner or presidential level on the board, every corner of the football universe but ours,” Sankey said. “So we worked through a process, understanding people wanted expansion, and then you’re told to present a model as a working group. We did exactly what was asked and tried not to get into, ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do that.'”
And, now — after an overhauling of the college football landscape with expansion in the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC — the sport is right back to that same model, which includes the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams.
“I guess motivation changed over the summer,” Sankey said.
Sankey said the SEC would be fine with what he called “no conference-directed access” to the playoff, but also understands the value of conference championships and was willing to compromise.
“If you’re the sixth best conference or seventh best conference and it’s close and you’ve got three or four teams vying for a championship in each, that’s all of a sudden 20 teams that have an opportunity, which is good for the sport,” Sankey said.
Sankey said former Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey was the first person to mention to him that 12 teams was the right number when they spoke at a Gator Bowl Hall of Fame function in January 2020.
“We had not even met yet as a sub group, and Doug calls me over and says, ‘Hey, it needs to be 12 teams,'” Sankey recounted. “I was shocked because I hadn’t told people I thought 12 teams was the number, the right structure. Not everybody is going to agree, but Doug kind of reaffirmed what I was thinking, that we needed to think beyond some of what was out there, which was six or eight teams at that point.”