A 12-team Playoff by 2023? A few SEC contenders would have better schedules for that than others
If the 12-team Playoff era begins in 2023, a handful of SEC athletic directors have some phone calls to make in the near future.
That proposed system doesn’t have automatic bids for conference champions. Instead, it calls for the 12-team bracket to include the 6 highest-ranked conference champions and the 6 highest-ranked non-conference champions, as determined by the selection committee. The top 4 seeds get byes, but they can only go to the highest-ranked conference champions.
Hence, there’s still a significant emphasis on winning the conference title. The proposed system would basically protect against a 7-5 Power 5 team who sneaks into the conference title game and wins it from making the Playoff on a technicality.
There’s an extremely, extremely unlikely chance that an SEC conference champ wouldn’t be one of the 6 highest-ranked conference champs. Of the 21 SEC Championships played in the 21st century, 19 of them produced winners who went into Atlanta as a top-7 team. Even when No. 21 LSU stunned No. 2 Tennessee back in 2001, the Tigers still shot up to No. 13 in the pre-bowl BCS polls, which would’ve made them the 6th-highest ranked conference champion that year.
What else does that mean, though? It means nonconference scheduling is about to get beefed up.
In a 12-team field, there would be a greater margin for error. No longer would the field be reduced to the top 1-loss or unbeaten teams with the rare exception of a potential 2-loss team (a 2-loss team has still yet to make the 4-team Playoff). There’s no doubt that the proposed model would have 2- and 3-losses teams who make the cut, which means there’s more to gain than lose by being the team who schedules competitively in nonconference play.
Some SEC teams already appear ready for that, and some are going to have to hop on the phone and make some moves.
Let’s start with the SEC contenders’ schedules for 2023. And for what it’s worth, a “contender” is simply an SEC program that either won a division title OR posted a top-10 finish in the Associated Press Top 25 in the past 4 years.
Looking at that, there are a few takeaways.
Alabama is in an ideal spot. That Texas matchup will draw plenty of Playoff eyes, and not listed in that graphic is a true road game at USF. Plus, with 2 open dates, the Tide could theoretically fill those 2 slots with other Power 5 teams (I’ll get to why those options aren’t plentiful in a bit). Playing 11 Power 5 teams in a season is going to become much more common in the 2020s, and there are already SEC teams like Florida and Georgia that have that locked in.
Speaking of Florida and Georgia, the Gators can also stand pat for 2023.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin was smart to add that series with Utah in the midst of his scheduling rampage back in 2019. Traveling outside the region to play a respected team like Utah, especially for a program who rarely ever leaves the state for nonconference play, will boost Florida’s résumé. Add that in with the annual matchups vs. Florida State, Georgia and LSU, and the Gators should be in a nice spot for 2023.
Georgia is in similarly favorable territory having already lined up the 2 Power 5 nonconference games. A trip to Norman will be billed as one of the top games of the 2023 season. That’ll be a prime opportunity for Georgia to potentially have a monumental nonconference victory with multiple losses to spare in conference play. Add in the Georgia Tech game and that’s 10 Power 5 opponents on the slate before a potential SEC Championship.
That brings us to Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. If I’m the athletic director for any one of those teams, I’m hopping on the phone the second the 12-team Playoff is locked in, and maybe even before then.
Auburn deserves credit for traveling to Cal in nonconference play. That game won’t be treated like the 2021 trip to Penn State, though. Games against UMass and New Mexico State won’t do anything to help the Playoff résumé, but there is 1 available spot. If Auburn athletic director Allen Greene can get that 10th Power 5 opponent on there, that nonconference slate won’t be seen as a negative the way it probably is now.
LSU’s nonconference slate is stuck in the 2010s. A neutral-site matchup against Florida State is no guarantee to turn heads. Ask 2017 Alabama about that. The problem is that the Tigers don’t have any slots available, either. The rest of the nonconference slate is filled by FCS Grambling State, Group of 5 Georgia State and service academy Army. LSU athletic director Scott Woodward would have to find a way out of one of those matchups in order to add that 10th Power 5 foe.
The same is true of A&M, which at least has that road game at contending Miami, but is still looking at only 9 Power 5 matchups with 3 games against 2 bottom-tier FBS opponents and FCS Abilene Christian. Even if there was an available slot (there currently isn’t), A&M athletic director Ross Bjork might not have a ton of people he could call. That is, unless we start seeing Power 5 contenders start ripping up FCS and Group of 5 contracts.
Here’s the list of non-SEC Power 5 teams with available slots in 2023 (via FBSSchedules.com):
- Georgia Tech, 1
- Miami, 1
- Pitt, 1
- Kansas, 1
- Northwestern, 1
- Washington, 1
That’s not exactly a deep list of squads who could potentially be open to Power 5 matchups. And perhaps some of those teams don’t have any interest in adding another Power 5 game, or it wouldn’t line up with the amount of home games they need in a season.
By the way, did you notice that Alabama is the only Power 5 team in America with 2 open nonconference slots for 2023? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Nick Saban was ahead of the curve on the neutral-site trend of the 2010s, and it appears he’s ahead of the curve on the loaded nonconference home-and-home trend of the 2020s.
Beginning in 2023, we could see Alabama play 2 Power 5 teams in nonconference play on an annual basis. That’s already locked in for 2025-30, and there’s room to pivot in both 2023 (2 slots available) and 2024 (1 slot available), which currently have 1 Power 5 nonconference foe.
If we’re forecasting who is set up the best with quality scheduling in the next decade, it’s Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Here’s how many Power 5 nonconference foes Florida has beginning next year through 2032:
- 2022 — 2 (vs. Utah, at FSU)
- 2023 — 2 (at Utah, vs. FSU)
- 2024 — 2 (vs. Miami, at FSU)
- 2025 — 2 (at Miami, vs. FSU)
- 2026 — 3 (at NC State, vs. Cal, at FSU)
- 2027 — 2 (at Cal, vs. FSU)
- 2028 — 3 (vs. Colorado, at Arizona State, at FSU)
- 2029 — 2 (at Colorado, vs. FSU)
- 2030 — 2 (vs. Texas, at FSU)
- 2031 — 4 (at Texas, vs. Arizona State, at Notre Dame, vs. FSU)
- 2032 — 3 (vs. Notre Dame, vs. NC State, at FSU)
Sign me up for 2031. The Gators could simply split in nonconference play that year and still be in a nice spot to make the Playoff as the team who didn’t schedule a single Group of 5 or FCS matchup.
Georgia’s future schedule is just as good. It doesn’t have an all-Power 5 nonconference year yet, but starting in 2026 — when the current 4-team Playoff contract is set to expire — Georgia will face at least 3 Power 5 teams in nonconference play for the next 6 years. And the Dawgs deserve credit for repeatedly playing multiple Power 5 nonconference foes throughout the 4-team Playoff era (they’re the only SEC team doing that in 2021).
Compare that to Auburn, LSU and A&M. None of them have a single year in which they already locked in multiple Power 5 matchups in nonconference play. They’re still treating scheduling like it’s the 2010s.
Perhaps Tuesday’s report will change that. Maybe athletic directors will get that sense of urgency to have a scheduling splurge like Stricklin did a couple years ago. Granted, it was a smart one, and one that appears to have been done with expansion in mind.
Expansion is inevitable. And if that number is indeed 12, one would think the phone lines will be buzzin’ soon.