First and 10: Thanks to Alabama, expanded Playoff is coming
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Let’s start with the absolute lock of the week: Alabama is in the College Football Playoff no matter what happens in the SEC Championship Game.
When the CFP committee announces its weekly rankings Tuesday, the talk will eventually move to Alabama’s bulletproof standing in the race for the four coveted spots.
And that’s the last thing the SEC wants.
The championship game that fueled the league’s rise from a regional power to a national behemoth, the game that Roy Kramer built and Mike Slive energized and Greg Sankey adores, is on the verge of succumbing – like everything else in college football — to big, bad Bama.
Now, the good news: This could lead to true expansion of the Playoff.
Not 6 teams or 8 teams, but a legitimate 16-team playoff with all the trimmings: home games for higher seeds, bowl games in the semifinal rounds and a stand-alone national championship game (more on that later).
Basically, untapped billions in revenue.
Why aren’t we there now, you ask? The SEC Championship Game.
When the late, great Slive was commissioner, he promised the league’s university presidents that the championship game would never be a negotiating tool in any Playoff talk. The SEC would take its ball and go home before giving it up.
Sankey has adopted the same policy, and in the next round of television negotiations will likely sell the championship game to the highest bidder as a stand-alone event. At least, that’s the plan.
Now Alabama is on the verge of ruining that, too.
Because the more Alabama wins, the more it minimizes what had annually become the most anticipated game of the regular season. One industry source told me four years ago, at the start of the CFP, the SEC Championship Game could have been sold as a stand-alone event for the same amount of money ESPN paid for the Rose Bowl.
Think about that.
This one of a kind event, this Southern Super Bowl – a game every conference has tried and failed to duplicate the energy and passion (and ticket sales) – had as much brand power as the Grandaddy Of Them All.
Now look: The SEC is desperate for Georgia to beat Alabama this weekend to keep that hope alive. This is all about long-term gain (and it helps that Alabama is a lock for the CFP, anyway).
If Alabama wins, the SEC Championship Game loses – and we get one step closer to an expanded Playoff.
If Alabama loses, the SEC Championship Game stays afloat and the SEC gets two teams in the CFP – even if, like last year, Alabama’s win over Georgia in the national championship game minimized the SEC Championship Game.
If Alabama wins or loses and (as expected) rolls through the rest of the CFP field, it will get harder and harder for the SEC to keep its golden egg of a property afloat.
There is no expansion of the CFP without the end of the championship games. Every other conference would likely part with championship games that either lose money or damage postseason chances.
The only way the SEC does so is if it’s no longer fiscally smart.
If the conference can no longer afford to take its ball and go home.
2. Money matters
The obvious next question: At what point does it become fiscally irresponsible for the SEC to keep its championship game?
When Amazon enters the world of media rights negotiations.
The world’s most successful company (it’s not even a question now) is reportedly interested in buying 22 regional sports networks that Fox is offloading as part of its sale to the Walt Disney Company (which owns ESPN, which owns a majority of college football).
The idea goes something like this: Amazon wants its foot in the world of sports media rights as a way to expand its reach of Amazon Prime, an annual program that costs from $119 a year and includes streaming video. The 22 regional sports networks air games and content from 44 teams in the NBA, MLB and NHL.
Amazon then adds the 22 regional networks to its Prime package as an a la carte item, and those who want those networks will pay a premium to see them and the games/content. That, in turn, will put more eyes on Amazon and lead to revenue generation in other business platforms.
Amazon currently has about 95 million Prime subscriptions. ESPN currently has 80-85 million subscribers.
See where this is headed?
If Amazon sees success with the 22 regional networks, what’s to stop the most successful company on the planet from going after the two most successful sports properties in the United States: the NFL and college football?
Wait, it gets better. Much like the halcyon days of a decade ago when ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC pushed media rights to exorbitant numbers, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming companies can’t sit by and watch Amazon monopolize the market.
Guess who wins there? The Playoff.
So rejoice, Playoff fans. Your day is coming.
But it will eventually arrive – like it or not – at the expense of a glorious championship game that built a dominant league.
3. The death of the championship games, The Epilogue
I used to think there was a way to keep the championship games and simply add two – and at the most four – more teams to the Playoff.
That’s a pipe dream now.
“The door is open, and everyone sees the beautifully renovated new house,” one SEC athletic director told me last week. “And that the new house is way undervalued.”
If you’re expanding the most important aspect of your sport – if Amazon or any current rights holder (ESPN, CBS, Fox) is paying billions for it — you’re not doing it piecemeal.
You’ve tried 4, and it has been a smashing success. Yet everyone wants more.
So now, it’s time to dive in the deep end: 16 teams, first round and quarterfinal home games, semifinal bowl games, stand-alone championship game.
The conference championship games are gone, everyone still plays a 12-game schedule and conferences still crown champions – but the committee chooses the 16 best teams.
Using last week’s CFP rankings, here’s what the first round of a 16-team field would look like:
(16) Washington at (1) Alabama
(15) Kentucky at (2) Clemson
(14) Texas at (3) Notre Dame
(13) West Virginia at (4) Michigan
(12) Penn State at (5) Georgia
(11) Florida at (6) Oklahoma
(10) Ohio State at (7) LSU
(9) UCF at (8) Washington State.
The most games any team can play is 16, one more than the current max. The first round is played this week (when conference championships would be played), and the quarterfinal round a week later.
The remainder of the tournament is played exactly how the current 4-team playoff is set: semifinals at bowl games, championship game a stand-alone event.
For those who proclaim a Playoff will intrude on academics: the FCS began a 24-team tournament last weekend, and graduation rates at FCS schools are 1-2 percentage points lower than FBS schools.
4. The other quarterback in Atlanta
We all know what Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has meant to the Alabama offense. Just as important – with much less fanfare – has been the play of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm over the last five weeks of the season.
Since a horrendous performance against LSU when Fromm completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes (47.1 percent) and had his only multiple interception game of the season, he has completed 73 percent of his passes and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 11-to-1.
“A very talented quarterback who is playing at a very high level right now,” Saban said.
While Fromm’s numbers on 3rd-and-and 7+ have greatly increased since the LSU loss (he’s at 384 yards, 59 percent pass completion, 3 TDs), the critical down and distance scenario still comes with significant issues.
Fromm has been sacked 7 times in 3rd-and-7+, and has thrown 3 interceptions. Alabama, meanwhile, is No.9 in the nation in third-down defense efficiency (30.9 percent of opponent’s third downs converted).
It should come as no surprise that of the teams trying to land one of the four Playoff spots, Alabama, Clemson (No. 7), Ohio State (No. 10), and Georgia (No. 13) are in the top 15 in the nation in third down defense efficiency.
The Alabama offense is No. 3 in the nation in third-down conversions (53.4 percent), and Georgia is No.7 (49.6).
When asked what he sees similar in Alabama and Georgia, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart says, “the quarterback and third down.”
That, everyone, is where games are won and lost.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread (special championship weekend picks)
- Alabama (-13.5) vs. Georgia
- Utah vs. Washington (-4.5)
- Texas (+7.5) vs. Oklahoma
- Pittsburgh vs. Clemson (-25.5)
- Northwestern vs. Ohio State (-14)
Last week: 5-3
6. Run, Bama, run
We’ve circulated through three months of Tua-mania, examining the greatest quarterback in Alabama history from every angle possible.
Want to know why Alabama wins and wins big? It’s not just Tua – it has a plenty to do with a running game keeping the offense on schedule and avoiding 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations.
There is no better way to protect a quarterback, to strengthen a passing game and allow receivers and extra second or two to get open, than a running game that constantly produces positive gains.
Alabama is not a passing team; it’s a run-first, set up the pass team. The Tide runs 58 percent of its plays (463 run, 340 pass). A majority of Alabama’s chunk plays in the passing game are because defenses have to commit to stop the run and allow receivers to work against man coverage.
When you can’t bracket Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III with safeties because they have to commit to the run, you’re going to lose a lot of individual battles. Jeudy and Ruggs are first-round NFL picks, and will beat man coverage 90-plus percent of the time.
It’s a vicious cycle. If Georgia can’t stop the run (and the Dawgs have been gashed at times by Missouri, Florida and even Vanderbilt), their issues with big plays in pass defense (six interceptions, 3.5 passes defended a game) will be exploited.
7. The Road to Four
The Idiot’s Guide to the College Football Playoff:
- A Northwestern win in the Big ten Championship Game eliminates Ohio State and the Big Ten.
- A Texas win in the Big 12 Championship Game eliminates Oklahoma and the Big 12.
- If Ohio State and Oklahoma both win, Ohio State advances to the CFP – unless there’s an extreme disparity between the games (see: Ohio State struggles, Oklahoma rolls).
- If Clemson loses to Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game, it will need Georgia and either Oklahoma or Ohio State to lose to reach the CFP.
- If Oklahoma wins and Ohio State loses, OU is in. If Ohio State wins and OU loses, Ohio State is in.
- How does UCF reach the CFP? Alabama routs Georgia; Oklahoma and Ohio State lose. The CFP: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, UCF.
My projection: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’m so sick of coaches trying to leverage schools to get more money. When does this madness end?? Barry Odom is trying to leverage Missouri now??? Barry Odom???
Craig: Initial thought: I don’t begrudge anyone getting everything they can. It’s a market, and you play the market. Because when there’s the first hint at slippage, the end is usually around the corner.
That said, the whole Barry Odom to Louisville idea – if the reports are accurate – is beyond bizarre. Missouri clearly is a better job than Louisville, and there’s no reason a Mizzou alum would leave to take a less than lateral job.
Frankly, if I’m Missouri AD Jim Sterk and Odom or his agent begin to use Louisville as leverage, I tell him to go. Odom has won 24 games in three seasons, is 10-14 in SEC games and 1-8 in games vs. ranked teams.
If Odom wants to leave, let him go. Then go hire Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia or Mike Leach from Washington State. Leach wanted the Tennessee job last season and would have had it, but for a well-timed coup that might or might not have been orchestrated by a certain former football coach who waited years to get his revenge. Or something like that.
9. Numbers game
1926. Vanderbilt has not won three straight games vs. rival Tennessee since 1926. Even James Franklin, the best coach in modern times at Vanderbilt, didn’t get that done. To put in more perspective what Vandy coach Derek Mason has accomplished: In the past 4 years, Tennessee’s recruiting classes were ranked 21st, 17th, 14th and 4th by 247Sports.
In the same time, Vanderbilt’s classes were ranked 41st, 65th, 54th and 49th.
Translation: coaching mismatch.
10. Quote to note
Nick Saban on coaching against his former protégé, Kirby Smart: “We grew up with Kirby, and we were there when his children were born, and I know his family and have a tremendous amount of respect for him and appreciate the great job he did for us for 9 or 10 years or however long he was with us. You always like to see those guys do well. When you compete against them, it’s really not personal, at least not to me.”