Column: 2 playoff teams from SEC should be last option
By PAUL NEWBERRY
Oct. 24, 2017
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Alabama and Georgia are on a collision course that will likely come to a head at the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Two quality teams, for sure.
Both making a strong case for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
At the moment, there's only room for one.
Now that Alabama and Georgia are rolling along with unbeaten records and holding two of the top three spots in The Associated Press rankings, it's only natural to wonder if both could wind up in the playoff — regardless of who wins the SEC crown.
In the brief history of the four-team format, which began in 2014, no conference has claimed half the berths.
There's no apparent reason for that to change this season, even if the top-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 3 Bulldogs each go 12-0 in the regular season and play a competitive game for the SEC title.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart shied away from any talk about playoff scenarios on Monday.
"I have no idea," he told reporters. "I'm going to leave that to you guys."
The playoff committee has made it clear that conference championships are a major consideration in the selection process, as they should be. There might come a season when that priority has to be put aside to ensure the two best teams have a shot at the national title, but that should be a truly exceptional circumstance.
This isn't it.
Not yet, anyway.
Let's face it, the SEC isn't the same powerhouse league it was a few years ago.
Alabama is very good, and Georgia probably is too.
No. 19 Auburn and No. 23 LSU are the SEC's only other ranked teams, largely by default. LSU lost at home to Troy , for heaven's sake. Auburn struggled to beat FCS school Mercer and squandered a fourth-quarter lead at LSU .
The rest of the conference is nothing but mediocrity, and that's being kind. Traditional powers such as Florida and Tennessee are down (in the case of the Volunteers, way down and probably already sniffing around for a new coach ). Missouri looks hopelessly overmatched in the SEC. Arkansas has failed to get anything going under Bret Bielema, one of several coaches on the hot seat. Ole Miss is in the crosshairs of the NCAA and facing a bleak future. Kentucky is waiting for basketball season, as usual. Vanderbilt is, well, Vanderbilt.
An unbeaten run through that motley crew wouldn't necessarily be worthy of a second playoff berth, though there are a few caveats that might shake things up.
What if Alabama, a four-time national champion under Nick Saban and perennial contender most of the last decade, goes 12-0 in the regular season but loses a close one to Georgia in the SEC title game? The Crimson Tide probably deserves a few bonus points for its undeniable position as college football's dominant program.
Georgia, in its second season under Saban's former defensive coordinator and still a bit of a work in progress, hasn't really earned that sort of second-chance consideration. But what if a fourth playoff spot comes down to the Bulldogs and Notre Dame, both with one loss? It's hard to see how the committee takes the Fighting Irish, which lost at home to Georgia.
Florida coach Jim McElwain said there's no reason to limit the SEC to one team if two are deserving, and he's right to a degree.
If a bunch of teams knock each other off — and, as it is, there are only four other unbeaten schools left from the Power Five conferences — the playoff committee could be forced to pick a pair of SEC teams.
"If they're part of the best four teams, they ought to be in it," McElwain said. "With that being said, there's a lot of ball to be played before they anoint those four."
The committee shouldn't break the glass on the two-teams-from-one-conference option unless it's a true emergency. We're reminded of the 2011 season, when LSU won the SEC with a perfect record — including an overtime victory in Tuscaloosa — then had to face the one-loss Crimson Tide again in the BCS championship game.
They were the best teams in the country, without a doubt. Alabama certainly proved that by romping to a 21-0 victory and claiming the national title.
But the rematch wasn't really fair to LSU.
"There's a natural motivation for the team that does not win the championship at the conference level," former LSU Les Miles said Monday evening. "They get to the side and they plan and they work and there's a stronger commitment than the team that looks back on a hard-fought victory, but a victory nonetheless, a victory that they won. Their head coach did a great job of redirecting their motivation and putting them in the right frame of mind."
As for LSU, it was hard to muster that same motivation for a rematch against the Crimson Tide.
"Once you've beaten a team, it takes a special view of how to get them ready to beat that team again," Miles said. "I don't know that I did a great job."
With the initial CFP rankings set to be released next week, there's a good chance Alabama and Georgia will be in the foursome.
That's OK for now.
If it's that way come December, it will be time to discuss something new.
"This conversation," Miles said, "is the exact reason why at some point in time they're going to view the playoff system and say they need to add two teams or add four teams. You always want to make sure you include the best teams."
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry