Could a 2-loss SEC football team miss 12-team playoff? Crazy, right? Not quite | Toppmeyer
My readers impress me sometimes. Happened again recently.
Alabama fan Alexander Wilson was among the readers who found my inbox after my recent column that pushed back on Nick Saban’s groaning about Alabama’s three earmarked annual rivals – Auburn, LSU and Tennessee – in a proposed nine-game SEC schedule.
My argument: Saban, by focusing on Alabama’s rivals, refused to see the forest for the trees. Nine-game conference schedules will be comparably balanced. In fact, schedules will be much more equitable than they are now. Why should Georgia coast to the SEC Championship while playing Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina every year, while Alabama endures the SEC West’s rigors? Eliminating divisions and embracing a nine-game conference schedule with three fixed rivals and six additional rotating games would provide scheduling balance.
Alexander, though, posed this thought: Shouldn’t there be some concern about a two-loss SEC team missing an expanded College Football Playoff, after enduring a tough schedule?
The 12-team CFP will debut in 2024. The playoff's structure – six automatic bids for conference champions, plus six at-large bids – will make the SEC eligible for as many as seven bids.
A two-loss SEC team missing an expanded playoff? Preposterous, I thought.
Committed to the cause, though, Alexander pointed out that 2019 Alabama, with a 10-2 record on playoff selection day, would not have been ranked high enough to earn an at-large bid. The Crimson Tide was ranked No. 13 in the CFP rankings on selection day.
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By now, Alexander had my attention, and I decided to look back on the past nine seasons (the CFP era) and see how many times a two-loss SEC team would have been snubbed from the playoff.
Answer: Just the once, that 2019 Alabama team.
More on that 2019 oddity in a moment, but first, here’s some data on how the SEC would have fared in the past nine seasons of the CFP era, if the 12-team playoff had been in place.
∎ The SEC would have totaled 25 bids in nine seasons, a rate of 2.8 per year. The average in the past six years, though, would have been 3.3. During the past nine years, the SEC never would have qualified more than four teams for any playoff. It would have qualified eight two-loss teams for the playoff, plus four three-loss teams.
∎ The SEC's bid total trails the Big Ten’s 26 would-be bids (2.9 per year). The Big 12 is next, at 16 (1.8 per year), although Oklahoma is the Big 12’s bid leader. The Sooners and Texas will join the SEC in 2024.
∎ Nine SEC teams would have made at least one appearance in a 12-team playoff during the past nine years. Alabama would have made eight appearances, followed by Georgia (six), Florida (three), LSU (two), Ole Miss (two), Auburn (one), Mississippi State (one), Tennessee (one) and Texas A&M (one).
∎ Among the five SEC teams that would not have made an expanded playoff in the past nine years – Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – Kentucky would have come closest. It was 9-3 and ranked No. 14 at the time of the final CFP rankings in 2018. Missouri and South Carolina would have made the 12-team playoff had I included the final year of the BCS era. The Tigers were 11-2 and No. 8 in the final BCS rankings in December 2013, one spot ahead of 10-2 South Carolina. Going back further, Arkansas also would have been a playoff qualifier during the BCS era. As for Vanderbilt … sorry.
Now, back to Alabama’s two-loss 2019 team. How was it not ranked in the top 12 on playoff selection day?
LSU, Georgia and Florida would have made the playoff from the SEC that season.
Auburn was ranked No. 12, one spot ahead of Alabama. The Tigers were 9-3, but they beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Despite Auburn’s ranking, it would not have made the playoff, because of the 12-team playoff’s six automatic bids for conference champions. No. 18 Houston would have represented the Group of Five and knocked AU from the field.
As for Alabama being No. 13 despite being 10-2, a few notes:
1. Alabama played Duke as its Power Five nonconference opponent. Duke ranks among the weakest Power Five nonconference foes Alabama has played during the Saban era.
2. The SEC West wasn’t as strong as usual that year. Arkansas was pitiful, Ole Miss was bad, and Mississippi State joined those two with a losing record.
3. On playoff selection day, Alabama had no wins against teams ranked in the CFP top 25.
4. A robust nine-game SEC schedule, like the format the conference is considering, would have strengthened Alabama’s résumé that year and allowed the opportunity for a higher ranking and possible playoff selection.
Nevertheless, Alexander’s research shows: Based on recent history, although a two-loss SEC team missing a 12-team playoff is unlikely, it is possible.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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