Is SEC Dominance Good for College Football?

If the college football recruiting evaluation services are accurate, which over the long-haul they usually are, Tennessee had a heck of day on Wednesday. The Vols, who have raced through coaches while racking up five losing seasons since 2008, signed the seventh best recruiting class in the country.

The problem is that Tennessee’s recruiting class ranked only fifth in the SEC, behind Alabama, LSU, Texas A & M, and Auburn. What’s more, Georgia and Florida, who compete with them in the East division, finished eight and ninth.

In other words, Tennessee would top their conferences recruiting rankings if they were a member of the Big 12 or the Pac 12, and they would place second if they were in the ACC or Big Ten–but they find themselves in a dog-fight for fifth in the SEC.

The fact that seven of the top nine classes come from the SEC–the same conference that has captured seven of the last eight BCS titles (and came within seconds of making it a run of eight)–suggests the biggest is just getting bigger. The SEC already has the most fervor, the biggest stadiums and TV contract, and the most local talent to recruit–and all this recent success is translating into an unprecedented ability to recruit elite players from other regions.

Is this good for the long-term health of college football, especially when it is about to embark on a four-team playoff, where a huge share of the additional billions of revenue will go to the conferences of the teams that qualify?

Consider the final regular season rankings for teams that would have been playoff-eligible the past eight seasons:

2006: Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, LSU

2007: Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia

2008: Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama

2009: Alabama, Texas, TCU, Cincinnati

2010: Auburn, Oregon, TCU, Wisconsin

2011: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma St., Stanford

2012: Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Oregon

2013: Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan State

Let’s add up the number of participants by current conference affiliation that would have been invited to a playoff, assuming that Condalisa Rice and her fellow selection committee members would have ranked teams like AP:

SEC: 14

Big 12: 7

Big Ten: 5

Pac 12: 3

ACC: 1

Other: 2

The SEC would have earned 14 of the 32 bids, twice as many as the second-place Big 12.

And, remember, the SEC appears to be getting even stronger. And it is already far richer. Bret Bielema left Wisconsin, which he helped turn into one of the most successful programs in the Big Ten, for Arkansas, a middling program in the SEC, in part because he could spend 50% more money on assistant coaches.

The coming playoff figures to make the financial playing field even less level.

The best solution might be to go to an eight-team-playoff, with the five major conferences getting automatic births and conferences being limited to a maximum of two bids. This would foster parity for three reasons:

(1) The five major conferences would be guaranteed a greater share of the playoff loot every season. By the way, the value of the conference championship games would ale rise dramatically because they would effectively become play-in games. Finally, teams might schedule more tough inter-conference match ups because they would know that conference success would gain them an automatic bid.

(2) Since the SEC would be limited to two spots, the other at-large teams would often come from other conferences. The SEC would end up with a smaller percentage of entrants then it will using a four-team format.

And (3) the fact that each major conference would have at least one participant every season, and often two, might stem the recruiting migration to the SEC. In part, elite student-athletes choose the SEC because they know they have the best chance of playing for the national title–even at a school that has suffered recent hard-times like Tennessee–but that would not be true if the conferences were represented more equally.

The Big Ten voiced the loudest opposition to a four-team playoff, but they might soon realize that expanding to an eight-team format would be in their long-term interests–as well as in college football’s.

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