Surprise, surprise: SEC coaches want four best teams in playoff
DESTIN, Fla. -- Of all the SEC's football coaches, LSU's Les Miles has the most reason to fall out of lockstep with his colleagues with regard to which teams will make the four-team playoff conference commissioners have busied themselves creating. After all, had the BCS included a rule last year that only conference champions would make the existing No. 1 vs. No. 2 title game, LSU wouldn't have had to play Alabama and suffer the ignominy of a shutout on the game's biggest stage. The Tigers probably would have played Oklahoma State, and they probably would have won the national title.
So would Miles prefer that only conference champs make the playoff? Absolutely not. He didn't want that stipulation last December, and he doesn't want it now. "We wanted to play the best team in the country when we got [to the BCS title game]," Miles said Tuesday at the SEC's spring meetings. "Daggone it, we did."
Just as it didn't surprise anyone when coaches in the ACC, Big East and Big Ten voiced their support for some kind of conference-champ stipulation, it should surprise no one that all the SEC coaches want the four highest ranked teams in the playoff regardless of whether those teams won a conference title. Those in the league that has won the past six national titles believe the SEC produces the best teams in the country on an annual basis, and they want as many SEC teams as possible in the playoff. "If the objective is to have a system where the best four teams in the country play, then it needs to be the best four teams in the country," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "Conference championships and things of that nature should not play a part. You're looking for the best four teams in the country however the process gets you there."
Those outside SEC country will complain that the current process is rigged to favor the SEC because of a compliant homer media and a scheduling philosophy in which SEC schools rarely venture west of Texas or north of Kentucky for out-of-conference games. Those inside SEC country will complain that the coaches in other leagues are pansies who fear matching their teams against SEC teams.
Both sides are partially correct. Outside of a few high-profile early-season games (LSU-Oregon and Georgia-Boise State in 2011 and Alabama-Michigan in 2012, for example) and the three annual SEC-ACC intrastate rivalries, SEC schools don't usually challenge themselves with their out-of-conference schedules. So that assumption of dominance comes from past BCS title games -- which shouldn't count in the next season -- and a relatively small sample of out-of-conference games. Maybe the Big 12 was a stronger top-to-bottom league last year. It would have some solid arguments. Still, the fear of the SEC is palpable as other leagues make their conference-champ arguments. Fair or not, the schools in the other leagues come off as weak and scared when they try to rig the postseason to hamstring the SEC.
"Somebody is a little bit self-absorbed," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
While the SEC's coaches have put up a united front against the conference-champs-only model, the SEC has a split in its own house that could wind up influencing who makes the playoff because it affects which teams face off in the SEC title game. When South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told SI.com he planned to propose determining division champions
LSU's Miles is firmly in favor of the Spurrier Plan, and it's easy to see why. In the new 14-team SEC, teams must play six division games. To preserve rivalries such as Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia, athletic directors are leaning toward keeping one fixed cross-division opponent and one rotating slot. That means LSU would continue to play Florida every year. For someone who only started watching football in 2010, that wouldn't seem like such a big deal. But Miles remembers losing to two national champs in three seasons. If Florida gets back to that level, it puts LSU at a disadvantage with respect to its division race. "I think it's wonderful competition," Miles said. "If it picks the division winner, it's a mistake."
Those in favor of the current system seem to have the numbers, but Miles and Spurrier will argue hard for their position. They'll find a staunch opponent in Saban. Though he would have to dip a bit further back into the past, Saban could make the same argument about Tennessee that Miles makes about Florida. The Volunteers, after all, also are a down-on-their-luck traditional power. But Saban won't make that case. He said a change would essentially turn out-of-division contests into out-of-conference games. "Then we're really not an SEC," Saban said. "We're really just an East and a West. Why even play those games?"
Eventually, everyone will have to compromise in some way. The SEC coaches probably won't get their top-four wish and probably will instead have to settle for three conference champs and a wildcard or some similar iteration. The coaches in other leagues probably will have to accept the fact that two SEC teams will eventually find a way to make the playoff. And even if Spurrier and Miles fail in their attempt to emphasize division records, they'll plant a seed of discord that could in a few years grow into a change in SEC scheduling philosophy.
Of course, all this arguing may get wiped away by more shifts in conference membership. Though there seems to be no evidence to support his claim -- there wasn't this time last year, either -- Miles couldn't help but toss out a nugget that should stimulate message-board activity across the country. "It's very conceivable," Miles said, "they add another two [schools] in."
When do the actual games kick off? Keeping score of this offseason is exhausting.