There is no denying the impact that Saban’s run has had on the SEC — the rise in coaching salaries, the explosion in support staffs, the ever-increasing emphasis on recruiting and, of course, the incredible amount of turnover in the head coaching ranks as peer programs take futile steps to keep up with ‘Bama.
As significant as his place in conference history is, I think I’m ready to argue that his impact on college football nationally may turn out to be even greater. As Andy Staples explains, Saban’s program was the spark that lit the fire for playoff expansion beyond the BCS.
The day after Alabama was placed into the BCS title game against LSU instead of Oklahoma State, I was in New York to interview all of the commissioners, athletic directors and coaches who gather this week every year for the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame dinner. Leagues use this opportunity to gather their ADs to shape policy, and the Big 12 held such a meeting on that Monday.
As I chatted with people in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, someone from the Big 12 approached. The league is having a reception upstairs. You really should go up there. When I arrived, I saw the league’s entire power structure. Everyone I spoke to told me off the record that what happened to Oklahoma State could not stand, and they were going to do something about it. In an informal poll of the ADs that day, the majority had supported a four-team playoff. The ACC and SEC had already come out in support of such a system, so the math was easy. College football was about to change, and from that moment came the playoff that we’ve spent the last four seasons arguing about.
Staples goes on to ask if we saw a similar moment when Alabama was added to the CFP field. I think there’s little doubt of that.
You’ll hear plenty of bullshit reasons why they’ve crossed a line. Staples points to a second straight year of a non-conference winner making the field. Dan Wolken’s indignant about it, at least when it comes to Alabama.
But there’s a big problem with putting Alabama in the Playoff, and it has nothing to do with one league getting two teams in, something that was bound to happen at some point in this system. In essence, Alabama slid into the playoff this weekend by doing nothing. It was rewarded for losing to Auburn last week in a game that decided the SEC West title. And that’s simply not the way this process should work.
Don’t reference Ohio State last season, which got in as the Big Ten representative despite losing the head-to-head matchup and division title to Penn State. It’s not comparable.
Last year, Ohio State was already in the top four going into the championship games at No. 2. Though the Buckeyes didn’t have to risk anything in the Big Ten title game, the committee had already deemed them worthy of making the playoff after recording wins over three other top-10 teams. The only question with Ohio State last year was whether the Buckeyes would get passed.
That’s far different from Alabama, which was outside the top four last week after its loss to Auburn in a game that decided the SEC West title. The Tide went from outside the playoff at 11-1 to in it by doing nothing. Based on that precedent, Wisconsin and Auburn would have been better off not showing up at all Saturday.
Not that I think it matters in the vast scheme of things, but in rebuttal, let me just mention that’s the way the grand poobahs running the sport set this deal up. The selection committee, we are repeatedly told, operates week to week with a clean sheet of paper as it goes about its machinations ranking teams. If we accept that at face value, then Wolken’s distinction is irrelevant. As for the not showing up bit, hey, who set up all those conference championship games in the first place? It wasn’t space aliens or Jesus.
But again, this is mere quibbling. Because everyone knows what the real issue is.
The only certainty leading into Sunday was that the College Football Playoff selection committee would do something it hadn’t done before. Either it was going to place a two-loss team in the playoff, or it was going to place two teams from the same league in the playoff. One of those would bother college football’s power structure a lot more than the other. All along, more people were worried about one league providing half the playoff field than a team with two losses making the playoff. That the league providing two teams this year is the SEC and the team that squeezed in ahead of the Big Ten champion is Alabama will only add to the angst.
Ah, angst. If you think things are angst-y now, just wait to see what Defcon level we’re at if the semi-finals end with Alabama taking on Georgia for the national title. Jim Delany is muttering to himself, “this aggression will not stand, man”. It won’t take long for him to discuss the future with the likes of Larry Scott.
The question is whether the people in charge of the other leagues will do something about it like they did in December 2011. The last time Alabama got a chance to play for a national title without winning its division, college football’s power brokers responded by creating the playoff. Will they respond the same way this time?
Does a fat baby fart? Hells yeah, they’ll respond the same way, right down to telling us it’s what the fans want. And that’ll work, until doesn’t, just like now. All because Nick Saban’s built a juggernaut at Alabama. Amazing impact.