No automatic bids for College Football Playoff? Greg Sankey sends message that should terrify anyone not in SEC, Big Ten

Back in January, on the day when two of his schools (Georgia and Alabama) would again compete for the national championship, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey made a final pitch for the establishment of a new College Football Playoff.

It featured 12 teams. The field would be made up of six guaranteed bids to the top six conference champions, plus six more selected by a committee. The top four champs would receive a first-round bye. The opening-round games would be played on the campus of the higher-seeded team, the rest would take place at neutral sites, mostly established bowl games.

With the current four-team CFP model set to expire after the 2026 season, this was a fair, exciting, equitable and highly profitable option for the future.

It was projected to be worth not just $1 billion in future media rights but would also assure the television value of and competitive relevance of each major conference and even help smaller leagues. It would likewise turn major conference title games into hugely valuable de facto playoff games.

This was a life preserver to specific leagues, and the sport as a whole.

Yet the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 formed a so-called “Alliance” to block it, puzzling and insulting Sankey and the others who worked on the plan (Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12, Craig Thompson of the Mountain West and Jack Swarbrick of Notre Dame).

Six months later the Big Ten blew the alliance up by raiding the Pac-12 for USC and UCLA.

At this point, the ACC and Pac-12 would crawl across smoldering coals to get Sankey's 12-team model back on the table.

As those two leagues rack their brains for ways to get more from upcoming media rights negotiations and prop themselves up as perceived equals to the SEC and Big Ten, they can only kick themselves for not taking the golden goose that was offered. Because that deal, or any deal even remotely as good for them, may never be coming back.

Sankey said Monday that the SEC is under “no urgency” to add more teams and destabilize other conferences. However, he made it clear that when it came to the future of the playoff, what was once on the table is now forgotten. It's a whole new world.

“If we are going to go back to square one then we are going to take a step back from the model that was introduced and rethink the approach,” he said.

The old plan was a compromise. It created a larger, richer playoff by assuring conference champions access without decreasing the number of at-large teams.

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey speaks during SEC Media Days, Monday, July 18, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey speaks during SEC Media Days on Monday in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Under the current four-team model, all four teams are at-large selections. Going to eight but giving automatic bids to five or six conference champions meant fewer at-large spots. So 12, with six guaranteed bids and six at-large, became the path forward.

“[It] was a really good balancing outcome,” Sankey said.

Yet it was rejected, at least partially because the ACC and Pac-12 made the terrible miscalculation that they could trust the Big Ten and that guaranteed bids would always be available in future plans.

Now, with the SEC and Big Ten clearly established as the two big dogs going forward, competitive balance among the conferences is no longer there.

“Things have changed,” Sankey said.

This should terrify anyone not in the SEC or Big Ten. A new playoff is coming, but each league’s chances of making it — or cashing in on media rights that an automatic bid would have provided — is in perilous shape.

The SEC and Big Ten don’t need to expand membership to choke out the other leagues. A bigger playoff, and the credibility of putting multiple teams in it year after year (plus the revenue that comes with it), might slowly do that for them.

The SEC and Big Ten could now propose an eight-team, all at-large bid model that could easily be stacked annually with five, six or even seven schools from those two conferences. If the criteria for at-large consideration is, say, focused on strength of schedule, then other leagues with fewer power programs will be fighting up a steep hill just to qualify.

The Pac-12, in particular, should have seen that coming. It hasn’t gotten an at-large selection in five seasons under the current system. Despite that, it voted against getting at least one school in each year.

“[We’ll consider the] number of teams,” Sankey said. “[And] whether there should be any guarantee for conference champions at all. Just earn your way in.”

No auto bids? Just earn your way in?

“There is something healthy competitively about that and increases expectations and support around programs,” Sankey said.

In terms of creating the most competitive playoff field possible, he isn’t necessarily wrong, although leaving everything up to the politics and perceptions of a committee is not ideal.

It will, however, come at the expense of the long-term viability of the non-SEC/Big Ten leagues, not to mention the sport as a whole. The lopsided balance in recruiting and revenue would just increase.

Back in January, a single league (or Notre Dame) could veto the new playoff plan. Any change to the four-team model during its current 12-year commitment had to be unanimous. That deal ends in 2026, however. There is no roll-over.

A new playoff must be created and for that one, the SEC and Big Ten, on the strength of their national competitiveness, will drive the discussion. Everyone else is going to have to go along. There are no more equal partners.

On Monday, Greg Sankey was wondering out loud whether there is any need for guaranteed access.

If the ACC and Pac-12 weren’t listening to him back in January when he offered them a lifeline they foolishly threw back, they better be listening now because the alarm bells are blaring.