B1G's playoff position (pay attention, SEC)

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
2:00
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For a league that prides itself on superior on-field speed, the SEC seems pretty slow in grasping the Big Ten's playoff position.

Then again, SEC folks seem to bristle at anyone who doesn't pay homage to their greatness, kiss their feet and fall in line with their view.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIt's safe to say that perhaps Alabama coach Nick Saban and his SEC brethren don't fully grasp the Big Ten's proposed playoff model.
Not surprisingly, the SEC brass spent Day 1 of its spring meetings in Florida reiterating the need to have the best four teams selected for a college football playoff. Given the SEC's dominance in the sport, the probability of the league placing multiple teams among the "best four" seems strong in most seasons. This plan makes total sense for the SEC, despite the potential difficulties of truly separating the nation's No. 4 team from the No. 5 team (more on this later).

What puzzles me are the claims by SEC coaches -- and some of the pom-pon-toting media in Destin, Fla. -- that the evil Big Ten continues to cling to a plan that would send only conference champions to a playoff.

Alabama coach Nick Saban had this to say Tuesday:
"There's no question that we're even doing the top four because fans and the people who are interested in college football are interested in seeing the best four teams play in a playoff. Now, we're going to mess that up by saying you have to be a conference champion. I think somebody's a bit self-absorbed and worrying about how it affects them and how they can best get somebody in the [national championship] all the time, rather than getting the best four teams. I don't think that’s fair to the fans and the people who really have made it known that they want to see the four best teams play in a playoff."

It's amusing to see Saban taking shots at a self-absorbed person, and he's obviously talking about Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. And while fans obviously want to see a compelling playoff, many of them still value conference titles and what they mean.

It's easy and quite frankly a bit lazy to place the Big Ten and Delany in the antagonist role, the counter to all things good and just about the SEC's plan.

Plus, it's simply not true and shows Saban and others haven't been paying attention.

Yes, the Big Ten favors playoff access for conference champions. Yes, Delany has made some silly comments in recent weeks, including his recent remark to the Associated Press about teams that don't win their divisions having playoff access.

But at the Big Ten spring meetings just two weeks ago in Chicago, Delany and the league's athletic directors were very clear in favoring a mix of conference champions and wild-card teams (or an independent like Notre Dame) in a four-team playoff. Delany reiterated this several times, but it's clearly not registering in SEC country.

Pay attention, please ...
Delany favors a "hybrid model" with a "quality-control cap" for selections: where the best conference champions are "honored" but allowances are made for elite teams that haven't won their leagues and/or divisions, as well as top independents like Notre Dame.

Here's what Delany said May 15 in Chicago:
"I don't want to adopt a model that any way belittles the regular-season championship process, whether it entails or doesn't entail a [conference] championship game. I also don't want to create a structure that doesn't reward highly regarded teams, whether they're independents or whether they're non-champions from other conferences. ... What is the right balance between champions, who have won it on the field, teams that are highly regarded but haven't won a conference championship and independents who should have a fair opportunity to play their way in as well?"

The Big Ten's view is spelled out pretty clearly. Athletic directors in Chicago discussed a playoff model that would include the top three-rated conference champions -- as long as they met a certain rankings threshold -- and a wild-card spot.

That wild-card spot obviously would have gone to Alabama last season. There's no way a team like the Tide should be left out, and I really think there's no way a team like Alabama will be left out in whatever model gets adopted. The Sporting News reports Wednesday that the two main models being discussed are top-four teams and top-three league champs/one wild card, and that the latter could be the likely pick.

So just breathe, SEC people.

As for the "best four teams" argument, I think it sounds nice and simple, but it brings more problems that people acknowledge. In most seasons, there's a much bigger difference between No. 2 and No. 4 than between No. 4 and No. 5. As Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said at the Big Ten meetings, "You're going to be able to put a piece of paper between those teams." The ultimate decision will be subjective and controversial, no matter what selection method is used.

Count me among those who can live with a No. 5 conference champion being in a playoff ahead of a No. 4 non-champion. No. 5 Oregon over No. 4 Stanford in 2011? No problem. No. 5 USC over No. 4 Alabama in 2008? No problem. Again, it's not the same as leaving the No. 2 team out in favor of the No. 7 team.

I don't expect the SEC to waver on its "best four" plan. But it'd be nice if there was some actual understanding of the Big Ten's playoff position.

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