FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Roy Kramer remembers all the fretting when the Southeastern Conference launched its own championship game two decades ago.
“Especially from the coaches,” the former SEC commissioner said Friday, chuckling a bit at those long-ago discussions. “They were convinced that would be the end of everything and we would never win another national championship.”
It sure didn’t work out that way, of course.
The SEC has ruled like no other conference.
Just around the corner is another momentous change to shake up the college football landscape, spurred in part by the dominance down South. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of folks in the rest of the country hoping the four-team national playoff, which starts in 2014, will make it tougher for the SEC to pile up trophies.
Kramer, for one, doesn’t expect much of an impact, just as splitting into East and West brackets and tacking on an extra game between the division champs back in 1992 has done little to damage the SEC’s national title prospects.
“The SEC could very well end up with three of the four playoff teams in any given year,” Kramer told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his retirement home near Chattanooga, Tenn. “I don’t know that a playoff will significantly reduce the possibility of winning a national title. Some may believe that, but I’m not convinced it reduces the chances at all.”
This much is clear: The current system is owned by the SEC.
The conference is riding an unprecedented streak of six consecutive national titles, and No. 2 Alabama is favored to make it seven in a row Monday night when the Crimson Tide takes on top-ranked Notre Dame in the next-to-last BCS championship game.
For better or worse, just about every major conference has followed the SEC’s lead from way back in 1992 – adding news teams, starting their own title games – but the juggernaut that began it all appears more firmly entrenched than ever.
Over the last 20 seasons, the league has won nine national titles; no other conference has claimed more than four during that span. And the SEC has pitched a shutout since the 2006 season, divvying up six titles among four schools (Florida, Alabama, LSU and Auburn) while the rest of the country looked on enviously, wondering just what it had to do to break the stranglehold.
Last season, when the BCS produced an all-SEC matchup in the title game, the rest of the country screamed uncle.
Or, more accurately, playoff.
Suddenly, everyone jumped on board for what amounts to a true postseason system, albeit with not as many teams as the biggest supporters of the P-word would like.
Kramer has no doubt that Alabama’s 21-0 victory over LSU in the 2012 title game accelerated the demands for a playoff among the other conferences – even though current SEC commissioner Mike Slive had proposed what is largely the same four-team format several years ago, only to be quickly shot down.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the added interest in trying to expand the field to some degree, to go from two to four teams, was influenced by what happened a year ago when two teams from the same conference played in the championship game,” Kramer said. “That brought a significant amount of attention to it and perhaps brought on a willingness by more people to take a look at this process.”
If the four-team playoff had been in place this season – and using the BCS standings as a selection guide – the SEC would have claimed half the field anyway. Florida finished third in the rankings, while No. 4 Oregon presumably would have been the other team, surely creating plenty of howls from teams such as Kansas State and Stanford (sound familiar?).
But the playoff is still a couple of years away. Heck, the powers-that-be are still trying to hammer out all the details. In the meantime, Notre Dame has set its sights on ending the SEC’s dominance this season without the assistance of an extra round, having built a team around defense and a good running game – kind of like a northern version of Alabama.
Despite a perfect record (12-0) and No. 1 ranking, the Fighting Irish know what they’re up against. So do the oddsmakers, who started Alabama as a 7½-point favorite and pushed it up to 9½ when the bets flowed in on the Crimson Tide.
“Obviously, the SEC has been very dominant in the national title game,” Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley said.
But the conference doesn’t appear quite as strong as past years, with some truly wretched teams at the bottom of the standings (Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky) and a perception that even Alabama – despite positioning itself for a third national title in four years – isn’t quite as strong after losing a bunch of top players to the NFL.
The SEC split its first six bowl games, the most notable result being Florida’s ugly 33-23 loss to Big East champion Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
“If you’ve watched the bowl games to this point, the SEC has lost to some other teams,” said Farley, sounding a bit more confident about the Irish’s chances. “You just have to be better than the other team on that given day, not all the time.”
Alabama is mindful of the SEC’s championship streak, but keeping it alive is not a major motivational factor. Rest assured, the Tide won’t be passing around the trophy to all its fellow schools should it win another.
“Certainly we take a lot of pride in our conference. We feel like we play in the best conference in America,” said Barrett Jones, Alabama’s All-American center. “But we don’t think about it that much. The coaches don’t get up at the podium and say, ‘OK, let’s go win one for the SEC.’ We’re trying to win this for us.”
Jones, a senior, will be long gone by the time a playoff finally comes on line. But, like Kramer, he figures the SEC will do just fine no matter what system is put in place. The region just has too many built-in advantages: passionate (if sometimes overzealous) fans; less competition from professional sports than other regions; some of the nation’s top coaches; a seemingly limitless supply of high school talent right in its own backyard.
“If you look back at the past few years, two (SEC) teams probably would’ve gotten in a lot of years,” Jones said. “That gives you a good chance to still win a national championship. I think the playoff system will be a good thing for the SEC.”
Kramer doesn’t support a playoff – he’s one of those who believes college football is heading down a dangerous path that will severely damage the significance of the regular season – but he doesn’t see the SEC giving up its dominant position anytime soon.
Just remember what happened when the SEC went to its own version of the playoff.
“It’s really worked to our advantage,” Kramer said.