Might the School Soccer Playoff be going away?

Conference realignment has been a heavy subject of conversation among Clemson football fans this past week.

With the announcement that USC & UCLA will be joining the Big Ten in a couple years, the ever growing disparity between conference-television payouts has Clemson fans concerned about their future in the ACC, which is far behind the SEC & Big Ten in revenues from their television partners.

There have been several rumors mentioned by college football insiders regarding further realignment, such as to tweet sourcing Dennis Dodd of CBS that Clemson, along with Florida State and/or Miami could be moving to the SEC eventually. Another rumor has multiple teams from the PAC-12 looking to move to the Big 12.

Not all the voices out there have endorsed exploring the possibility of Clemson leaving the ACC. Walt Deptula of WCCP 105.5 The Roar’s “Road Rage” program has promoted that Clemson should stay put in the ACC to enhance their ability to make the College Football Playoff (CFP):

Deptula acknowledges that the landscape changes for Clemson if the CFP expands beyond four teams, making it easier for the Tigers to qualify for the playoff coming out of a conference like the SEC, which is very competitive.

A rumor that started making the rounds yesterday was again from Doddwhich said the ACC and the PAC-12 were investigating the possibility of a “championship” game between the two conferences that would be played in Las Vegas.

Dodd doesn’t present much detail whether this would be in place of each conference’s existing championship game, or an added game to the schedule, but he does say that it is being discussed to find a way to increase ESPN’s television payout to both conferences. He then acknowledges that it isn’t likely to make a big difference. Why then even discuss the deal? What makes it a good idea if it won’t make a big impact and could potentially introduce yet another game that could hurt either of the two conference champion’s odds of making the CFP?

One possible answer needs to be considered: there might not be a College Football Playoff for much longer.

The current CFP contract runs out after the 2025 season. Until now, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the contract would be renewed. It was just a question of whether it would stay at four teams or expand to as many as twelve.

There appeared to be motivation to expand the playoff to 12 teams last year, but that seemed to dissipate following the announcement that Texas and Oklahoma would exit the Big 12 and join the SEC beginning in 2025. The ACC, Big Ten and PAC formed a (temporary) alliance to slow the playoff expansion talk, and that led to the CFP staying at four teams, at least until the current contract ends.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey voiced his frustration with the failure to expand, but expressed that the SEC had no qualms about staying at four teams. I further commented:

“We were willing to adapt to modern expectations to create opportunities. Others weren’t willing to adapt to create those opportunities. So we’ll have to rethink our views as at some point this process reengages.”

When that comment was offered in February 2022, I think most assumed Sankey was just trying to market his conference members as the progressive thinkers, while portraying “The Alliance” as the ones standing in the way of progress. In July 2022, this comment can take on a whole new meaning. There is nothing that requires the SEC to continue to participate in the CFP beyond the current contract.

It would seem crazy for the SEC to simply try to go it alone, trying to sell their conference champion as a “national” champion while everyone else is competing in the CFP. It becomes a whole new ballgame if the SEC can persuade the Big Ten to leave the CFP with them. At that point, the two conferences that easily hold the most marketing power, already being dubbed the Power Two, would also have nearly all the programs that are considered likely to compete year-in/year-out for national accolades. They could put together a playoff themselves. They could take two division champions to play conference championship games, which would be de facto semifinals, and then have their champions meet in a “college Super Bowl”, perhaps rotating between the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl in alternate years. Better yet, they can break into four divisions or ‘pods’ and host quarterfinals at home sites to essentially create an eight-team playoff.

There is no playoff scenario that anyone – even with the ACC, the PAC-12, the Big 12, Notre Dame & the Group of Five combined, even with current memberships – could put together that could possibly contend financially with an SEC/Big Ten playoff, and the natural assumption in most seasons would be that the SEC/Big Ten winner would probably be the best team in college football.

USC & UCLA will join the Big Ten in 2024, Texas & Oklahoma will join the SEC in 2025, the CFP’s contract runs out after the 2025 season and the timing of all these things should give everyone reason to pause

One counter to this line of thinking is that a television partner is a critical component of any playoff plan. ESPN has been the partner for the CFP so far, but there has been speculation that the CFP might open up a bidding war to get other entities like FOX or NBC involved. Would any of the potential bidders for a CFP package have reservations on bidding for an SEC/Big Ten playoff instead? No lo creo. They would have fewer conferences & schools involved, so their expense for an SEC/Big Ten playoff would be less than a comparable sized playoff that includes all the other conferences. The total pie might be smaller, but each slice of the pie cut between two conferences/32 teams would still be bigger than all the conferences/131 schools, even if the slices are weighted towards the bigger conferences and schools.

The principle behind this is the same as the principle behind the consolidation of top-notch programs by the SEC and Big Ten: why share the gold with everyone when it isn’t necessary? Would it anger some fans? And it is. Will it anger enough to make a difference? No lo creo. With so many of the largest & most passionate fanbases already in the SEC & Big Ten, I don’t think they will face the same kind of pushback from their own fans that the biggest clubs in European soccer faced when they tried to form a super league.

It could be that the ACC and PAC-12 are discussing postseason options because they may see where this is all going for the Power Two.

This is all very presumptive. Neither the SEC or the Big Ten has actually indicated they have any interest in leaving the CFP when this contract expires. Perhaps it was said best by Bill Connelly of ESPN in this tweet:

“It’s funny—after OU/UT and UCLA/USC got all the way to the finish line without a leak, I just assume any actual public rumors about discussions are false.”

He’s not wrong. We probably should all pump the breaks on a lot of the rumours. The ACC/PAC-12 “championship” game is probably just smoke. They are probably coming from sources that want the noise and drama out there to stir up public discourse.

The sources of these rumors probably aren’t the SEC or Big Ten, who have demonstrated they prefer to keep things quiet, and demonstrated they are very capable of accomplishing it.

If the SEC & Big Ten don’t intend to be part of a renewal of the College Football Playoff contract, we probably won’t know it until the last possible minute. Maybe it’s nothing, or maybe when Sankey said the SEC would have to “re-think our views”, he was thinking much differently than the rest of us.

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