SEC's gap with the rest of college football keeps growing. Can anyone stop it?

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

The title of Paul Finebaum’s 2014 book, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football,” was meant to inflame. At the time, college football was transitioning from the BCS, a system many fans thought favored the Southeastern Conference unfairly, to a four-team playoff that was supposed to even the field and give more teams a shot. 

Coming from Finebaum, who had just moved his longtime Birmingham-based radio show to the SEC Network, the title smacked of boosterism and unnecessary bravado aimed mostly at Big Ten fans who had long claimed the SEC was overrated. 

“I was really proud of that book,” Finebaum said. “It got a lot of interest, it did well. It was controversial then. If I came out with that book today, the reaction to it would be the same as this game: Tell me something we don’t already know.”

The game he’s referring to is Monday’s national championship between Alabama and Georgia, marking the second time in the playoff era and third occasion in the last 11 years that two SEC teams have squared off for the title. 

Alabama offensive lineman Tommy Brown celebrated after winning the SEC championship against Georgia. The two teams meet again Monday night for the national championship.

This year’s championship game is occurring against the backdrop of a chaotic period in college sports with the NCAA receding from power, schools scrambling to adapt to a more deregulated environment, conferences bracing for an uncertain future and players in a more advantageous position than ever with the ability to profit off their name, image and likeness and transfer more freely between schools. 

Meanwhile, the College Football Playoff itself will be overhauled with expansion from four to 12 teams the likely outcome. Because the conferences have not yet agreed on all the details of a playoff overhaul, it might not be implemented before the 2026 season, when its current contract expires. 

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to the birth of the 12-team playoff will likely bracket the most transformational era in the history of college sports, with major changes occurring at an almost unimaginable pace.

But the one steady drumbeat over the last decade has been the SEC’s ability to concentrate power through its performance on the football field, a point that was underscored yet again in the semifinals on New Year’s Eve when Alabama throttled Cincinnati, 27-6, and Georgia cruised past Big Ten champion Michigan, 34-11.

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Regardless of who wins Monday, it will be the SEC’s third title in a row, its fifth of the Playoff era and its 12th in the last 16 years. In many ways, the four-team playoff system was designed specifically to loosen the SEC’s grip on the sport. Instead, it’s only made it stronger. 

“We’re fine with four," Sankey said last month in an appearance on Finebaum's show, while also noting that he favored expansion to 12, a format where the SEC could potentially get three or four teams in every year. 

Either way, the SEC wins. 

Who can actually compete?

You can trace the SEC’s current dominance as a football conference to 2006, when Urban Meyer’s underdog Florida team blitzed Ohio State, 41-14, displaying superior speed, physicality and offensive innovation. That set the table for Nick Saban’s historic run at Alabama, which continues to this day after six national championships. 

But at no point has the competitive gap looked bigger at the top, where only a small handful of programs outside the SEC are equipped to win the national championship in terms of proximity to talent, ability to recruit nationally and institutional willingness to throw almost unlimited funds at their football product.

“I think (schools in other conferences) get it, it’s just hard to convince the president or the athletic director or the boosters what needs to be done,” said Jim Donnan, who coached Georgia from 1996-2000 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

“In the space of six years here, they built a $63 million end zone, a $38 million indoor building and an $80 million football facility. Do you think they’d do that at a lot of places? Can you convince people those things are necessary? It’s not all about facilities, but it’s that commitment. If you’re going to go against those guys, that’s what you've got to do.” 

And even then, it might not be enough. 

With most of the recruiting done for the incoming 2022 class, SEC teams occupy 12 of the top 25 spots in the 247 Sports composite rankings. That includes non-marquee teams like Kentucky (No. 11) and Missouri (No. 12), while the top end of the SEC continues to gorge on elite talent. This year alone, Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia have signed a combined 14 players rated as five-star prospects. The entire Big Ten has signed four. 

'They better join the neighborhood'

The sense that the SEC has separated from the pack both competitively and financially, with only the Big Ten in the same revenue-generating stratosphere, has not been healthy for the sport’s competitive balance or future stability.

Cincinnati and Michigan this year became just the 12th and 13th schools to make the CFP in eight years. Only Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU and Oregon have reached the championship game in this format. 

Though there are a multitude of reasons why television ratings for the CFP have trended downward, hitting new lows this year with fewer than 17 million viewers for each semifinal, it would be impossible to ignore the lack of diversity and the heavy concentration of power in the South as a contributing factor. 

“It’s becoming more of a regional sport than it’s ever been,” Finebaum said. “Outside of a handful of campuses, a very small number, you just can’t will yourself to have an elite program. By elite, I don’t mean making the playoffs; I mean winning playoff games, and that's really been the problem. Outside of Ohio State and Notre Dame, who got (into the playoff) a couple times, I don’t see anyone out there who’s making any inroads.”

The most significant consequence of the SEC’s stranglehold on the sport occurred last July, when word leaked that Texas and Oklahoma had secretly negotiated to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC. 

Though the date of their departure is still in flux — they could still play as many as three more seasons in the Big 12 — the addition of two more superpowers to the SEC was a supernova event for college sports that sparked a wave of realignment up and down the landscape. 

It was also an acknowledgement that even for two of the biggest brands in college athletics, it was becoming too difficult to overcome the advantages the SEC has built. 

“It surprised me and makes the SEC even stronger than what they are right now academically and athletically,” said Mike Alden, the former Missouri athletics director who helped lead his school’s transition from the Big 12 to the SEC alongside Texas A&M in 2012. “But it also put a little smile on my face. We got lit up a little bit, especially by Texas, when we made that move. They figured out they better join the neighborhood Missouri and Texas A&M were a part of.”

Financially, an unparalleled force

As a financial entity, the new 16-team SEC is likely to be an unparalleled force. Even before Texas and Oklahoma joined, the projected annual payouts based on future media rights deals were more than $60 million per school. With those two schools, a USA TODAY Sports analysis estimated that the SEC, as a conference entity, could generate $1.3 billion in annual revenue — more than the national governing body, the NCAA.

According to industry experts familiar with the finances and revenue capabilities of schools in Power Five conferences, the Big Ten, on a per-school basis, could potentially stay within shouting distance of the SEC financially in the future because it will be renegotiating its media rights deals, which expire after the 2022-23 school year. 

For the rest, the gap is going to be significant. 

The ACC, which distributed just north of $32 million per school last year, is locked into a 20-year deal with ESPN through 2036. The Big 12 just lost its two most valuable members and is rebuilding the best it can with Cincinnati, UCF, BYU and Houston. The Pac-12 will get its shot at a new media rights deal in 2024 under new commissioner George Kliavkoff, a college sports outsider, but the league is at a low point competitively with just two playoff appearances in eight years. 

“I think you’d have to be concerned about being able to continue to compete — or just compete — with what’s taking place in the SEC,” Alden said. "On the surface you see it, but I think until you live it, you can’t fully appreciate it across the board, whether it’s our gymnastics or women’s soccer program or baseball. Until you experience it every single day, you can’t fully appreciate the strength of that league across the board in every sport.”

What's the next tipping point?

The question is whether the SEC’s ubiquity will make college sports more competitive or ultimately tear it apart. If history tells us anything, it’s that other conferences always react when it appears the SEC is pulling further ahead of the pack. 

Just go back to 2011, when the BCS spit out a re-match between Alabama and LSU for the national championship despite the Tigers winning 9-6 in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5 of that year. After years of dragging their feet on approving a real playoff, two SEC teams playing for the title proved to be the tipping point for college presidents. 

“It didn’t move in any direction, and then that happened and everyone thought, ‘We need to have some other method,’ ” said Kent Hance, who was chancellor of the Texas Tech University System at that time. “It was one of those things that was, ‘No. No. No … OK, let’s try this.’ ”

A mere 11 years later, history is repeating itself. While the SEC celebrates another re-match, representatives of the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame have been meeting through the weekend in an attempt to hammer out details of playoff expansion. 

The slowness of the process since the initial plan was rolled out in June is owed largely to the surprise at Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 and the distrust it bred into a process that initially seemed headed for a seamless approval. As a direct response, the commissioners of the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC — all of whom are new to the job — formed a so-called “alliance” that will include some scheduling components but was birthed primarily as a counterbalance to the SEC’s growing power. 

“I understand the optics and the potential resistance and animosity that came out of that,” said Karl Benson, a former commissioner of three FBS conferences and most recently the Sun Belt from 2012-19. “But I had the privilege of sitting in the room for my entire 29 years and watching (former Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany and (former SEC commissioner) Roy Kramer, (former Pac-12 commissioner) Tom Hansen and (former ACC commissioner) John Swofford work together to work out differences with some difficult decisions and issues facing intercollegiate athletics.

“I haven’t been in the room for two years so I don’t know the dynamics, but when you look around and see three out of the five new commissioners and you throw in COVID and all the divisiveness that came from COVID, that probably didn’t help the collegiality inside the room.”

The problem for the other conferences is that the SEC has all the leverage. If the current four-team playoff structure lasts through the 2025 season, how many more championships will they win? How many more all-SEC finals might we see? 

Will the leaders of other leagues be able to be pragmatic about the urgency for more playoff access when jealousy and the instinct to gang up on the SEC drive so much of the conversation? 

“I think there’s quite a bit of that,” Hance said. "It’s never said in public, but in private it’s talked about. The great problem is, if you do too much, are they just going to withdraw and start a new organization?”

Effects of transfer portal, NIL

The SEC has enough power, cachet and a close enough relationship with ESPN to put such a dramatic outcome within the realm of possibility. Though people within the SEC orbit push back on the idea that they’re trying to blow up college sports entirely, the pace of change puts so many different possibilities in play. 

As it is, the NCAA barely seems able to regulate name, image and likeness. What happens if the dam breaks on paying players or collective bargaining? At that point, it might not make sense to have 130-plus teams still playing under one umbrella. If the sport moved toward a model where a smaller super-division of the richest programs competed only against each other, the SEC is already in position to become that entity. 

“The economic gap continued to grow each year, but the competitive gap was always somewhat stable because of the 85 scholarship limit,” Benson said. “I do worry going forward that with NIL, the transfer portal and whatever else may be coming that the competitive gap is in serious jeopardy.”

There’s good reason to worry. Programs like Georgia and Alabama aren’t just stacking up talented players from their backyard; they’re attracting recruits from all over the country because of the success and exposure they’ve had in the playoff. Bryce Young, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, played high school football in Orange County, California. Two of Georgia’s top freshmen, cornerback Kelee Ringo and tight end Brock Bowers, come from Scottsdale, Arizona, and Napa, California, respectively. 

"It comes back to TV and eyeballs," said Jackie Sherrill, the former coach at Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. "There's more eyeballs on Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida than there is on USC, UCLA or Stanford. And that's never going to change."

The more optimistic outlook for a 12-team playoff would be a program like Pittsburgh, which won the ACC this year, using that momentum to sell recruits that they can compete on the biggest stage. Over time, perhaps those programs that were once miles away from getting into a four-team playoff will siphon off enough talent to even things out a bit. 

Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 commissioner, sees the current playoff format as a big part of the reason for the lack of national parity. His league hasn't earned a berth since 2016.

"I think the system is broken, and I think we need to fix the system," he said, adding that the handful of schools that earned berths in the early years benefited from that national exposure. 

"If you were in early as a result, it was easier to recruit four- and five-star kids, and that's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "That's why we've had this disparity in having a vast majority of invitations going to a very small handful of schools. And that's not good for college athletics."

On the other hand, it was a clean slate when the playoff began in 2014. The first championship game, in fact, was contested between Ohio State and Oregon. But after eight years of the CFP, the SEC has secured an even better position than it had at the end of the BCS. What makes anyone think the next iteration of the system won’t also play right into their hands when the SEC so clearly holds all the cards? 

“Our show first went to satellite radio in 2010, and the big story wasn’t ‘SEC, SEC,’ ” Finebaum said. “It was, 'We’re better than Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State.' There was a rivalry, and we drew a lot of attention from that part of the country. It really helped get us going.

"Now, how many times do you want to hear someone say the same thing? Somebody called me a couple weeks ago and said, ‘Don’t you think this would be a good time for a sequel to the book?’ Uh, no.”

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz and Brent Schrotenboer, USA TODAY Sports