ATLANTA — Dear college sports world,
Is your icy winter being warmed somehow by your cold contempt for the Southeastern Conference? Are you burning with rage over the fact that the SEC is guaranteed to stick another trophy in the case after Alabama and Georgia square off, here in the ever-lovin’ heart of SEC country, in the CFP National Championship Game?
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is a compassionate man, and he understands your pain.
But only from the point of view of a frontrunner looking back over his shoulder.
“I’m a Yankees fan, so yes, I understand,” said the New York-born Sankey (Auburn, New York; he was made for this job), an irrepressible tinge of glee in his voice. “You love us, you hate us, but you care about us one way or another.”
Oh, they care. They care so much, CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock confessed Friday that he’s a touch worried that in a nation afflicted by SEC fatigue the boffo ratings in markets like Atlanta and Birmingham won’t offset the switched-off sets in Columbus, Ohio, and Omaha, Nebraska, and San Francisco.
Tough cracklins, y’all. This is going to be a three hour-plus (OK, four) SEC infomercial, with the conference everyone else loves to hate giving them the finger right back.
The index finger. As in the number one sign. Get your minds out of the gutter, please.
There are reasons for all the rancor. And they take an extra (index) finger to count. This will mark the 11th time in the past 12 seasons that at least one SEC team has played for the national championship. The only time the SEC missed out was in the first CFP title bout four years ago, when Ohio State beat Oregon.
It’s also the second time in the past seven years that it comes down to an all-SEC final. Tiger fans, we’re compelled to mention Alabama 21, LSU 0 in the 2012 BCS title game, but we will quickly move on.
Hey, SEC haters, at least an SEC team is bound to lose again, right?
Some say that LSU-Bama game broke the back of the BCS, leading to the dawn of the CFP three seasons later. Some say this year's game will turn up the volume on the clamor for expanding the CFP field. The folks at UCF have a petition they’d like you to sign, as soon as they’re finished putting up their “national championship” banner.
Perhaps expansion is inevitable, though the logistics of adding a layer of quarterfinal games isn’t the simple stroke of a pen proponents of such a move would have you believe. And while it would likely come with an assurance a “Group of Five” team would be included, doesn’t it also raise the odds of the SEC getting three of the eight teams in? Or four? How delightful would a pair of all-SEC semifinals be, Buckeyes?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was the year excited voices from Miami to Seattle were proclaiming that SEC dominance was dead, dead, dead. And, indeed, it wasn’t the SEC’s most shining year from top to bottom. Traditional powers like Florida and Tennessee suffered through losing seasons. Five head coaches (and one short-time LSU offensive coordinator) were fired while a sixth (Dan Mullen) transferred his flag from Mississippi State to Florida. Only nine teams made the postseason, though Ole Miss was eligible but was under a bowl ban.
So was the SEC top heavy this season? Well, yes. But …
“I guess any league could be criticized for being top heavy when two of its teams are playing in the championship game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban, otherwise known as the emperor of the First Order, said dryly.
It’s not just in football that the SEC has been dominant in the last year. Florida beat LSU in an all-SEC final in June in the College World Series. In April, South Carolina beat Mississippi State for the title in the Women’s Final Four. Men’s basketball has been the runt of the litter for years now, but the SEC ranks third in conference RPI, ahead of the vaunted ACC.
Yes, the SEC’s Southern accent is once again everywhere and overpowering. Of course, I’m staying this week at yet another hotel within the SEC footprint without the SEC Network, but I digress.
So watch or don’t watch, non-SEC lovers, but the game will be played and a Southern-born and bred champion will be crowned. Whatever happens, the trophy isn’t traveling far after making its connection in Atlanta.
Somewhere within Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sankey will be watching with delight, a big “I can’t lose” smile on his face. Maybe he’ll light a cigar with a $20 bill, otherwise now known as Dave Aranda’s tip money.
“I’m going to enjoy Monday immensely,” Sankey said.