How college football did Alabama and Nick Saban a favor this offseason | Opinion – USA TODAY

Nick Saban’s place as college football’s greatest coach ever is partly a credit to his malleability.
When the sport began moving into new offensive terrain, Alabama modernized its scheme, increased its tempo and upped its quarterback production so it wouldn’t surrender its foothold. Saban handled changes to NCAA transfer rules in stride, and he promoted quarterback Bryce Young’s endorsement earnings on the heels of last summer’s legislation that allows players to profit off their name, image and likeness.
Likewise, college football’s shift from the BCS era to the College Football Playoff didn’t interrupt Alabama’s dynasty. So, I suspect the Tide’s dominance would endure playoff expansion.
Yet, the decision to stick with the status quo – the CFP committee announced in February the playoff will remain at four teams through at least the 2025 season – does Alabama a favor.
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Clemson is the only team that has come close to matching the Tide’s dominance of the CFP era.
Alabama has seven playoff appearances and three national championships during the CFP’s eight years, compared to Clemson’s six appearances and two titles.
No other team has more than four playoff appearances or more than one title during this era.
Within the SEC, Georgia and LSU are the only other teams to qualify for the playoff, with each winning a national championship.
Greg Sankey consistently pitched that the SEC enjoyed a win-win scenario when it came to playoff expansion talks. The SEC supported expanding the playoff to 12 teams, a format that could produce several playoff qualifiers from the conference annually.
Sankey also said the SEC would be fine with the playoff remaining at four teams, noting that SEC teams have captured five national titles during this format, including each of the last three.
But this is nuanced.
As a league, the SEC is a winner with either outcome. But on the ground floor, a 12-team model would have benefited a bigger swath of the SEC schools.
Among SEC teams that have never qualified for the playoff, Florida and Texas A&M have the most victories during this era. A 12-team format likely would allow them to become playoff participants on a semi-regular basis. Same for LSU, which has a single playoff appearance.
Teams like Auburn, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee would have the opportunity to realistically contend for a playoff berth in strong seasons, too, amid a 12-team format. The Rebels, for instance, would have been a playoff qualifier if the playoff included 12 teams last season. Instead, they went to the Sugar Bowl.
And playoff access for the SEC’s second and third tiers will become more coveted after Oklahoma and Texas join the conference by 2025, creating a scheduling gauntlet.
“An expanded playoff, when you’re trying to build a program and trying to catch programs like an Alabama, like a Georgia, like Texas A&M and those programs, the more opportunities you have, the better it is for a school like Arkansas,” Razorbacks athletics director Hunter Yurachek told me last week. Yurachek easily could have swapped Arkansas with several other SEC schools, and his statement would have remained true.
“But if you look at it, selfishly, from an SEC standpoint, it has worked very well for our conference to have a four-team playoff,” he added.
I’m not suggesting Alabama would melt at the sight of Arkansas or Ole Miss or Florida in a 12-team playoff. And playoff expansion would not single-handedly solve college football’s lack of parity. An expanded playoff might amount to little more than Alabama navigating past another road apple or two en route to the title game.
No matter how much the CFP expands, it will not recreate a postseason product comparable to March Madness, beloved for its propensity for upsets.
To wit: Alabama ran over Cincinnati, the football equivalent of a basketball Cinderella, in last season’s semifinals before losing to Georgia. A Butler or a George Mason is not conducive to college football.
Nevertheless, a 10th-seeded playoff team that reached the quarterfinals would gain a level of exposure and momentum that cannot be matched by, say, a Citrus Bowl appearance.
The four-team playoff era spawned Clemson to elite status. Perhaps an expanded playoff would create room for another program to ascend the ladder.
Saban, in January, offered caution regarding playoff expansion.
“The more we expand the playoffs, the more we minimize bowl games, the importance of bowl games,” he said.
It’s true that lower-tier bowl games not incorporated within an expanded playoff would be further minimized.
It’s also true that no one benefits from the continuance of a four-team playoff more than the establishment, and Alabama sits at the head of the establishment table.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

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