February 5, 2023

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Georgia security guard Chris Smith has made three trips to the SEC championship game without winning one. For him, the stakes in Saturday’s title game against LSU at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium couldn’t be higher.

Despite losses that still sting (twice to Alabama and once to LSU), he said, amid the crazy atmosphere of the SEC championship, competition is one of the biggest thrills of the game.

“The building is filled with passion and emotion,” said Smith, a high-ranked starter with the high-ranked Bulldogs (12-0). “You can feel the intensity.”

A question now brewing about college football is whether Thursday’s decision to speed up the college football playoffs from four teams to 12 will up or down the stakes and electricity Smith is talking about — not just in the SEC championship, but in all of the sport’s conference championships.

Ohio State needs a loss to TCU or USC to make the playoffs

After years of debate over how the playoffs might be expanded — with eventual expansion largely a foregone conclusion given the hundreds of millions to be earned — clarity came Thursday after Rose Bowl officials dropped scheduling requirements, who had been an obstacle.

The result, beginning the 2024 regular season, is a 12-team playoff in which the top six-placed conference champions automatically qualify. The remaining six “at-large” spots go to the next six top-ranked teams.

As an added incentive to fight for that conference title, the top four ranked champions will be seeded 1-4 and receive first-round byes. The next four top-ranked teams (Nos. 5-8) will host first-round matches.

College Football Playoffs executive director Bill Hancock called it an all-round victory in a statement released Thursday.

“More teams and more access means more excitement for fans, alumni, students and student athletes,” Hancock said.

LSU coach Brian Kelly, who in one season turned the SEC West-worst Tigers of 2021 (6-7, 3-5 SEC) into 9-3, 6-2 division champions, made a similar statement during a video press conference Thursday excited.

Citing his roots as a Division II head coach (Grand Valley State, 1991-2003), Kelly said, “I just like more access. I think you get some playoff games on campus; They involve the bowl games; You keep them involved. I think it keeps more teams in the hunt for playoff spots as the season progresses.

Kelly was skeptical about the prospect of boosted national playoffs, which would lower the stakes in conference championships.

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“I don’t think it in any way … detracts from the conference championships,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how that goes. That is certainly up for discussion.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said “only time will tell” before noting that years ago there were many questions about how a four-team playoff would affect conference championships.

Regardless, Smart said he felt the SEC championship could never be lowered.

“If you go back in history and look at the game, the game was extremely important to the varsities that play in it,” said Smart, 46, a former Georgia defenseman (1995-98). “There is a certain level of respect bestowed on the SEC champion. You are playing for a championship of your conference. I think that’s a big deal.”

Saturday’s game marks the fifth time Georgia and LSU have faced each other in the SEC title game, a testament to each school’s rich recruiting base and strong coaching tradition.

If a 12-team playoff were played this season, 14th-ranked LSU would still have a shot at contending for the national title, despite their three losses and a particularly poor performance in last week’s loss to unranked Texas A&M. All it would have to do is upset No. 1 Georgia on Saturday — a tall order against a team favored by the oddsmakers by more than two touchdowns.

Similarly, the national championship would still be in play for No. 9 Clemson (10-2) and No. 23 North Carolina (9-3), who will meet in Saturday’s ACC Championship. Ditto for No. 11 Utah (9-3), who takes on No. 4 (11-1) USC in Friday’s Pac-12 title game. And No. 18 Tulane (10-2) and No. 22 Central Florida (9-3) would be vying for a playoff berth in the American Athletic Championship.

Even without the road to the national championship at stake for LSU Saturday, the game might mean nothing more for the Tigers running back Josh Williams.

“We had an exciting season last year, a change of coach, everyone just didn’t give us credit. They didn’t have any expectations for us this season,” Williams said on a conference call this week. “Just for us to turn it around and actually get to the SEC championship is good for the school. This is good for the football program and for recruitment.”

Though his collegiate career will be over with the advent of the 12-team playoffs, Williams said he sees nothing but good in the fact that more teams will get a shot at the national title — especially those who stumble early in the season.

However you play an extended playoff, the SEC will likely dominate. Conference members have won the last three national titles: Georgia 2021; Alabama, 2020; LU, 2019.

College Football Playoff Rankings: USC 4th, Ohio State 5th

According to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, the league is stronger than ever — and that’s before Oklahoma and Texas join in 2025.

Given that, Sankey said he anticipates three or four SEC schools would be represented in a 12-team playoff between the conference champion and the ranked at-large odds.

“Anytime you’re part of the change, there are unknowns,” Sankey acknowledged of the variables in an extended playoff. To that end, he and other administrators tasked with proposing playoff formats spoke at length about how best to ensure conference championships remain important and aren’t just a prelude to the bigger prize to come.

In the SEC’s case, Sankey isn’t worried, saying the conference has created something “very special” in its tradition of crowning its champion amid the pomp of Atlanta.

“There’s still a conference champion to be determined, just like we do in any other sport,” Sankey said. “I think there are a number of reasons why conference championship games will remain viable even as we go through this transition into an extended playoff.”

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