Kirby Smart explains why placing second in SEC football will become a trap


MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. – Kirby Smart wonders about the fate of the SEC’s second-place teams in a 12-team College Football Playoff, and if that seems like a strange concern for the coach of the two-time defending national champions, recall that Georgia’s 2021 title team did not win the SEC.

Georgia lost to Alabama in the conference championship that year. All that cost the Bulldogs was playoff seeding.

In a 12-team playoff, a loss in the SEC Championship can inflict further damage. For one, without winning the conference, a team cannot earn a top-four seed that unlocks a first-round bye. Also of concern, though, is the turnaround time between the SEC Championship and a first-round playoff game.

After Georgia lost to Alabama in 2021, it had nearly four weeks to recover before facing Michigan in the CFP’s first round. Come 2024, when the playoff expands to a dozen teams, first-round games will be begin on Dec. 20. The date of the 2024 SEC Championship has not been announced, but it typically occurs on the first Saturday in December. That would leave less than two weeks of recovery time between the SEC Championship and the start of the playoff.

That won’t be an issue for the SEC champion. Likely, the conference champ would earn one of four byes into the quarterfinals. Those byes are reserved for the four best conference champions.

But, the loser in Atlanta will experience an unprecedented turnaround from conference championship to playoff. Smart describes such a scenario as a “competitive disadvantage” for the SEC’s runner-up. Hard to argue with his logic.

“You might have to play (two weeks) after playing that (SEC Championship), which will be the most physical game you play all year,” Smart said last week at the SEC spring meetings.

And that trap for a conference runner-up won’t just apply to the SEC.

TCU lost in the Big 12 Championship last year but rebounded and reached the national championship. In a 12-team playoff, though, TCU would have been relegated to a first-round playoff game on short rest.

Let’s play it out further: A team that loses in the SEC Championship could play, say, the Big Ten’s third-place team in a first-round playoff game. In this hypothetical, that Big Ten team that didn’t reach its conference championship will have gained an extra week of rest, a strange advantage for a team that finished third in its conference standings.

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This scenario can be avoided, of course, by winning a conference championship, but it’s nonetheless unusual that finishing as a conference runner-up could, in some instances, be more disadvantageous than placing third in a conference.

Also, a poor performance in the SEC Championship could cost a team a chance at hosting a first-round playoff game.

Consider a scenario in which the 2024 SEC Championship features undefeated Georgia against 10-2 Oklahoma. Meanwhile, let’s say Alabama is also 10-2 but placed third in the SEC, due to tiebreakers.

Then, Georgia drubs Oklahoma in Atlanta.

Nothing would stop the CFP selection committee from catapulting Alabama past the Sooners in the rankings, awarding Alabama a first-round home game thanks to its superior seeding and sending OU on the road for the first round, despite Alabama finishing behind the Sooners in the standings.

It’s a curious setup in which third place might be the best position for a 10-win SEC team on conference championship Saturday – stationed at home and resting for a first-round playoff game, rather than facing an undefeated juggernaut in the SEC Championship.

While some have argued that conference championships will decrease in importance within a bigger playoff – conferences like the SEC are likely to qualify both conference championship participants, regardless of outcome – I maintain that conference championships will remain significant, because of the way the playoff is structured.

Four conference champions will gain the ultimate advantage in a 12-team playoff: additional rest, a bye and the assurance of playing a team seeded no better than fifth in their CFP opener.

Meanwhile, conference runners-up will face a more treacherous path to the national championship than Georgia’s 2021 team did.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Kirby Smart explains why placing second in SEC football will become a trap



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