While the B1G stares into the storefront to gawk at the college football playoff, conference commissioner Jim Delany adjusted his hard-line approach when it came to expanding the field. If anything, we can thank Iowa and Purdue for kickstarting the revolution.
Delany maintains a position as the most influential man in college sports, dethroning Larry Culpepper after the Dr. Pepper mascot was Bobby Bowden’d out of his gig. Delany’s ability to grow the conference as a brand and expand the geographical reach of it, regardless of how foolish it looks to see Maryland and Rutgers in the B1G, make him one of the very few people in the sport to elicit change, even from a position of perceived vulnerability. The win-loss record isn’t there, but its marketing excellence and money disseminated from the conference to its members sure are.
Though his about-face regarding a move to an eight-team playoff seems a little hollow, Delany has enough power to elicit change. The best thing for growing the sport is the B1G’s absence from the playoff. Rainy days are here for the conference. Such misery gave Delany enough reason to speak out about it.
And speak out about it he has, most recently through an interview with The Athletic. Other voices in the sport whose team or conference has been jilted by the exclusivity of the four-team playoff joined the chorus with the B1G’s head man. It’s easy to tag Delany as the sore loser who wants to modify the rules of the game to full-proof nuisances like Iowa and Purdue from spoiling Ohio State’s quest for national superiority, he’ll be viewed as a visionary for the move. Delany experienced the darkness for a few years, he can speak to its torture.
Ten years from now when we’re in a full-fledged lather about the eight-team playoff and the perpetually unsatisfied will clamor for a 16 team field, we can thank Delany for his forward-thinking. No one will remember that his conference’s self-harm forced the issue for him. It’ll be another bullet point on his list of accomplishments and legacy to college athletics. At the same time, people will wonder why SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey wanted to deprive college football fans of the playoff they deserve.
It’s easy to see Sankey’s logic. The expansion delegitimizes the conference championship just a touch, his marketing teams will have to spill over Excel sheets to find the perfect catch phrase to incapsulate how it still means more, just not as much as before. Sankey had two teams from his conference playing for the national championship last season and nearly had two make the playoffs again this year. The SEC operates from an unprecedented position of strength. The format of a four-team playoff suits them just fine since the conference fielded a playoff team every year since it originated. Why would anyone want to be inclusive when the conference you champion and lord over (actually assistant to the Lord Saban) makes the playoff each season?
The scary descriptor, “Unforeseen circumstances.” That’s why.
Yep, have a little something tucked away just in case. The SEC has less of a chance to trip over one another than the B1G because it plays one fewer conference game, but it’s not to say the conference will field a team in the final four every season. A slip up here, maybe more time under the tent for Tua Tagovailoa and we’re left with an underwhelming one-loss team and a handful of two-loss teams. It’s a stretch, but it’s not impossible.
The expansion insulates a major conference from any sort of exclusion. Delany experienced it, lives it, and knows just how miserable it is. His conference may not dominate either of the big-money college sports but it does have a commissioner intuitive enough to know when change is good. It’s too bad he needed three years of coming up short to react.