Tennessee football: AAC commissioner’s letter shows SEC has never been the enemy

Tennessee's head coach Phil Fulmer celebrates on stage with Tee Martina behind him and the Sears National Championship trophy Jan. 5, 1999.National Champions 1998
Tennessee's head coach Phil Fulmer celebrates on stage with Tee Martina behind him and the Sears National Championship trophy Jan. 5, 1999.National Champions 1998 /

When Tennessee football won the first ever BCS National Championship back in 1998, it was the first seed laid that fueled a wave of conspiracy theories about the SEC getting unfair treatment from the NCAA. Never mind the fact that the Vols were the only undefeated team from a BCS conference that year.

The whole system was spearheaded by former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, and an SEC team won the first national title with this new alliance. Fast-forward to 2006, and a string of seven straight national championships by the league fueled this conspiracy.

There was this concept, starting with the undefeated Tulane Green Wave being left out the year Tennessee football won it all, that the SEC didn’t want to expand the playoff out of some fear of settling the title on the field. It was as if they wanted the special treatment. Such a conspiracy has continued even eight years into College Football Playoff.

That was never the case, and now there is further proof of that. American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco’s open letter to college football serves as further proof that the Southeastern Conference is and always has been the greatest ally of more inclusivity in the fight to win a national championship.

In the letter, the Group of Five commissioner touted the 12-team playoff proposal submitted last summer by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Fair and opportunity-embracing were just a few words to describe the proposal.

This format would award automatic bids to the top six conference champions and then add six at-large teams. Aresco said a majority of the 10 conference commissioners were for it and some Power Five commissioners. Well, who could be those “commissioners?”

With multiple commissioners implied in there, let’s eliminate who they aren’t. The ACC was specifically mentioned in Aresco’s letter, making it clear they aren’t on board. They don’t even want to expand. Meanwhile, Aresco criticized the 5+1 model that would give all five Power Five champions an automatic bid plus the top Group of Five champion.

The Big Ten is the most vocal proponent of the 5+1 model, and the Pac-12 and ACC proposed it last year. It’s one that could involve just eight teams with two wildcards. If the support from Power Five commissioners is plural, that leaves the Big 12 and the SEC. Since those two and Notre Dame proposed the original 6 and 6 format, it’s safe to say they’re the ones on board.

Taking that into account, we should dispel the 24-year lie dating back to Tennessee football’s national championship that the SEC is the enemy of smaller schools. They have always been the biggest proponent of expanding the system, and it’s only when the league benefits from the existing system do other teams start to complain.

Here’s a major question for you. If there’s such favorable treatment of the SEC, how come they remain the only league in the BCS era to have had a Power Five team finish the season undefeated and not win the national title? The Auburn Tigers didn’t even get to play for it in 2004.

Want to know what the talk was then from the rest of the Power Five leagues? It was all about the system not being perfect and the best anybody could do, just as the USC Trojans blew out the Oklahoma Sooners and proved Bob Stoops’ team had no business being there.

Kramer started the BCS, which to most was an improvement over the previous system, and his successor, Mike Slive, was the first major conference commissioner to actually propose a playoff back in 2008, which Andy Staples documented in this article from 2015. Slive, who passed away in 2018, only received support from the ACC.

Of course, as the SEC began its string of national championships, the Big Ten and Pac-12 began to hypocritically complain. Finally, after two SEC teams played for the title in 2011, they got on board for the playoff. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany went on an all-out assault against that national title game, but it resulted in him doing a complete 180 from where he was.

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Consistently, the Pac-12 and Big Ten have always been late to the party, and consistently, the SEC has been one to propose expanding the playoff. That’s the case again, as Sankey is at the forefront of expanding the playoff and allowing smaller teams in.

For Pac-12 and Big Ten fans to push through revisionist history as if the SEC gets unfair treatment when the SEC is the only one to truly want things settled on the field is ridiculous. This league is the most responsible for the smallest schools getting more recognition.

Here’s the truth that all Group of Five conferences should know: The Pac-12 and Big Ten would rather whine about the SEC’s success than expand and validate it. They have always know that expanding the playoff would simply create more opportunities for SEC dominance, as the playoff has shown over the years.

By expanding to 12, schools like Tennessee football could finally get back to the playoff more quickly than they initially planned to. The talent disparity in the SEC is so deep that the Pac-12 and Big Ten don’t want to be embarrassed. Expanding the playoff would only further continue SEC dominance on the field.

Before the playoff, only once did two SEC teams play for the title. They have done it twice in the seven years the playoff existed. What do you think would happen if they expanded the playoff to 12 teams? At least three would probably be from the SEC every year.

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Kramer and Slive always knew this. Sankey knows it now. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have also always known it. However, they have to pretend otherwise. As a result, they’d much rather feed the conspiracy narrative that started with Tennessee football’s national title. That makes them the enemy of the Group of Five, though, not the SEC.