Continued from page 1

“I don’t think there’s any question that the added interest in trying to expand the field to some degree, to go from two to four teams, was influenced by what happened a year ago when two teams from the same conference played in the championship game,” Kramer said. “That brought a significant amount of attention to it and perhaps brought on a willingness by more people to take a look at this process.”

If the four-team playoff had been in place this season _ and using the BCS standings as a selection guide _ the SEC would have claimed half the field anyway. Florida finished third in the rankings, while No. 4 Oregon presumably would have been the other team, surely creating plenty of howls from teams such as Kansas State and Stanford (sound familiar?).

But the playoff is still a couple of years away. Heck, the powers-that-be are still trying to hammer out all the details. In the meantime, Notre Dame has set its sights on ending the SEC’s dominance this season without the assistance of an extra round, having built a team around defense and a good running game _ kind of like a northern version of Alabama.

Despite a perfect record (12-0) and No. 1 ranking, the Fighting Irish know what they’re up against. So do the oddsmakers, who started Alabama as a 7 1/2-point favorite and pushed it up to 9 1/2 when the bets flowed in on the Crimson Tide.

“Obviously, the SEC has been very dominant in the national title game,” Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley said.

But the conference doesn’t appear quite as strong as past years, with some truly wretched teams at the bottom of the standings (Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky) and a perception that even Alabama _ despite positioning itself for a third national title in four years _ isn’t quite as strong after losing a bunch of top players to the NFL.

The SEC split its first six bowl games, the most notable result being Florida’s ugly 33-23 loss to Big East champion Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

“If you’ve watched the bowl games to this point, the SEC has lost to some other teams,” said Farley, sounding a bit more confident about the Irish’s chances. “You just have to be better than the other team on that given day, not all the time.”

Alabama is mindful of the SEC’s championship streak, but keeping it alive is not a major motivational factor. Rest assured, the Tide won’t be passing around the trophy to all its fellow schools should it win another.

“Certainly we take a lot of pride in our conference. We feel like we play in the best conference in America,” said Barrett Jones, Alabama’s All-American center. “But we don’t think about it that much. The coaches don’t get up at the podium and say, `OK, let’s go win one for the SEC.’ We’re trying to win this for us.”

Jones, a senior, will be long gone by the time a playoff finally comes on line. But, like Kramer, he figures the SEC will do just fine no matter what system is put in place. The region just has too many built-in advantages: passionate (if sometimes overzealous) fans; less competition from professional sports than other regions; some of the nation’s top coaches; a seemingly limitless supply of high school talent right in its own backyard.

“If you look back at the past few years, two (SEC) teams probably would’ve gotten in a lot of years,” Jones said. “That gives you a good chance to still win a national championship. I think the playoff system will be a good thing for the SEC.”

Kramer doesn’t support a playoff _ he’s one of those who believes college football is heading down a dangerous path that will severely damage the significance of the regular season _ but he doesn’t see the SEC giving up its dominant position anytime soon.

Just remember what happened when the SEC went to its own version of the playoff.

“It’s really worked to our advantage,” Kramer said.

Story Continues →