Rejoice and be glad: March Madness has arrived.
The SEC actually managed to squeeze five teams into the 2017 NCAA Tournament, headlined by Kentucky (No. 2, South Region) and Florida (No. 4, East Region) — a slight improvement over last season. As outlined earlier this week, however, none of those schools has an easy path out of their respective regions.
Worst-case scenario? SEC fans may not have any conference reps to cheer for in the Sweet 16. SEC basketball may be on the upswing, but as Wildcats coach John Calipari pointed out this week, its teams very much remain young and inexperienced.
That outlook might renew some longing for college football season. So in the spirit of opening weekend at the Big Dance, SEC Country has simulated how a 16-team College Football Playoff might play out.
Note: The selection committee’s final Top 25 rankings were used to determine seeding. Outcomes were simulated using WhatIfSports.
Thursday, Dec. 22: USC defeats Wisconsin, 41-23
Eight different Trojans players record at least 1 catch, and Sam Darnold — despite having 2 interceptions — leads USC to the surprise win.
Friday, Dec. 23: Alabama squeaks past West Virginia, 24-23
Staked to an early 14-0 lead, the Crimson Tide defense amazingly allows 3 WVU field goals and a pair of scoring tosses by Mountaineers quarterback Skyler Howard. But Jalen Hurts saves the day, hitting O.J. Howard for a game-winning touchdown pass with 18 seconds remaining.
Friday, Dec. 30: Alabama knocks off USC, 29-21
The rematch is closer this time, but Hurts completes 20 of 25 passes in this crisp performance, while the ‘Bama defense records 2 sacks and picks off Darnold.
Thursday, Dec. 22: Clemson defeats Western Michigan, 44-17
Wayne Gallman scores 4 touchdowns, including a 79-yard scoring catch, as the Tigers put a huge hole in P.J. Fleck’s boat-rowing machine.
Friday, Dec. 23: Oklahoma defeats Colorado, 41-20
The Sooners open by scoring 16 unanswered points and take a 30-6 lead into halftime. Baker Mayfield completes 22 of 26 passes for 298 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Clemson outlasts Oklahoma, 35-31
This 2015 Orange Bowl rematch turns out to be far more competitive the second time. Oklahoma takes a 24-10 lead with 1 minute left in the first half, but the Clemson offense turns on the jets and claws its way back. Deshaun Watson’s late 33-yard touchdown run seals the game for the Tigers.
Thursday, Dec. 22: Florida State edges Michigan, 33-32
We actually don’t even need to simulate this one. Thank you, Orange Bowl.
Friday, Dec. 23: Ohio State beats Auburn, 32-16
Ohio State jumps to a 23-0 lead on 3 touchdowns and a safety. Auburn’s scoring consists of 1 touchdown (Kerryon Johnson) and 3 Daniel Carlson field goals. Sean White completes 13 of 28 passes and has 2 interceptions. This feels realistic.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Florida State upsets Ohio State, 21-9
We saw the Buckeyes collapse in real life against Clemson, and they do it here against a hot Seminoles team. J.T. Barrett accounts for 85 total yards in this one.
Thursday, Dec. 22: Washington tops Louisville, 27-20
Lamar Jackson’s late-season slide continues. The Heisman Trophy winner completes 9 of 17 passes and nets 74 yards on 25 scrambles. Huskies quarterback Jake Browning throws for 311 yards and 2 scores.
Friday, Dec. 23: Penn State hangs on to defeat Oklahoma State, 38-36
Fresh off a dramatic Big Ten championship win, the Nittany Lions fight off the 5-12 upset bid by Okie State. Saquon Barkley delivers 140 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns.
Friday, Dec. 30: Penn State upsets Washington, 24-19
Big Ten fans who were upset that their conference championship team got left out of the actual College Football Playoff get a little vindication here. Penn State uglies its way to a win behind a surprisingly crisp performance from Trace McScorley (20-of-25 passing, 3 touchdowns).
The Final Four
Thursday, Jan 5: Alabama beats Penn State, 26-20 (Peach Bowl)
Hurts has 2 interceptions, but the Crimson Tide hold Penn State to 355 total yards and Bo Scarbrough goes for 75 yards on 13 carries.
Friday, Jan. 6: Clemson outguns Florida State, 48-44, in 2OT (Fiesta Bowl)
The ACC rematch turns out to be another high-scoring shootout. Dalvin Cook amasses 185 total yards and 4 touchdowns, and Watson accounts for 3 touchdowns. But Clemson holds Florida State to a field goal in the second overtime, and Gallman scores from 2 yards out for the win.
Monday, Jan. 16: Alabama blows out Clemson, 36-3 (College Football Playoff title game)
What do you know? The same two teams reach the championship game. This time, the Crimson Tide do what we thought they’d do in real life: run the ball down Clemson’s throat (294 yards rushing in this case). Hurts has to attempt all of 16 passes in the rout.
Scheduling-wise, expanding the Playoff field to 16 teams wouldn’t require a dramatic change. And, clearly, the opportunity for upsets and surprise runs to the title would result in great matchups and a handful of classic games. Imagine Michigan-Florida State’s Orange Bowl bout with a championship on the line?
Of course, asking a college football team to potentially play 17 games in a season would be unrealistic, and you’ll always hear the argument that expanding the Playoff devalues the regular season.
Perhaps we’ll see the NCAA propose an eight-team field somewhere down the road. For now, however, SEC fans will have to settle for one conference Playoff representative most years.