COLUMBIA — It doesn’t particularly look like potentially one of the most influential football programs in the College Football Playoff expansion debate, a South Carolina Gamecocks team prepping for a Belk Bowl matchup with Virginia.
Don’t let the 7-5 record fool you.
The argument shapes up like this …
• The fine-as-is lobby happy with the four-team playoff now in its fifth year: the SEC, with Alabama as an annual participant and a golden goose SEC Championship Game, and the ACC, which stands for Always Clemson Competing.
• Expansion advocates looking for an eight-team playoff or something thereabouts: the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and Group of Five conferences (represented by proud and loud Central Florida). These are the folks frequently or always left out.
But who is the SEC?
And is what’s good for Alabama and fellow SEC powerhouse Georgia good for the rest of the conference?
The correct answers to those two questions: 14 schools; not necessarily.
Which means staunch SEC support for a four-team playoff could fall apart if mid-level football programs such as South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Mississippi State chip away at a united front. And got support from LSU, Florida and Auburn, which are hot-and-lukewarm SEC schools that would also have a much better shot at College Football Playoff sunshine if more teams were involved.
Same thing in the even more top-heavy ACC; what if all the schools with less football emphasis than Clemson and Florida State realized an expanded playoff is in their best selfish interest?
Together, 16 to 20 SEC and ACC programs could rock the money boat held together by ESPN’s 12-year contract with the four-team system and SEC/ACC glue. Maybe they can organize by the next scheduled College Football Playoff board meeting on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, site of the national championship game.
The official SEC position cast down from the Birmingham home office is “Don’t mess with our SEC Championship Game or make Alabama play an extra postseason game.”
And why would the ACC give in when Clemson is the nation’s second-best bet for playoff fun?
But let’s say you’re a South Carolina fan, or love one.
Muschamp plans on playoff
The Gamecocks — now, in past years, in future years — have almost no shot to crack a four-team playoff field.
Alas, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic.
“I’ve been a proponent of the bowl system,” Muschamp said this week when I asked, “that’s what I’m a proponent of. Because I think it’s a great reward for the student-athlete. We all say it’s about the student-athlete but a lot of the decisions that are made aren’t about the student-athlete. Let’s just cut to the chase.”
Muschamp said he likes the idea of players enjoying a week in a nice hotel in Charlotte or Tampa, and the great food and bowl gifts that make for a nice reward for a hard-fought season.
“Whether it’s a four-team or an eight-team (playoff) we plan on being there at some point,” Muschamp said. “That’s what we’re pushing for. That’s what we want to be a part of. What I don’t want to see is the bowl games continue to be diminished because that takes away from rewarding a young man, a student-athlete, for a season.”
Surely, the “we plan on being there” part invites a crescendo of one-liners from non-Gamecock fans.
But you want a confident head coach who believes in whatever process he’s peddling, right?
SEC cash vs. playoff shot
More concerning for South Carolina’s future playoff hopes is Muschamp’s concern about how one more game might impact the student-athlete.
“I just don’t how you’re going to structure it if you get into an eight-team playoff,” Muschamp said. “You know we actually do have exams.”
Structure: just one extra weekend in mid-December involving two games and four teams.
This debate is young.
Maybe Muschamp will come around to seeing that participating in the College Football Playoff is even better for an ambitious program than cashing SEC checks tied to Alabama success.
Ask Clemson. The constant publicity flow split among only a few teams during the December playoff run-up dwarfs anything else in college sports. It’s as if Alabama and Clemson share a 50 percent stake in ESPN.
At some point, using Muschamp’s words, the Gamecocks could bask in that glow. But the path is way more reachable if the playoff field is doubled and radicalized South Carolina football management could play a big role in seeing that it happens.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff