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AT LARGE: ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Matter: There's a path for Mizzou to football's biggest stage — if the stage expands

Florida Missouri Football

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz talks with the referee during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Florida Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — On Monday, a team from the Southeastern Conference will capture college football’s national championship for the fifth time in the eight-year history of the College Football Playoff. For the second time in five years it’s Alabama versus Georgia.

If this SEC championship game rematch comes as a surprise, wake up and smell the sweet tea.

Louisiana State and Alabama played for the national title in 2011, helping prompt the formation of the four-team playoff. In 2017, Alabama and Georgia met in the playoff championship game. This makes three SEC-SEC national title bouts in the last 11 seasons.

Monday in Indianapolis, Alabama’s Nick Saban can secure his place as the game’s greatest coach with a victory. Georgia’s Kirby Smart can state his case as Saban’s closest contemporary. Either way it’s no secret that SEC football continues to rule the sport. Clemson, your days on the throne are noted and appreciated. That Cheez-It Bowl victory over Iowa State sure looked fun.

But in a time of widespread change and uncertainty across college sports, when you repel down from football’s mountaintop, where does that leave the rest of the SEC, programs such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Missouri? They all rank among the 30 or so most lucrative athletics departments in college sports but haul in only a fraction of the revenues as the sport’s titans — and continually bump their helmets against the proverbial ceiling that separates the SEC’s elite from the middle class.

Is it even possible for Mizzou’s Eli Drinkwitz to build a program that can compete on the same stage as Monday’s title contenders?

For one, the sport’s strongest powers also are the biggest spenders. According to the latest Equity in Athletics Data report from the Department of Education, Alabama spent $58,508,853 on its football program in the 2019 fiscal year, compared to $48,501,193 at Georgia and $28,644,935 at Mizzou.

Now there’s a gap Drinkwitz can’t close overnight.

The easy solution for the SEC middle class is to expand the playoffs. The College Football Playoff management committee — the 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletics director — is expected to meet this weekend in Indianapolis to discuss expanding the playoff field.

Perhaps an eight-team bracket. Maybe 12. Under the 12-team model proposed last year, Mizzou would have made the playoff three times from 2007-13 and hosted first-round games on campus in 2007 and 2013. Imagine the revenue MU could generated hosting a playoff game. Imagine the electric atmosphere at a sold-out Memorial Stadium.

Another upside to an expanded playoff field: fewer opt-outs. More meaningful postseason games should lead to fewer NFL prospects sitting out.

At last month’s Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in Las Vegas, Mizzou AD Desiree Reed-Francois said “four is fine,” when it comes to the playoff debate, a line Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger described as “a bit tongue in cheek.”

“Four is fine,” is the SEC company line considering no other conference has put two teams in the same four-team bracket. The SEC has done it twice. But a 12-team bracket opens doors to other conferences as well as other contenders from the SEC.

And if former Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel, who later this year will go into the College Football Hall of Fame, could construct three playoff rosters in a seven-year span, it’s conceivable the right coach with the right talent can do the same in Columbia.

But it’ll require Drinkwitz and his administration to embrace the two movements that have changed the rules of the game and could tilt the playing field in favor of the teams best prepared to adjust with the times. With college athletes now able to transfer one time without penalty while profiting off their name, image and likeness, the most aggressive and nimble programs figure to reap the greatest rewards — all while combatting the doomsday predictions that sudden change will ruin the sport.

“I’ve been in college football since 2010 and there’s been more changes to college football in the last two years combined then there was in the previous eight,” Drinkwitz said last month. “Whether it’s rule changes, NIL, transfer portal, all of this stuff combined, it’s hard to keep up with the landscape. More than anything, I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, but I’m unsure of what the future of college football is going to look like because of the unintended consequences that we’re experiencing.

“This is no knock on the portal, but in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, they have free agency. But not every single person is a free agent every year. And currently right now in college athletics, we have a situation where every player is a free agent every single year. I don’t know that that’s a sustainable way moving forward to build team sports.”

Perhaps not, and Drinkwitz experienced the downside when defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo entered the transfer portal Friday, fresh off earning All-SEC Freshman Team honors. The Tigers have lost eight players to transfer since the end of the regular season, though Wingo was the first departure who signed under Drinkwitz.

As for the name, image and likeness campaign, coaches and teams can’t directly arrange endorsement deals for recruits or current players. But Drinkwitz’s proactive stance seems to be paying off on the recruiting trail. Luther Burden, MU’s prized five-star receiver from East St. Louis who arrives on campus this month, has multiple deals in the works and just released an apparel line of black and gold shirts, hoodies and caps featuring his LB logo.

Drinkwitz has assembled another top-20 recruiting class, but that has to become the standard — at minimum — to gain ground on the superpowers playing in Indianapolis. For years there’s been a monopoly on the nation’s best talent. From the 2018-21 recruiting classes, Georgia signed the most five-star Rivals.com recruits, 18 total. Three more programs gobbled up double-digit five-star players: Alabama and Clemson with 15 and Ohio State with 12.

But in the first year of NIL, a subtle shift emerged. In 2018, 33 five-star prospects went to only 11 schools. This year, with NIL deals at play, 27 five-stars have signed with 17 different teams, including four programs that rarely nab elite targets: Arizona, Iowa, Jackson State and ... Mizzou.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman debates whether the four-team College Football Playoff should expand to 12 (but then, what about that 13th team that deserves to get in!?). And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card out of the hat.

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