The 12-team College Football Playoff can’t get here soon enough for programs like Ole Miss and Kentucky.
The expanded playoff will be installed by 2026, and perhaps as soon as ’24.
When it arrives, the SEC will go from qualifying two playoff teams like it did in 2017 and 2021 to having the chance to qualify several.
Consider, five SEC teams are ranked in the top 11 of the latest USA TODAY Sports AFCA coaches poll.
That includes No. 8 Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 SEC) and No. 11 Ole Miss (4-0), which will meet Saturday (11 am CT, ESPN) in Oxford.
If the expanded playoff were in place today, the winner of this game would become well-positioned for a bid.
In the current four-team playoff model, Saturday’s winner will further establish its bona fides and inch toward the playoff conversation. However, with Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State positioned as playoff frontrunners, Ole Miss or Kentucky may need to access the playoff through a backdoor, with the help of chaos elsewhere.
Even breathing Ole Miss or Kentucky in the same sentence as the word playoff is a credit to coaches Lane Kiffin and Mark Stoops.
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This series hasn’t seen a coaching matchup this good since Johnny Vaught’s Rebels beat Bear Bryant’s Wildcats 22-6 in 1953.
Not many guys can claim being their program’s best coach in 70 years, but that’s Stoops’ reality at Kentucky. Kiffin is sprinting toward the same distinction at Ole Miss.
So, why not stick around?
Coaches who win big at a program that hasn’t historically experienced great success have their names pop up when bigger-brand jobs open.
Such is the case for Kiffin and Stoops.
Multiple scribes positioned Stoops as a potential candidate for LSU last year, and his name resurfaced on hot boards following Nebraska’s firing of Scott Frost this month.
A year ago, I suggested Florida or Miami should consider Kiffin. Whether that happened, I don’t know. Interest from other employers was the only topic Kiffin declined to discuss in detail during our illuminating, wide-ranging conversation in June.
“When you win, those conversations happen,” Kiffin told me then. “It’s a product of your program and your players. Those things happen.”
How far has Ole Miss come in 2½ seasons under Kiffin? In the final game before his arrival, Ole Miss embarrassed itself in an Egg Bowl loss in the infamous attempt to pee like a dog game. On Saturday, the Rebels were dissatisfied with an eight-point win over Tulsa to conclude an undefeated September.
Kiffin and Stoops are winning at a rate Ole Miss and Kentucky are not accustomed to – so much so that Stoops rebuked John Calipari’s summertime suggestion that UK is a basketball school.
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Sorry, Stoops, Kentucky remains a basketball school, but UK’s football coach making such a rebuttal and not getting laughed out of town is a testament to what he’s built. After a slow-burn start to Stoops’ tenure, Kentucky has achieved two 10-win seasons in the past four years. Ole Miss’ 10 wins last year tied a program record.
A 10-win season for an SEC team in the current playoff model gets you into Sugar Bowl contention. That’s where the Rebels culminated last season.
Following playoff expansion, a 10-win season by an SEC team would generate a playoff bid, and a nine-win season would put the team in the playoff conversation.
Nebraska is rich in tradition, but the Cornhuskers are farther from being a playoff program than Kentucky or Ole Miss. The same is true for Auburn, where second-year Tigers coach Bryan Harsin is on a scalding-hot seat.
Thanks to Cam Newton, Auburn’s 2010 team won a national championship. The football product on the Plains should be better than Harsin is delivering, but even so, the job’s pressures are unyielding. Harsin’s predecessor Gus Malzahn got fired after eight consecutive winning seasons.
Post eight straight winning seasons at Ole Miss or Kentucky, and the school might name a facility after you.
Kiffin and Stoops are showing they’re no one-trick ponies, either.
Kentucky generally wins with a sturdy ground game and defense, but the Wildcats are moving the ball through the air this season to offset a stalled rushing attack.
Kiffin is a skilled quarterback developer, but he oversees the nation’s fourth-ranked rushing offense.
Kiffin and Stoops couldn’t be faulted for keeping the door cracked to other opportunities, but they don’t have to jump at the first brand-name suitor, especially if the name of that brand is Auburn or Nebraska.
A 12-team playoff affords them more reason to be picky, because they can qualify for an expanded playoff where they are. Their recent success proves it.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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