Throughout this fall, we'll be trying to de-mystify the College Football Playoff. First up is why no conference is in as good of a situation as the SEC is in given how the playoff's structure ended up.
Let's talk about contracts. Three of the six CFP bowls have contracts that govern their participants when they aren't hosting semifinal games. The Rose Bowl will take a Big Ten and Pac-12 team. The Sugar Bowl will take an SEC and Big 12 team. The Orange Bowl will take an ACC team and pair it with the highest rated team out of the SEC, Big Ten, and Notre Dame—with a caveat. The CFP contract lasts 12 years, and the Orange's wildcard spot will be open in eight of them. By contract, the SEC and Big Ten must appear at least three times in that slot; Notre Dame has a cap of appearing twice but has no minimum requirement.
If you take it as a given that no conference will ever get more than two teams in the semifinals, and this is a good assumption, then we can figure out what the theoretical maximum number of contracted spots for each conference is. For the ACC, Pac-12, and Big 12, that theoretical max is three. They could put two in the semifinals and then have the Orange (ACC), Rose (Pac-12), or Sugar (Big 12) take a third team to satisfy their contracts. The SEC and Big Ten must have a theoretical max of four then, right? Two in the semis, one in the Sugar (SEC) or Rose (Big Ten), and then one in the Orange, right?
Actually, for both, the theoretical maximum is five, but the SEC is far more likely to hit that than the Big Ten is.
The Orange Bowl has a special provision for that SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame slot. The bowl can pass over the highest-ranked team from that pool of candidates in order to avoid a regular season rematch. The team that gets passed over must then appear in one of the major bowls that doesn't have contracts governing them.
Notre Dame is actually the most likely potential rematch team in that spot, as it will play five ACC teams a year thanks to its affiliation with that conference. We're talking conferences, though, and the SEC plays a lot more games against ACC teams than the Big Ten does.
How often might the SEC get five contracted teams? Well, it can only happen in years when the Peach and Fiesta Bowls host semifinals. In other words, it can happen a maximum of four times over the next dozen years. Could the stars really align just so for the SEC to get those five? The answer is an easy "yes", because it could have happened just last year.
Let's take the BCS standings in place of the selection committee's rankings. Auburn and Alabama get a place in the semifinals as the Nos. 2 and 3 teams. The Sugar Bowl would pick up No. 8 Missouri, as it gets priority over the Orange Bowl. With No. 4 Michigan State in the playoff and No. 7 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the team for the SEC/B1G/ND spot in the Orange would be No. 9 South Carolina. However, the Orange is getting Clemson as the highest ranked available ACC team with FSU in the playoff. The Orange could exercise its option to avoid a rematch and skip over South Carolina, sending the Gamecocks to the Cotton Bowl, and take No. 16 LSU. Just like that, contracts have forced five SEC teams into the major bowl spots.
Now, I said it "could" happen last year, not that it "would" happen last year. The Orange Bowl skipping South Carolina to avoid a regular season rematch would have created a regular season rematch in the Cotton Bowl between Carolina and UCF. The highest ranked non-Power 5 conference champ gets a guaranteed spot in the major bowls, and the Cotton is the only place where that team can go when the Peach and Fiesta Bowls host semifinals. Could the Orange Bowl use its anti-rematch clause when it would in turn cause a rematch in the Cotton? I don't know. I wonder if that possibility has even come up in the discussions.
Putting the Cotton Bowl rematch potential aside, last season illustrates quite well how the SEC can end up with five contracted spots in the major bowls. Only the Big Ten has the ability to do it also, but its relative paucity of games against the ACC makes it far less likely to pull it off.
The SEC sits in the most advantageous position when it comes to maximizing the number of major bowl participants over the next dozen years. Another conference might end up ahead in the end, but it will have to work harder to make that happen. Mike Slive knows what he's doing.