Hallelujah! 12-Team College Football Playoff Approved

Most of the readers here came to this blog because of my writings on conference realignment. However, long before realignment became a year-in and year-out news story, I’ve been writing about and advocating for a legitimate full-scale college football playoff. If there’s one structural item in all of sports (whether college or pro) that has gnawed at me ever since I was a kid, it’s that the way that college football determines is champion is asinine. The best that we could say about the college football postseason is that it has gradually become less asinine over the years.

What made it particularly frustrating is that we have witnessed universities and conferences chase every single dollar under the sun, whether it’s via conference realignment, TV contracts that require odd start times and travel for athletes, and pushing donors to fund everything from state-of-the-art locker rooms to the current zeal for NIL collectives. Yet, when it came to the one money-chasing item on the agenda that fans actually wanted – a full college football playoff – the powers that be continued to fail to deliver over the years. It was a bizarro world in how it’s the one instance where the powers that be failed the fans for not acting rationally in their own economic self-interests.

We have finally reached the state where that constant gnawing and frustration can stop: the College Football Playoff Board of Managers (AKA the designated university president representative from each FBS conference and Notre Dame) has approved a 12-team playoff with the top 6 conference champions receiving bids along with 6 at-large slots. The newly expanded CFP will start in 2026 for sure and it’s possible that it could come sooner.

Personally, I find this to be phenomenal and believe that it will supercharge the interest in the sport beyond the handful of top brands (e.g. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson) that have dominated during the CFP era. One issue that has come up during the CFP era that wasn’t as acute during the BCS era is that the national interest and storylines in college football have been almost entirely about who and who doesn’t make the playoff. Even in the BCS era, making it to the Rose Bowl or another BCS bowl beyond the National Championship Game was still quite relevant to national audiences. Now, though, virtually any game that doesn’t have an impact on the top 4 rankings is seen as meaningless. That means that there have been a lot of exciting mega-important regular season games for a small number of teams like Alabama and Ohio State over the past several seasons, but a complete dearth of them for the vast majority of college football fans.

I watch the NFL just as much or more than college football and here’s what I see the NFL does so well (and a major reason why it’s the most popular sport in America by a massive margin): the stakes for your own team (whoever that might be), not just the biggest brands like the Cowboys and Patriots, are real and impact the playoff race long into the year. The NFL season isn’t just about the handful of teams that make the playoffs, but rather the much wider group of teams in the playoff hunt. When your own team is in the playoff hunt, that not only drives interest in watching your team’s games, but also every single other NFL game that can have an effect on your own team.

Essentially, NFL fandom is very much “bottom-up” where the intense interest in your own team is what then drives interest you watching the bigger national games as opposed to the other way around. In contrast, college football has really taken a “top-down” approach to fandom over this past generation. The powers that be have been banking on the very top brands like Alabama and Ohio State to effectively have a trickle-down effect to draw viewers to games where they’re often playing opponents that start every Labor Day weekend seeing zero chance of making it to the CFP. (See my Illinois Fighting Illini.) This is ironic because college sports are supposed to be the essence of regional and local sports fandom, yet the largest national brands have become more important than ever. We are seeing this play out right now in conference realignment with the Big Ten adding USC and UCLA (and maybe more) and the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma.

Ultimately, if we are living in a world where success is singularly defined by whether a team (or conference: see the Pac-12’s struggles) makes it to the CFP or not, the current 4-team playoff system is simply too small for such world. Not too long ago, a Big Ten team that just won the Rose Bowl would be celebrated regardless of whether they were national champions. When you look at Ryan Day’s comments about this past season’s Ohio State team that won the Rose Bowl, though, you would have thought that the Buckeyes had a losing year like my Illini or worse. This isn’t just a reflection of the high standards at Ohio State, but also that a combination of a super-small playoff field and the belief that making that super-small playoff field is the only way a team can be successful is completely warping fan/coach/team expectations along with the way that we watch college football.

Expanding that playoff to 12 totally changes that dynamic. Speaking as an Illini guy, there was no reasonable circumstance where I thought that Illinois could ever make it to a top 4 playoff. However, in a universe with a 12-team playoff where the top 6 conference champs get auto-bids, I can at least squint and see a path for my very plebian football program. You can multiply that for other Power Five programs that have been more successful than my Illini and provide that hope (however small it might be) to an entire class of Group of Five conference teams.

I understand the Stockholm Syndrome of some fans that will bemoan that this will reduce the importance of the regular season, but I once again go back to the core problem that the “importance of the regular season” only applied to a small handful of teams per year while the rest of college football was effectively playing for nothing of national importance by the end of September. This was exacerbated over the CFP era with all of the national energy entirely going to a playoff race that had only 4 spots available. We’re not putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle about the national focus on the playoff race, so the system effectively had to expand to keep more teams (and thereby more fans) invested in the sport.

In essence, the 12-team College Football Playoff provides stakes to your own teamwhoever that might be – just like the NFL. While the details still need to be finalized by the FBS commissioners and Notre Dame, essentially any ranked team can look at themselves as a playoff contender. That is a massive change in mindset and I think it’s going to be a great one overall. Interest is inherently capped when it’s just Alabama, Ohio State and a handful of the same usual suspects competing in the playoff annually. In contrast, there’s nothing more powerful than when your own team is in the playoff hunt. Expanding that universe of teams in the playoff hunt is what can drive the interest in college football far beyond where it is today.

A few years ago, I remember when I explained to my then-8-year old son how the college football postseason worked with a totally subjective committee choosing the teams and how this actually was an improvement over the prior BCS system and how sportswriter polls used to determine the national champion. His simple response: “That’s stupid.” Even an 8-year old could clearly see what many adults refused to acknowledge for the last century. The College Football Playoff will now be a lot less stupid going forward.

(Image from CBS Sports)

A Dirty Dozen Teams: College Football Playoff Expansion on the Table

It has been a long time since my last post and we have a lot to catch up on (to say the least). There will be more to come, but let’s focus on a timely topic: the very real possibility of college football playoff expansion.

Last week, the College Football Playoff management committee issued a press release about its latest meetings where it stated that it had a working group exploring expanding the playoff with “some 63 possibilities for change. These included 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 16-team options, each with a variety of different scenarios.” While CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock had all of the standard disclaimers that there is still a 4-team playoff and the discussions are all exploratory, the fact that the CFP directly acknowledged all of this on its own indicated that the powers that be might have been further along in its talks than anyone could have imagined up to this point. Remember that conference commissioners were all publicly firm that the old BCS system wouldn’t change only weeks before the current CFP format was put into place and the party line until now has been a steadfast, “We have a 4-team playoff under a 12-year agreement and that’s not changing.” The powers that be in college football HATE talking about college football expansion, so unilaterally offering it up to the public that they’re discussing the issue isn’t just throwing out there for speculation.

Needless to say, this got me quite excited! I have been writing about college football playoff scenarios for as long as this blog has existed (and way before conference realignment really became such a huge focus here). My oldest post on this subject was a proposal in July 2006 to have an 8-team playoff with power conference auto-bids using traditional bowl matchups (such as always having the Big Ten and then-Pac-10 champs play in the Rose Bowl). All of these years later, that would personally still be my optimal playoff format. That 2006 post would need a few tweaks and updates to account for events that have occurred since that time, but all of the principles I wrote back then pretty much apply today.

Following up on that press release, The Athletic reported on Wednesday that college football playoff expansion discussions are indeed progressing along quickly. That in and of itself didn’t surprise. However, what did surprise me was what was revealed in the opening of the article:

Concerned that their four-team product has been harmed by the dominance of a select few teams from the same region, FBS commissioners are seriously considering expanding the College Football Playoff. And while it’s long been assumed that any change to the format would be modest, several influential decision-makers are suddenly open to a playoff system that skips past eight teams and into the double digits.

“I sense 12 teams is building support,” one Power 5 athletic director said.

12 teams?!

My initial reaction was, “WTF?!” I had it in my head that an 8-team playoff was the inevitable next step for so long that the thought of the system moving to 12 teams made my head feel like I just did a keg stand on a Slurpee machine. How could the powers that be that have inched along with playoff expansion for the last century suddenly zoom up to a 12-team playoff?

Taking a step back and thinking about it further, though, maybe the powers that be are (weirdly) seeing a 12-team playoff as a system that is closer to the status quo than an 8-team playoff. Consider the following:

(1) Many college football fans (myself included) have been so focused on whether to expand the 4-team playoff itself that we have generally neglected the fact that the overall CFP system consists of 12 teams competing in the New Year’s Six Bowls. Those 12 teams consist of the Power Five conference champs, the top Group of Five champ, and 6 other teams (at-larges and conference contract bids). Essentially, the powers that be could be viewing this as simply taking that existing field of teams (with the exception that the 6 “other teams” would all be at-larges based on merit) and turning it into a playoff.

(2) A 12-team playoff would presumably provide first round byes to the top 4 teams. This preserves the top 4 horse race that exists in the current CFP system (and goosing the ratings of those weekly CFP rankings release shows on ESPN) while expanding enough to allow for auto-bids for the Power Five conferences and the top Group of Five champ. That wouldn’t be the same in an 8-team playoff. This also alleviates concerns that Power Five schools that have clinched conference championship game berths might rest players in late season games (similar to NFL teams that have clinched playoff spots) and just bank on winning their conference championships. Putting in the carrot of a first round bye means that teams would be competing just as hard for a top 4 spot throughout the entire regular season. (Personally, one of the reasons why I have advocated for an 8-team playoff was to minimize the power of the CFP selection committee. If we end up with a 12-team playoff, the powers that be clearly aren’t as bothered by that issue as the ability to grant byes arguably gives the CFP selection committee more power than ever.)

I don’t know if I personally like the prospect of a 12-team playoff more than an 8-team playoff, but I’ll have to say that it’s growing on me. If that’s the size of field that’s required to have auto-bids for all of the Power Five conference (which I believe is a minimum requirement for any playoff expansion), then it works for me. To be sure, there are many other issues to examine over the coming months (not the least of which is what happens to the bowl system).

In any event, with colleges large and small getting squeezed with a double whammy of higher expenses and lower tuition and room and board revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, university presidents are likely far past the point where they can afford to pass up any opportunities to generate revenue regardless of past reservations. Expanding the College Football Playoff is simply one of the easiest ways out there for universities to instantly raise revenue, so it’s not a surprise that it is coming to forefront now.

(Image from Scarlet and Game)