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 team – whoever 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)Follow @frankthetank111