Although it’s not yet certain when it will happen, the College Football Playoff will soon expand from four teams to 12. Right now, the expansion is officially just a recommendation from a handful of powerful administrators across college football. Even so, these sorts of recommendations don’t become public if the people behind them aren’t sure they have the support to make them stick. And in this case, those people are some of the most important movers and shakers in college athletics.
Playoff expansion will certainly be a good thing for the finances of the schools that play in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Whether it will be good for the sport as a whole, including its players, its fans, and their experiences with college football, is less obvious. One thing’s for sure: The College Football Playoff expansion will have a big effect on how the league operates. Here, I’ve outlined some pros and cons of a 12-team postseason.
Pro: The Playoff will be more accessible to teams in the “Group of 5” conferences.
The greatest failing of the four-team setup that began in 2014 is that half of FBS is effectively banned from the Playoff. The four-team field is technically open to teams outside the Power 5 leagues (the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12), but no team from the so-called “Group of 5” leagues (that’s the American Athletic, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt, and Mid-American) has ever made the dance.
In 2020, Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati both went undefeated, and they didn’t get so much as a sniff from the Playoff’s selection committee—neither team reached higher than sixth in any week’s rankings. That was par for the course. Since 2016, almost every year has seen an unbeaten Group of 5 team miss out.
The 12-team format will ensure at least one Group of 5 team makes it every year. The six highest-ranked conference championships are guaranteed a bid, and because there are only five power conferences, the others will get at least one slot. Some years, they might even get two. Overall, the Group of 5 conferences will probably be the biggest winners in this new system.
Con: The players still won’t get paid, and now they’ll be asked to put their bodies on the line for more games.
College football’s original and biggest sin remains in effect: The labor does not get paid. Universities can give athletes all the scholarships, meals, classes, and housing they want. It all falls short considering the Playoff is worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year in TV money alone—and will surely be worth more once the field has tripled in size, taking the Playoff from three televised games to 11. (The top four seeds get byes into the second round.)
Currently, the typical Playoff finalist plays 15 games in a season. In the 12-team system, it would likely be 16 and could be as many as 17 if a team that makes the final did not get a first-round bye. One of the architects of the new playoff did not have the most encouraging answer when asked about the new system’s impact on athlete health.
“The bye works so that the most any one of those teams could play in addition would be one game,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told 247Sports. “The route to get to 17 in this model isn’t impossible, but there have been a lot of things built in to make that highly unlikely.”
That’s not a great plan!
Pro: We’ll get to see postseason college football games on campus.
The opening round of the 12-team playoff, where the fifth through 12th seeds play single-elimination games to move on to face the four teams that get byes, will be played in teams’ home stadiums. That’s a welcome change.
In FBS, the entire postseason has historically been staged at neutral-site bowl games. Those are often NFL venues that college teams cannot fill up, or run-down old stadiums in out of the way places. In the 12-team playoff, the opening games will take place in raucous, on-campus stadiums where teams will have students in attendance. In other words, college football’s postseason will look like actual college football for the first time ever in FBS. (The lower levels of the sport have long had on-campus playoff games.)
It isn’t perfect: The later rounds of the Playoff will be held at bowl sites. But it’s a step forward.
Con: Even more teams will be incentivized to view the Playoff as their main objective.
A lot of people in college football don’t like the Playoff, because they believe it absorbs too much focus. Those people are correct, at least in part. Many fans, pundits, and even coaches and administrators now measure success predominantly by whether their team gets to the Playoff or not. Given that 78 percent of the Playoff bids since 2014 have gone to the same five teams, that’s not a great way to set expectations.
Nobody needs to have a single-minded focus on the Playoff. There are plenty of ways for individual schools (and their fans) to turn their attention to meaningful, achievable goals. Still, thinking about the Playoff can be fun if you know how to do it right. It’s just that a lot of college football teams do not, and they’re likely to continue to chase a Playoff berth that is now more attainable but still difficult to achieve.
Pro: More regular-season games will be more important.
With the four-team Playoff system, only around five or seven teams usually have a serious shot at making it by the time the last two weeks of the season roll around. That number should approximately triple, and it’s easy to see how it could have a fun downstream effect.
In the four-team format, the No. 18 team isn’t anywhere near the Playoff conversation as Thanksgiving approaches. In a 12-team format, that team could still sneak into the Playoff, which leaves open the slimmest possibility of a Cinderella run to a championship. Such a magical run is highly unlikely, but great sports moments are born from glimmers of hope.
Con: Alabama will still make the Playoff even when it loses multiple games.
One of the excitements of the four-team system is that a powerhouse team like the Crimson Tide can be eliminated as soon as it loses a second game. For instance, in 2019, Bama lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which kept the Tide out of the top four (and thus out of the Playoff) for the only time in the event’s history.
Alabama was playing for its Playoff life, which made the Iron Bowl an exciting high-stakes game. In a 12-team system, Bama would’ve made it regardless of the outcome, and that would have taken some punch away from the game. This system will give every Goliath program more margin for error, making them that much harder to defeat.
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