Change is coming to major college football! No, no—not acknowledgement of its systemic inequities and a decision to finally pay the players, let’s not be ridiculous. The sport is moving toward a bigger postseason. The College Football Playoff working committee recommended on Thursday that the event’s field triple in size, from four teams to 12. This move would both generate massive amounts of cash and alter the landscape of the sport.
Playoff expansion was always inevitable. When the College Football Playoff was installed in 2014, the four-team format was at once revolutionary—the first legitimate postseason tournament for the FBS!—and a means to broadly preserve the sport’s status quo. It propped up the bowl system and functionally excluded any teams from outside the power conferences. Four teams was literally the smallest number the playoff could have included while still calling itself a playoff.
That system couldn’t hold. Once it became clear that the sport’s structure could change, why settle for a flawed solution? Less than a decade after its inception, the playoff is already poised to transform.
The format laid out in Thursday’s proposal fixes many of the issues with the initial playoff format, opening up access to teams from smaller leagues and squashing controversies that have annually beset the selection committee. But like all things related to college football, this news is complicated, and this playoff shift would come with a lot of consequences. Let’s break it all down with an FAQ explainer.
Can you quickly explain this proposed format?
No! It’s not gonna be quick.
OK, can you take a few minutes to explain this proposed format?
The proposed College Football Playoff bracket would feature 12 teams: the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus six at-large teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions would earn first-round byes, and the next four highest-ranked teams would host the teams ranked nos. 9-12 in first-round playoff games. After the first round, all of the games would take place at neutral sites.
Why is college football proposing this change?
There are two answers here.
The first is that the playoff has grown stale in recent years. Almost every semifinal game in the event’s history has been boring. The actual matchups have featured the same select schools; 20 of the 28 all-time playoff slots have gone to four teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma). Nine of 14 national championship game slots have gone to Alabama or Clemson, and five of seven titles have been won by Alabama or Clemson. Meanwhile, the selection committee’s decision-making has regularly come under fire, and the four-team playoff has rendered bowl games between, say, the fifth- and eighth-best teams in the country virtually irrelevant.
But the second reason is the real reason: This is going to generate a truly ludicrous amount of money. In the current system, ESPN pays $470 million annually to broadcast the College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six bowl games—seven total games, only three of which have any bearing on the national championship picture. The expanded playoff would feature 11 games, all of which would be part of the national championship picture. I’m no sports business expert, but … a billion dollars a year for those rights sounds conservative, right?
So, is this definitely going to happen?
Technically, the 12-team field is just a recommendation from the playoff working group, a four-member subcommittee of the management committee. (The four members: Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.) The management committee, which features those four and seven other conference commissioners, will consider the proposal, then bring it to the board of managers. (Yes, the “management committee” and the “board of managers” are different things.) The board features 11 university presidents, and has the final say.
But yeah … this is definitely going to happen. The working group was put in place specifically to come up with the best solution to expand the playoff, and its proposal would make a cartoonish amount of money for the people voting on it and their colleagues.
How would a 12-team playoff have looked in recent years?
Glad you asked! Here’s a rundown of how the 12-team field would have shaken out for every season since 2014:
Here it is! How the CFP’s 12-team proposal would have played out the last 7 yrs.— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) June 10, 2021
There were 4 instances of a team ranked outside the top 12 making it:
2019: 17 Memphis
2016: 15 W. Michigan
2015: 18 Houston
2014: 20 Boise
A combined 22 teams ranked inside the top 12 missed it. pic.twitter.com/kQB7Pwh4Mc
Of course, the final rankings may have been different if the selection committee wasn’t so focused on the top four, but this feels like a good starting point nonetheless.
A quick glance reveals just how dramatically this proposal would expand championship access. In the seven years of the playoff’s existence, 11 teams and five conferences have qualified. If this format had been in place, 39 teams and nine conferences would’ve clinched at least one playoff spot.
Wait, haven’t the powers that be argued that four teams is the perfect number for a playoff?
Ever since the playoff came into existence, College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has said that four teams was the perfect number. In 2017 he maintained that there had been no talk of expansion, asking, “Why monkey with a good thing?” In 2018 he produced a paean to the four-team format, saying “four teams keeps the focus on this wonderful regular season, the most meaningful and compelling in all of sports; four lets us keep the bowl experience for thousands of student-athletes; four keeps college football within the framework of higher education.” In 2019, Hancock said that he didn’t expect the playoff to expand before its ESPN contract was up, saying that “the four-team format is extremely popular.” In 2020 he once again shot down expansion, saying “my bosses are happy.”
There is a simple explanation for this: Hancock is paid extremely well to say that the current postseason format is great and that any other formats are bad. Even if the current format is bad, he would say it is good. That’s his job! He was once the head of the BCS, and spent years dismissing the prospect of a playoff … only to become head of that playoff and instantly start talking about how great it was and how terrible the BCS was.
Because Hancock once said the four-team playoff “kept college football within the framework of higher education,” should we presume that a 12-team playoff has now taken college football out of that framework? No, not really—a better idea is to discount anything Hancock says. He’s just doing his job, which does not require honesty. I’m looking forward to 2050, when College Football Super League executive director Hancock tries to explain how the Grand Dubai MegaBowl presented by UberAmazon keeps college football within the framework of higher education.
When will we get our first 12-team playoff?
A while from now. The current system is locked in place for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. The earliest the new system could take effect would be in 2023. But The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach suggests that the change could be delayed until 2026, because that’s when ESPN’s initial 12-year media rights contract with the playoff expires. If the change happens sooner, the playoff would have to renegotiate a contract exclusively with ESPN; by waiting until 2026, the playoff could ensure a network bidding war.
Where will the games be played?
The first-round games would be played on campuses, hosted by the higher seeds. Games in every other round would be played at neutral sites.
This is my least favorite part of the proposal. It’s weird that the only teams that would host home games are the ones ranked nos. 5-8—the top four seeds would get first-round byes, which is nice, but shouldn’t they also get home games? A national championship participant could have to play in four consecutive neutral site games, dating back to its conference title game. That’s a ridiculous amount of travel for the teams and a terrible situation for the fans.
This seems like a missed opportunity. College football stadiums and the fan bases that fill them are one of the best parts of this stupid sport. The playoff should cherish every opportunity to embrace them instead of seeking out more neutral-site games. Yes, I like bowl games, but let’s be real: These aren’t bowl games. They’re playoff games. It would be way more fun if they took place in front of rabid home crowds instead of in semi-full NFL stadiums several states away from either team’s campus.
Who will pick the 12 teams?
That hasn’t been decided yet. As a harsh critic of the College Football Playoff selection committee, though, I’m not particularly worried about it.
Regardless of who picks the teams, the stakes would be lower than they currently are. In the four-team system, the selection of the fourth team is massively consequential. The no. 4 seed is presumably good enough to win the national title—in fact, this happened twice, when Ohio State was the no. 4 seed in the 2014 season and Alabama was the no. 4 seed in the 2017 season. So if the committee screwed that pick up, it felt disastrous. And when the committee left out undefeated teams from smaller conferences, it felt like part of a conspiracy.
In this new format, there would still be tough choices to make, but the consequences would be smaller. The last team out would be the nation’s seventh-best team that didn’t win its conference championship. Last year, that would’ve been 8-3 North Carolina. Sure, fans of the Tar Heels would have been angry that they weren’t included, but it’s hard to feel like that 13th-ranked team is missing out on a legitimate championship opportunity. And while there’s still a downside to being the no. 5 seed instead of the no. 4 seed—no. 4 gets a first-round bye—the fifth-ranked team would get a home game against the lowest-ranked team in the playoff field.
Think about March Madness. Sure, bracketologists get upset if the committee screws up and excludes a team that deserved a spot. But most people are too busy filling out brackets to care that the 59th-best team in the country was left out of the 68-team field.
How does this proposed system affect the little guys?
It’s great for them. For the first time, a team from outside of the five power conferences would be guaranteed access to the postseason that determines the national champion.
Over the past few years, I have aggressively criticized the College Football Playoff for refusing to consider any program from outside of the Power Five conferences (the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC). Those leagues gave themselves outsized roles on the selection committee, and used that power to lock out every other team in the sport. Even if UCF or Cincinnati went undefeated, they never truly stood a chance at making the dance.
But this playoff proposal promises spots to the six top-ranked conference champions. Since there are only five power conferences, that means at least one team from outside of those leagues would make it every season. If a team from any league goes undefeated, it’ll probably make the playoff.
But there’s more! The new format could have promised playoff spots to the five power-conference champions and the top-ranked champion from the other leagues. Instead, this proposal would ensure spots for the top six conference champs, regardless of the conferences they represent. This would allow for the possibility of multiple non-power-league champions qualifying for the playoff in a single season. In 2020, for instance, both American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati and Sun Belt champion Coastal Carolina ranked higher than Pac-12 champion Oregon.
The four-team playoff sold itself as giving a shot to all 130 FBS teams, but functionally excluded every team outside the power conferences. Half the teams in the sport had no possible road to winning a national championship from the moment their seasons began. Sure, it’s unlikely that a Sun Belt champion would beat Alabama—but at least now it would have a chance to try on the field.
What would this mean for Notre Dame?
Hold on, I need a second to compose myself for this one. OK, I’ll try to get through it without laughing. Because Notre Dame is not a member of any conference, it would be permanently prevented from—pffffffffft lmaoooooooooo, let me try this again.
Because Notre Dame is not a member of any conference, it would be permanently prevented from getting a first-round playoff bye, as those would be reserved for conference champions. The same would go for Army, BYU, and other FBS independents. But this mainly applies to Notre Dame, the only top-tier program that isn’t a member of a conference.
You could look at this as a game-for-game swap. Instead of playing in a conference title game, Notre Dame would be forced to play in a first-round playoff game. But that’s not an even trade. A team can lose a conference championship game and still make the playoff and compete for a national championship; if Notre Dame loses a first-round game, its title hopes would be dashed. The Fighting Irish would always have to win four straight playoff games in order to become champions.
Past systems have built in advantages for Notre Dame; take the BCS, which gave the Irish unique rules to qualify for top-tier bowl games. This proposed format does the opposite and gives huge benefits to conference members. It’s honestly stunning that Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick was one of the four people in charge of designing this proposal, because it so specifically disadvantages his own program. Notre Dame hasn’t recently won a championship in any of the systems that gave it a leg up—its last title was in 1988—and life would get a lot harder in this new format.
Will this change who wins the national title?
Probably not. In recent years, there has been a massive gap between the championship-caliber teams and everybody else. It’s exceedingly difficult to imagine a no. 10 or no. 12 seed going on a surprise run to win it all. I bet at least 90 percent of championships in this system will be won by teams that had a first-round bye—teams that would’ve made the playoff in the current system. It’s possible that expanding the playoff will convince some top-tier recruits to diversify their college choices … but let’s be real: They’ll probably all still go to Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State.
That’s college football for you. Alabama won titles when the national champion was determined by the polls; Alabama won titles when the BCS existed; Alabama won titles with a four-team playoff system; Alabama will win titles in a 12-team playoff too. We could implement a 128-team playoff and Alabama would probably still win. This proposed format isn’t going to change which teams are good—but it might make life more fun, which is what a sport dominated by the same few programs always has needed.
Will this proposal hurt the regular season?
On one hand, this new system would give championship contenders more margin for error; teams could lose two or three times and still qualify for the playoff. On the other hand, this proposal would lead to more meaningful college football games, both in the regular season and in the postseason. More teams would have playoff hopes in November, which means more teams would have playoff hopes dashed in November. Plus, the added emphasis on conference championships would ensure divisional races and league title games are more important than ever. That’s a boon for everybody.
It would become harder to end Alabama’s season—but much easier for other teams to keep their own seasons alive. I think that’s a good thing.
What would happen to the bowls?
As a fan of bowl season, I have to admit this format would be bad for most bowls. At the very least, a handful of bowls would cease to exist because there would be eight fewer bowl-eligible teams each season. In the grand scheme, though, the whole bowl system would become less important. If the number of playoff games expands from three to 11, it would become harder than ever to sell the 30-ish games featuring non-playoff teams.
Quite frankly, the bowl system is obsolete. Bowl games started about 100 years ago to provide a postseason for a sport that didn’t have one. Now, the sport does have a postseason, which has swapped out disconnected bowls for a sensible bracket. So all that’s left is this strange ecosystem that sends 6-6 teams to the Bahamas ... or Idaho.
That said, I’m still absolutely going to watch the Cheez-It Bowl. You can’t stop me.
How many SEC teams can get in?
Theoretically, one conference could send between zero and seven teams to the playoff. There are no guarantees any conference would get a slot, nor any limits on how many of the six at-large spots one league could get.
But you should expect most playoff fields in a 12-team system to feature three or four SEC teams. If this format had been in place in the 2015 and 2016 seasons, only Alabama would have secured a berth from the league. In every other season since 2014, the playoff field would have featured at least three SEC teams.
Who’s the biggest winner in all this?
The people who run the six bowl games that would be made part of the quarterfinals and semifinals. There has been no word yet on which six bowls these will be, but we can safely assume they’re the New Year’s Six bowl games that have been a part of the College Football Playoff since 2014: the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, and Sugar bowls.
With each passing change to the college football system, these games bear less and less resemblance to their original forms. The Rose Bowl was created as a season-ending showcase for the champions of leagues now called the Big Ten and the Pac-12; it took place in Pasadena, California, and provided an opportunity for Midwestern teams and their fans to spend New Year’s Day in a beautiful, warm place. Last season, the Rose Bowl took place in Texas and put SEC champion Alabama against independent Notre Dame. The only thing that made it the Rose Bowl was its name.
But we’re nostalgic for those names all the same. Surely, the playoff could have games in Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, and Phoenix without calling them the Peach, Cotton, Sugar, and Fiesta bowls. But the people in charge of these bowls are some of the most influential people in college football, and have yet again ensured that they will continue to get a cut of the sport’s riches even as their original purpose has been rendered irrelevant. They’re the biggest winners here, because they’re adding a little and getting a lot.
Who’s the biggest loser in all this?
College football players, by a large margin.
It’s hard to find flaws with the competitive aspects of this proposed format. And even if there are some flaws, the idea is to give fans more football, and we like football, so more football is good.
But this sport is violent and dangerous, and brutalizes the bodies and brains of the people who play it. At the college level, those players are unpaid beyond tuition and room and board. Now, they would have to play more games—as many as 17 in a season—and get the same pay, or lack thereof. A player would not get a super-duper scholarship for playing extra games. Compensation would stay the same; only the risk would increase.
It’s true that change in this regard may be on the horizon. College athletes will soon be able to profit off of their names, images, and likenesses, allowing them to make money from appearing in advertisements. The amateurism model at large is under fire too. But changes are happening painstakingly slowly, requiring Supreme Court cases and congressional hearings. The playoff changes are happening significantly more rapidly.
In the past 10 years, mere inches of progress have been made toward players getting paid, while the College Football Playoff came into existence and took steps to expand. When the people in power want more money, change moves like a waterfall; when they have to give money up, change moves like a glacier.