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The Expanded College Football Playoff Can Be Great—If It Follows These Five Steps

Last week’s announcement that the playoff is jumping from four to 12 teams by 2026 caused plenty of concern among fans. But if officials make a few specific moves, this could turn into one of the best events in American sports.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best college football games might kill you. Not in a fun way. Not in a jokey way. In a deeply serious, deeply harrowing way. No sport uses scarcity better: You see the teams you hate most only once a year, and the threshold to have a chance at winning a national title is so high—two losses eliminates you out of hand most years—that close, important regular-season games create a hand-shaking anxiety and dread that is unique in American sports. There are very rarely second chances or second acts during a college football season.

The current tension around modern college football, though, is that despite being built on this scarcity, the College Football Playoff’s board of managers voted last week to expand the playoff to 12 teams, from the current four. (The group is currently exploring starting that as soon as 2024, but at least by 2026.) It is mostly a good thing that the playoff is expanding. If you’re going to have a playoff, it’s better to get a wider variety of teams to include more conferences, more regions of the country, more charming stories. More football. It is a top-heavy sport and always will be, but you can inject more chaos and ceremony into actually crowning the champion, however inevitable that champion may be.

But what college football cannot do is lose the sensation described above: The feeling every fan gets on a fourth-and-9 in the red zone in late October knowing that no matter what happens after the ball is snapped, their mood for the rest of the month—or decade—will be irrevocably altered. You’ll either feel the pure euphoria of victory or slink to your laptop and post on a message board that your team should hire Urban Meyer. There is no in-between. It’s a reach to say that college football is the sports version of doing every drug at once. One involves a highly illegal, cartel-controlled mess, and the other is actual narcotics. But still, college football makes you feel things, and that should always remain true.

So the postseason must thread the needle between growing the sport in December and January, with a playoff that’ll take over the country, and keeping its heartbeat going throughout the fall. The new format has the capability to be one of the best events in American sports, combining the national glee of March Madness with America’s addiction to football, office pools, and Kirk Herbstreit. But there’s also a worse path, where it could become a poorly-thought-out slog that never captures the nation’s attention the way the postseason for the second most popular sports product in America should. There is not a ton of daylight between these two options. It is not likely that this expanded playoff will be considered just OK.

Now, the current College Football Playoff is the thing that is just OK. Though far better than the old system, which was built on hypothetical dream matchups and maddening bowl bureaucracy, the four-team postseason lacked the special ingredients that make the regular season so compelling. Last year’s semifinal games had the lowest TV ratings on record, and crucially had the same ratings as the Rose Bowl, which had nothing to do with the national title picture but featured Ohio State playing in a pretty stadium everyone loves. Turns out that matters. The year before, the semifinals got higher ratings than the final. Last year’s title game in Indianapolis was cheaper to get into than the SEC title game between the same two teams a month earlier. When Alabama and Clemson played for the national championship in the 49ers stadium in 2019, tickets on the secondary market were available for $300 under face value. Bafflingly, the playoff hasn’t felt essential to the sport since its launch in 2014.

But no sport is changing quicker than college football right now, from NIL to the transfer portal to conference realignment to upending its own postseason. A time traveler from even the 1990s would be stunned by what the sport looks like now. I sense, on the internet, a growing mood of defeatism about the expansion, the idea that college officials will make the wrong decisions because college officials have made bad decisions a lot over the past, say, 150 years. But I’m not so sure. I think this playoff can be a massive success, largely because I think it has to be: Unlike the NFL, college football needs to clear a high bar to command widespread attention. It cannot, as the NFL does, feed us a Dolphins-Ravens game on a Thursday and beat the Olympics and the Oscars. It’s in college football’s best interest to give the people a good playoff. Here’s what it must do in order to get one:

Step 1: Use campuses as much as possible.

College football’s main advantage—not just on the NFL, but on all American sports—is what happens inside its stadiums. Everyone is a little louder, a little rowdier. There’s a good deal of the country whose main hobby after the summer ends is to drink 12 IPAs, get mad at their team’s offensive coordinator, and complain on their way out of the game. The existence of a true away fan section means the noise can shift dramatically from one part of the stadium to the next. The way the sun hits the stadium can be breathtaking. The difference between the weather in a Big Ten noon kickoff and an SEC 3:30 one is dramatic. The best thing about turning on a college football game anywhere in the country is that you’ll get something you weren’t expecting.

But schools and conferences have spent the past few decades relinquishing that advantage by moving as many games as possible to new NFL stadiums. Kickoff classics, incredibly lucrative neutral-site games, have become a Week 1 staple. This is not all bad—lots of these matchups, like LSU and FSU this past week, might not happen if they required a home-and-home. But there’s no world in which a neutral site is better than the atmosphere at dozens of campuses across America.

Reports trickled out last week that the first round of the expanded playoff will happen on campuses or at a stadium of the higher seed’s choosing. That’s a great first step, but I’d argue it doesn’t go far enough. The plan to play quarterfinals at bowl sites—and ensure that teams like Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State, who would usually have a bye, rarely host playoff games—is so nonsensical it could only be thought of by college sports officials. Teams should not be punished for being good.

There is something special this playoff can offer. You can’t force or legislate parity into this sport. It will never, ever happen. I’ve seen arguments that an expanded playoff will help more schools get elite prospects, which is wishful thinking at best. But what you can give the audience is magic. You can sell anyone in the world on that. For instance: If the playoffs existed in 2018, then solely going off the committee’s ranking, UCF would have come into the final week of the season with a chance to host in-state giant Florida in the first round. Last year, Ole Miss would have had a home playoff game based on seeding. Could you imagine the atmosphere, even if students weren’t in school for the semester? It is not just about the cathedrals of the game hosting playoff matchups; it’s about a smaller team—a 2017 UCF, a 2006 Boise State, a 2010 TCU—making a regular-season run from outside the Power 5 and hosting a massive program in their own stadium. It would combine the stakes of the Champions League with the charm of the FA Cup. Who doesn’t want that? As luck would have it, there are only a small handful of people who don’t, and they all happen to run the bowls and the College Football Playoff.

The CFP should take it a step further: Play all games except the final on campuses. This would accomplish a few things: It would make the regular season more meaningful, making seeding even more important than just the byes. It would keep die-hard fans from spending thousands of dollars in unnecessary travel (I know this isn’t much of a concern to the powers that be, but it should be). It would showcase the absolute frenzy of college football atmospheres when the most eyeballs should be watching, and it would just make things look different. I want to see the Big House in the snow when Texas A&M visits. I want to see how loud Autzen Stadium in Eugene can get when Clemson takes the field there, and I want as many of these events as possible.

Now, there’s trouble on the horizon with even the current plan to play only first-round games on campus. Earlier this year, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith gave one of the most abysmal takes of the calendar year when he said he would recommend moving any on-campus Ohio State playoff game to the “Hoosier Dome” in Indianapolis (a building that hasn’t existed since 2008 and hadn’t been called that since 1994). If this happened—if the entirety of Buckeye nation were forced to drive three hours west of Columbus to watch their team play in an NFL stadium—there should be swift and immediate backlash from the fan base. A playoff game in Columbus would be a phenomenon. Same as in Austin, or Athens, or at the Coliseum for USC. Not to be overdramatic, but I feel like through conference realignment and the remaking of the bowls we’ve lost a lot of college football traditions. This would be a new one. Make college stadiums matter.

Step 2: Make the regular season matter. A lot.

The idea of a playoff is great. The expansion of the College Football Playoff could be great. But with a catch: The most dangerous potential pitfall with the expanded playoff is a committee that doesn’t know what to do with it. Ranking and matchmaking will be nearly impossible to figure out. Even the smartest committee in the world would need close to a decade to figure out how to program this. The selection of the teams must respect the regular season, create compelling matchups in a sport where that’s hard to do, and have enough non-Power 5 schools to make it seem truly national and different each year. The key is to (A) not have fans dismiss the playoff as it goes through a trial-and-error process, and (B) make the committee flexible enough to change its methodology if necessary. It will be a sliding scale. There are going to be massive growing pains.

If you want to lean into the Cinderella aspect of this big a bracket, you might quickly find out that there are not as many miracles in college football as you’d expect. The gap between the second-best team in the country and the third-best is often massive. If it’s not, then the gap between third and fourth might be huge. There just aren’t a lot of elite teams in college football every year, and there’s a lot of evidence that it’s generally the same ones over and over. This is mostly because of recruiting—in the five-year period ending in 2021, 60 percent of all five-star recruits went to Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, LSU, or Ohio State.

Here’s the problem: If you want the most competitive games in the playoffs, the regular season becomes virtually meaningless because three- or four-loss teams might make the most sense in some slots. And if you want the most fun playoffs with a variety of teams, you might not have the most competitive games. It’ll make the most sense to select a handful of SEC teams every year, but it becomes a very slippery slope. It’s all fun and games until an 8-4 Auburn team is in. The solution is to meet somewhere in the middle: Game the system so that a steady stream of non-Power 5 programs makes it. Set consistent standards to establish that, say, no three-loss teams get in without a conference championship, and no two-loss teams get in without an astounding schedule and a résumé of close losses.

You can, as I described above, give top seeds more on-campus games, which would obviously be a massive advantage for the teams that have zero losses or one good loss in the regular season (as it stands, the no. 1 team in the country would never play on its campus), but I’d go one step further: If you want to preserve the regular season, give the top two teams an extra bye to the semis. This would change the number of teams in the field, obviously, but it would also increase the tension of the regular season—something officials and TV executives need—and would ensure absolute chaos in the early rounds. It’s easier to have David keep advancing when Goliath doesn’t fight until later.

Step 3: Make the bowls matter, or don’t, but make a decision.

Quote 1: “Nobody gives a hoot about any bowl games anywhere. Nobody talks about them,” Nick Saban explained last week, in the midst of saying he supports the expanded College Football Playoff.

Quote 2: “The answer to all your questions is: money,” the late TV executive Don Ohlmeyer said to Tony Kornheiser about the glut of sports on television.

The original sin of the current College Football Playoff was trying to make the bowls matter within them, which only served to make both products worse. If the Rose Bowl matters to you, don’t relegate it to a semifinal every three years. The Granddaddy of Them All should not only play a role as stepping stone toward playing a week later in the Falcons’ stadium. The time has come to make a decision: Either embrace the bowls or don’t, but don’t continue on the path of half-measures and coping strategies that have dominated the past eight years of playoff football.

The College Football Playoff has long been scared of ruffling feathers, to the detriment of the viewer. Its deference to the bowls always has been a little much. We saw this when the semfinals happened on New Year’s Eve in 2015, and officials said they were starting a “new tradition” and that they believed they were going to “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve.” The new tradition lasted about five minutes and the paradigm of New Year’s Eve remains intact. The playoff has tried to move off of New Year’s Eve but, with the Rose Bowl taking precedence on New Year’s Day, the most recent games were and next year’s games will be on New Year’s Eve. Only one time in the next four years will the semifinals be played in January—that will be after the 2023 season, when the Rose Bowl will be back as a semifinal. I like the Rose Bowl fine. My alma mater, Miami, won its last national title there and I think of it fondly. But I do not like it so much that I’d allow it to prevent college football from having a perfect playoff. UCLA and USC cared so little about the Rose Bowl that they just joined the Big Ten. A Big Ten official told The Athletic in the wake of the latest conference realignment wave that “We’re literally nuking the Rose Bowl.” I’d be surprised if the official actually meant the Big Ten literally nuked the Rose Bowl, but I’ve been surprised by conference realignment before.

So it’s decision time: Either the bowls are worthy of inclusion in this new world, or not. My proposal is simple: I’ve already told you we’re putting the semis on campus, so make the finals in the traditional bowl stadiums. Either the six traditional bowls—I’m being generous by adding the Peach and Cotton to the traditional BCS Bowls—should determine the national champion or they shouldn’t be involved. There can be a bidding system, there can be a rotation system, but there can’t be the current system, which seems to be based on maximizing revenue and not hurting bowl officials’ feelings. I do not care how much money a bowl makes—I care about the best playoff. The current system has done a terrible job of preserving the aura of the bowls, so either try to make it better or stop trying altogether.

Step 4: Give the players a reason to want to play.

The greatest force college football faces does not involve TV or realignment; it’s about the players simply not wanting to play as many games as the future schedule demands. Adding up to four games to a college season—when some players have decided that even one bowl is too much—is a massive risk without incentivizing it. When Saban spoke out against the expanded playoff last summer, he told Paul Finebaum that, “There’s only so many games in these guys.” This is correct, of course, but that can be tweaked to say there’s only so many free games in these guys. College players have tons of passion and love for their school, the sport, and their teammates, but they also understand that for some of them, generational wealth is literally weeks away from the first round of the playoffs.

NFL teams already have declared they do not care whether you opt out of a bowl game, and for good reason: Players like Rashawn Slater and Ja’Marr Chase opted out of an entire season and were forces as rookies. Bowl opt-outs have included Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Denzel Ward, Jaire Alexander, and Derwin James, all high picks who’ve cashed in at the NFL level. There will be a playoff opt out, and soon, without dramatic changes.

NIL can change this calculus slightly, stepping up to the plate with new deals for playoff participants, but leaving your business model up to the Dodge dealerships of America seems like a risk that an entire sport should not take. Even the NIL power brokers who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to athletes already can’t force them to play extra games. Would Kenny Pickett, who was already projected to be a first-round pick last year and whose Pittsburgh team would have made an expanded playoff, want to play another game, or two, or four for free when millions await him, pending injury, and knowing his team probably can’t topple Georgia?

This part is the trickiest, but the new playoff must do something to compensate players, either through NIL deals with their current sponsors, flat cash payments that come out of the TV revenue, or something more creative. This is almost impossible to gauge now because by 2026, the latest the playoff is scheduled to start, who knows what NIL or other compensation deals will look like. But without a plan, there will be opt outs, particularly from the bottom half of the bracket.

This will be alleviated somewhat if the College Football Playoff does its job and becomes a national phenomenon. It will be harder for a player to opt out if they get meaty NIL deals and the entire country is excited to watch them play—scouts included. If the new playoff is fun enough to reliably generate superstars, players will be eager to play. That will take some work by the committee. The key to making players want to play in the first round is making the early rounds as fun as possible.

Step 5: Always include Miami.

What, too much? Where are you going?