College Football Playoff expansion may surprisingly level the playing field, enhance the regular season

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The College Football Playoff announced Thursday a proposed expansion of the size of its field from four teams to 12. There are a few surprising elements of the proposed new structure and the number of teams is only the beginning.

The creation and expansion of the championship structure in college football traditionally happens a glacial pace. The Bowl Championship Series was the first iteration of a playoff, albeit one with only two teams, and even that ended up with a “split” national championship in 2003.  The BCS lasted for 16 seasons. The College Football Playoff came next with a four-team format beginning in 2014 on a 12-year contract.

So for the powers that be to suddenly have a thirst to triple the field to 12 — skipping right past six- and eight-team models — is unusually progressive.

The second biggest surprise of the expansion proposed by this CFP working group is the format, which calls for the field to be made up of the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams with the top four champions receiving byes.

While that certainly puts a premium on winning your conference, the surprising part is that no concession was made for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, which cannot win a conference because they are an independent, cannot qualify for an opening-round bye even if they finish the season at No. 1 in the CFP Rankings. Notre Dame finished No. 4 in the rankings in 2020 and No. 3 in 2018; if the 12-team format had existed then, it would be seeded no higher than No. 5.

One final surprise is that this format still does not guarantee a spot for champions from every Power Five conference.  Indeed, had this format existed in 2020, Pac-12 champion Oregon would have missed out.  In fact, the No. 25 Ducks were only the eighth-highest ranked conference champion.  No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 12 Coastal Carolina would have made the field, and No. 22 San Jose State was also ranked higher than Oregon. Two Group of Five conference champions would have earned playoff spots.

Even though the 2020 season was an anomaly in every possible way, it does show how strange things can happen, and history has shown us we do not need a pandemic for strange things to happen.

Our own David Cobb gave you a look at how the 12-team format would have been bracketed in the first seven seasons of the CFP, so I will refer you to that, but here are some footnotes on what would have happened if this had existed since the onset of the CFP.

In only three of the seven seasons have the four playoff teams all been conference champions.  That means we have a good of a chance of teams outside the top four receiving byes in any given season.  It will not be surprising to have a 4-5 game in with the No. 5 seed ranked higher than the No. 4 seed.

Some of the biggest CFP selection debates would be mostly resolved. Notably, in the first CFP, the big controversy was Ohio State jumping to No. 4 in the final rankings after winning the Big Ten championship as Baylor and TCU, which were idle because the Big 12 did not have a conference championship game, did not make the field.  In the 12-team model, that would simply be an argument over which team gets a first round bye, but all three teams would get into the playoff.

The Buckeyes always seem to be in the middle of CFP controversy.  In 2016, 11-1 Ohio State got in ahead of 11-2 Penn State, which beat the Buckeyes and won the Big Ten title. The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 5 behind No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Washington, missing the playoff entirely. In the new format, Penn State gets that fourth seed with a bye, and Ohio State sits in the fifth spot.

Ohio State was also in a tight battle for the fourth spot with Alabama in 2017.  The Buckeyes were Big Ten champions, while the Crimson Tide missed out on playing for the SEC title because their only loss was to Auburn, which won the SEC West as a result.  The committee chose Alabama for the fourth playoff spot, but in the 12-team model, Ohio State would get a bye and Alabama would be the fifth seed, setting up a potentially juicy 4-5 game to settle the matter in the quarterfinals.

Controversies will now move down the rankings where similar teams will all feel equally qualified for the last spot or two in the at-large pool.

You may be surprised to learn that the conference with the most teams appearing in a 12-team model over the first seven years of the CFP would not be the SEC but the Big Ten.  The Big Ten would have placed 20 teams in the 12-team playoff with the SEC falling one short at 19 over the last seven years.  The Big Ten is also the only conference that would have put at least two teams in the playoff in each season and has the only team that would have appeared in all seven of them. Ohio State would have received a bye in four of the seven playoffs and been seeded no lower than seventh in the other three.

Clemson and Oklahoma would be riding six-year appearance streaks with each missing the first CFP in 2014. Alabama would also have six appearances, missing in 2019.  No other team would have more than four appearances.

Conference USA is the only conference that would have not yet made an appearance. It’s also the only one not to have a team finish the season in the final CFP Rankings.

Conclusion: This proposed 12-team format will bring more energy to the regular season and actually help make it more relevant and interesting, not less, as the powers that be have been saying up until Thursday.  We will have to wait a few months to see if it comes to fruition.





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