College Football Playoff Expansion
The inevitable is now very much in progress.
For most of its history, the top level of college football lacked a national championship. Teams would compete against others for conference titles and bowl trophies. Eventually, various polls arose to declare notional national champions. These were sometimes split between polls and almost always the subject of hot debate. Finally, in 1992, a Bowl Coalition arose, with the purpose of ensuring that the top two-ranked teams going into the bowl season would face off against one another to decide a “true” champion. It lasted just three seasons before being tweaked into a Bowl Alliance and then a Bowl Championship Series, which expanded the number of conferences involved and ensured that the premium bowl games were able to land top teams.
Finally, in 2014, we got the College Football Playoff. It would put the #1 and #4 and #2 and #3 teams against one another in bowl games and then the winners of those semifinal games would face each other for the national championship. It was, by most accounts, an improvement over the BCS and, certainly, the old poll system. But it has major issues. By definition, at least one Power Five conference champion will be left on the outside. In the eight years thus far, no school from outside the Power Five has made it in and the odds are that none ever would. At the same time, four teams—Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma—have dominated the selection process, with all of the championships won by the first three or Louisiana State (in their only year in the playoff). Indeed, Alabama has won three and Clemson two of the seven, with Ohio State and LSU accounting for the other two.
Further, as widely predicted, the Playoff has become the only thing that matters. The other bowls have been relegated to exhibition games. They still get decent television ratings but fans of elite programs that miss the Playoff have little interest in attending a “meaningless” game. And, increasingly, NFL-bound players are skipping them altogether to avoid the risk of injury.
So, expansion is inevitable. And, yesterday afternoon, a committee has issued a recommendation for a 12-team format that could go into effect as early as the 2023 season. ESPN’s Heather Dinich:
The proposal does not include guarantees for conference champions. Instead, it calls for the bracket to include the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked other teams as determined by the CFP’s selection committee. There would be no limit on the number of participants from a conference, and no league would qualify automatically.
Under the proposal for a 12-team format, the four highest-ranked conference champions would be seeded 1-4 and receive a first-round bye. Teams 5-12 would play each other in the first round on the home field of the higher-ranked team. The quarterfinals and semifinals would be played in bowl games and the national championship game would remain at a neutral site.
Also under this proposal: Even if Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country, it cannot receive a bye or be seeded higher than No. 5. The selection committee’s top 25 is different from the seeding because the top four seeds go to the highest-ranked conference champions.
“The practical effect of this will be that with four or five weeks to go in the season, there will be 25 or 30 teams that have a legitimate claim and practical opportunity to participate,” Bowlsby said. “That should make for an extraordinarily good October and November.”
The first-round games would take place on campus sometime during the two-week period following conference championship games. The quarterfinals would be played on Jan. 1 — or Jan. 2 when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday — and on an adjacent day.
There is still a chance that this system will be tweaked but all observers think a 12-team playoff is inevitable.
As an Alabama alum and fan, I don’t love it. There’s only been one year in the last eight—and only three in the last fifteen—where having more than four teams in would have been to our advantage. Indeed, while the move from the BCS to the Playoff has helped Alabama twice, it has presented an additional obstacle five times. But it’s undeniably better for the sport as a whole.
As to the merits of the system itself:
- I like the top 4 teams getting a bye in the first round; it’s a strong reward for regular-season excellence
- I dislike it being the “top 4 conference champions.” Aside from Dinich’s point about Notre Dame, there are just too many years where the second-best team in the SEC is better than the champion of the PAC-12 or Big 12
- I like the first-round games for non-bye teams being in the home stadiums of the higher-ranked team
- I dislike using the bowls for the second-round games. Not only does that impose additional travel requirements on fans but it artificially extends the schedule. It’s time to just admit that bowls are a relic of a bygone era.
- I like the fact that Group of 5 schools (that is, those from outside the five traditional big conferences) now have a shot to play for the title. They’re unlikely to win but at least now they’ll stop whining about the unfairness of it all
- I don’t love an extra game for a team that’s 13-0, including a conference championship game, going into the playoff. That’s offset a bit by the bye week but, still, it’s three games rather than the two under the current system and one under the BCS and predecessors. It diminishes the regular season and adds more injury risk for the unpaid players. But, again, it’s the nature of a playoff and expansion is inevitable.
- I like the fact that this would keep fans of more teams interested longer into the season. As an Alabama fan, I’ve become spoiled in that, so long as we don’t lose more than one game, we’ve got a really good chance to make the Playoff. But fans of most Power Five teams know they’re essentially eliminated after a single loss because their conference is perceived as week. And fans of Group of Five teams know they pretty much have no chance from the first game on.