In a Refreshing Change, College Football Looks to Be Getting Playoff Expansion Right

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The College Football Playoff power brokers are dangerously close to getting expansion very, very right. For a sport that has specialized in half-baked ideas for the better part of its existence, the new playoff plan is straight out of “Cake Boss” perfection. For an athletic industrial complex that has been plagued by short-sighted solutions, this verges on visionary.

With the CFP release Thursday revealing a recommendation to grow from four to 12 teams, the group is prepared to bypass incremental expansion in favor of a broader move which should have greater staying power. Why bother with eight teams if 12 is inevitable?

The addition of on-campus playoff games would forever alter and enhance the sport’s postseason. Home games are where the true passion and atmosphere is; tap into it.

What Previous Playoffs Would've Looked Like With 12 Teams

A recommendation to extend automatic bids to the six highest-ranked conference champions maintains the importance of league play and league titles, while also stopping short of gifting every Power 5 champion a guaranteed spot and offering a glimmer of multiple bids to the Group of 5. We’ll take a closer look at that below.

And a willingness to manipulate the calendar instead of putting more on the backs of the players is a needed acknowledgement that athlete health really does matter. The CFP release stated a recommendation to play quarterfinals on New Year’s and push semifinals and the championship game later into January, which would preserving a needed cushion in December. Or there could be discussion about moving the season’s start date to the so-called “Week Zero” in late August, which normally is when only a handful of games are play.

Take it all in and give the CFP credit for a recommendation well done. The pejoratives that often are attached to college sports—intransigent, out of touch, averse to change—do not apply today. Or to the past year-plus really.

Now this all needs to successfully evolve into action, of course. As the release itself says at the top: “First step in a long process.” There are a million important details to sort out—playoff schedule, timetable for implementation, bowl involvement, what a reworked CFP media-rights deal would look like—but the commitment is there to improve the playoff, and a 12-team model can work very well.

To recap the basic premise: six teams would receive automatic bids as the highest-ranked conference champions; six more would be chosen at-large; the top four conference champs would receive first-round byes; teams seeded 5–8 would host teams seeded 9–12 in on-campus games; and then the bracket moves to quarterfinals, semifinals and a national championship game.

In the long and sorry history of dysfunctional college football postseasons, this would be the best iteration yet.

In the days when the polls decided everything and the best teams rarely played each other at the end, naming a champion was an exercise in guesswork. In the days of the two-team Bowl Championship Series title game, your team was out of the running if it wasn’t in the top six-ish come November. In the days of the four-team playoff, your team was out of the running if it wasn’t in the top eight or 10 by then. Now, everyone in the top 20 will theoretically still be monitoring their playoff chances down the stretch.

As a source familiar with the planning put it Thursday: “This is a way to create postseason access for more players, more conferences, more schools.” And to interest more fans in a playoff race that has come to define the sport. And—of course, of course—to rake in more money. (Which hopefully could be used by athletic programs for something other than football facility water slides or a 13th offensive analyst in charge of breaking down third-and-long.)

Beyond the overall expansion recommendation, the details produced by the CFP Thursday contain a couple of interesting subsections:

  • Is Notre Dame’s own athletic director championing a plan that could push the staunch football independent closer to full Atlantic Coast Conference membership? The working group that forwarded the recommendation was headed by Jack Swarbrick. The CFP release states that “the four highest-ranked conference champions would be seeded one through four and each would receive a first-round bye.” Which means Notre Dame would not be eligible for anything higher than a No. 5 seed as long as it remains independent.

On the flip side, an independent Notre Dame that makes the playoff would not have to play in a league championship game and thus could have its own built-in rest advantage. It also could be in position to host a first-round game on its campus.

“I look forward to never hearing about how we played one less game," Swarbrick said Thursday.

Still: the idea of a dominant, 12–0 team being ineligible for a top-four seed would seem disadvantageous. Stopgap ACC football membership was a great thing for Notre Dame last season, ensuring that the Fighting Irish could play a full schedule while other conferences were shedding non-league games. And it played out like a Fighting Irish dream: they won the regular season title and advanced to a league championship game against Clemson that was a ratings hit (and a big on-field mismatch in Clemson’s favor).

Swarbrick in no way indicated that this proposal would lead to a change in Notre Dame’s independent status, labeling the No. 5 seed ceiling “an appropriate trade-off."

  • As mentioned above, the presence of six automatic bids and simultaneous absence of guaranteed bids for the Power 5 conferences is important. That ensures inclusion of at least one Group of 5 champion—but maybe more than one. Using the 2020 season as a guide, the six highest-ranked league champions were Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina. Pac-12 champion Oregon was No. 25, 13 spots lower than Sun Belt winner Coastal and also three spots behind Mountain West champion San Jose State.

So the idea of automatic P5 handouts based on exclusive membership would be nixed. If any of those leagues drastically underperform, they can be replaced by more deserving champions. And it could conceivably put multiple G5 teams in a playoff that, when it was at four teams, has never accepted a single P5 outsider. (Probably worth noting that Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson was a member of the working group that authored this recommendation.)

All the more intriguing is the idea of a top-eight G5 team hosting a P5 power for an on-campus playoff game—the kind of games those schools perennially cannot schedule. Looking at last year’s CFP rankings again, the premise of No. 9 seed Georgia playing at No. 8 Cincinnati, in a raucous Nippert Stadium, is fantastic.

Playoff expansion is a good thing. Playoff games on campus is a good thing. Group of 5 participation is a good thing. Lack of overt Power 5 entitlement is a good thing. Twelve teams in the playoff without cramming the extra games into December is a good thing.

College football is on the verge of improving its product. Don’t screw it up. Ratify the recommendations.

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