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The ACC's 2021 Washout Shows the Value of a 12-Team Playoff

The conference is one of the ones arguing for an expansion to eight, but not even that would help it in a season like this.

Down went a top-10 Wake Forest team on Saturday. (When have you ever heard such a phrase uttered?)

The Demon Deacons lost a shootout at North Carolina. With it went their magical undefeated run and hopes of an unbeaten season. But the loss has much deeper reverberations, impacts felt well outside of Chapel Hill or Winston-Salem. It almost certainly assures the ACC will not qualify a team for the College Football Playoff.

It’s a fitting year for the league to get left out for the first time since the playoff’s inception in 2014. Why? Because conference commissioners are currently mired in debate over expansion.

Let us explain.

Wake Forest's Ryan Dupont holds a UNC defender at arm's length

All 11 CFP executives are in favor of expanding the sport’s postseason. Most of them believe 12 is the right number. A small group, including the ACC and Big Ten, is more in favor of eight. To expand before the current contract ends in 2026, the vote must be unanimous.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, of course. Those believing eight is more appropriate have their reasons and some of them make perfect sense. For one, an eight-team model would not extend the regular season as much, important to athlete health and safety and to preserving the academic calendar. It would give more protection to the historic bowl system, too.

But there is a large drawback to eight, and it’s the same problem that now exists with four: Too many conferences are being left out.

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And that brings us back to the ACC. If there’s anything to convince the conference to vote for a 12-team playoff, Wake Forest provided it on Saturday. With its perennial power struggling (Clemson has three losses already) and Pitt having coughed things up (the Panthers lost to Miami last week), the ACC is in a dire situation, no matter how many teams are in a playoff.

In an eight-team format that advances the eight highest-ranked teams, the league wouldn’t qualify a team this year (barring some stunning collapses from a host of others). In fact, even in a 12-team playoff—featuring the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large spots—the league would, at most, advance to the postseason just one team, its champion (maybe) through automatic qualification.

While the debate rages on among commissioners behind closed doors, the real convincing is happening on the football field. The ACC needs 12. And so too does the Pac-12, which has qualified a team for the CFP in just two of seven years. It wouldn’t hurt the Big Ten, either. This year, for example, the conference could make up one-third of a 12-team field.

Aside from the bowl system, a 12-team playoff is probably good for everyone. And even the bowls will be involved (they will host quarterfinals and maybe semifinals too). Do the athletes have to play more games? Yes. And the commissioners know that. Let’s hope they set aside the additional revenue for athlete benefits. If they don’t, Congress is likely to eventually do it for them.

And that leads us to the revenue part of this. An eight-team playoff generates no new TV inventory in the final two years of the contract (2024–25). A 12-team playoff would generate an additional $450 million. Ever seen a group of savvy business people—of which the commissioners are—turn down that chunk of cash?

It is why many of them feel confident heading into their next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 1 in Dallas. Most would tell you that their last meeting, Wednesday and Thursday, went well enough that they believe they will eventually agree on 12.

But when will it happen? The clock is ticking. In order for expansion to happen by 2024, they will need to decide by January.

If there’s any season to convince everyone that 12 is the number, it’s this one. Especially for the ACC.

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