Cal Coach Justin Wilcox in Favor of Expanded Playoffs

But parity in scheduling would be an important ingredient if conference champs would get automatic berths
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Cal coach Justin Wilcox is all for expanding the College Football Playoff to include more than four teams, but the linchpin in his mind is having parity in the scheduling model of all the Power 5 conferences.

“I think expanding the playoffs is a good idea,” Wilcox said last week.

That apparently is going to happen. A proposal for a 12-team playoff is working its way through the various steps, and there is a good chance it will receive final approval this fall. Anyone connected with the Pac-12 is likely to be in favor of an expanded playoff field, because the Pac-12 has not had a representative in the four-team CFP in any of the past four seasons. The conference’s reputation has suffered as a result.

A 12-team playoff would not go into effect until at least the 2023 season and perhaps not until 2026, and there are some important details to work out.

The current proposal calls for the six conference champions with the highest CFP ranking to get automatic berths into a 12-team field before six at-large teams are added. If that model had been in effect in 2020, the Pac-12 still would not have had a team in the 12-team field, since the champions of the American Athletic Conference and the Sun Belt as well as the champions of the other four Power Five conferences were ranked ahead of Pac-12 champion Oregon. 

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott suggested that the champions of the Power 5 conferences all get automatic berths, a statement that caused a lot blowback.

Without addressing Scott’s statement directly, Wilcox said he was in favor of having conference champions earn automatic berths, with an important caveat involving scheduling.

“The conference champion from each conference [receives berths], that makes sense to me,” Wilcox said. “Now we would probably have to discuss scheduling and how to find parity throughout the conferences. That would be an important step.”

FBS teams typically play 12 games a season, but the issue is that they don’t all play the same number of conference games. The Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 play nine conference games a year, while the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference play just eight. Three other non-Power Five conferences that also could have a say in a 12-team playoff – American Athletic Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt – also play just eight conference games.

It doesn’t sound like a big difference, but when a team can schedule four nonconference games instead of three, it has a better chance of winding up with a better overall record – which is all the CFP selection committee considers in its rankings.

With that in mind, the Pac-12 has had preliminary discussions about the possibility of reducing its conference schedule to eight games and doing away with divisions.

“That would be one way to move forward,” Wilcox said. “Somebody’s going to have to change. I don’t know who’s going to change. Having parity in scheduling is really important, and how we get to that I really don’t have an answer to. If the Pac-12 changes the conference game model, in terms of how many we’re playing, or the other conferences add, but somewhere you’ve got to find a balance so everyone’s scheduling in a similar way.”

It’s noteworthy that no team with two regular-season losses has been part of the current four-team playoff format in the seven years of it existence. That presumably would change with 12 teams getting in, but in the meantime the Pac-12 is still stuck with the four-team model for at least two more seasons. You would think that the Pac-12, if it serious about this idea of reducing the number of conference games, could make that change by the 2022 season, giving its conference a better chance to qualify for the College Football Playoff as long as it maintains the four-team format.

The elimination of divisions would also help the Pac-12’s postseason opportunities. The first- and second-place teams would meet for the conference title, which would eliminate the possibility of an unranked winner of a weaker division pulling an upset in the Pac-12 title game and scuttling the Pac-12’s chances of earning a CFP berth. That’s what happened in 2020 when Oregon, unranked in the CFP standings entering the Pac-12 title game, won and ended up just 25th in the final CFP standings.

Playing just eight conference games without divisions would have a big influence on which teams earn the championship-game berths. If, for instance, a Pac-12 team does not play USC, Oregon and Washington in a given season, its chance of reaching the conference title game increases significantly. The conference schedule is already a major factor in a Pac-12 team’s success, since a Pac-12 team avoids two conference foes each year, but this would accentuate its importance.

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Cover photo of Justin Wilcox by Kelley L. Cox, USA TODAY Sports

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