Earlier this year, it was announced that there would be an expansion of the College Football Playoff from four teams to twelve teams starting in 2026. Instead, the board is pushing for this expansion as early as 2024. That earlier start date makes a lot of sense given the major conference changes announced over the last year or so. From the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Longhorns announcing their upcoming departure from the Big 12 to join the SEC, to the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins readying to make the move from the Pac-12 to the Big 10, there are going to be a lot of changes across the entire sport of college football.
Prior to those announcements you still had teams like the Cincinnati Bearcats, the UCF Knights, and the Houston Cougars announcing their moves from the AAC to the Big 12. To add to all this conference shuffling, the Pac-12 eliminated divisions before the current season, and the ACC announced they would be doing the same starting in 2023 and would introduce pod scheduling instead.
With all these changes there are two things that are pretty clear; non-conference scheduling is going to change dramatically--whether that lends itself to more juggernaut match ups or more MACtion for the Power Five Conferences is yet to be seen. The other change that is pretty evident is that the College Football Playoff needs to be expanded, but not to twelve teams.
12 Team Playoff Means More Competition, Not More Cinderellas
Here are the arguments against a twelve-team playoff; first, there are not 12 championship caliber teams in college football in any given year. Within those top 12 teams is at least a pairing or even a trio of teams that have all played one another with one of those teams winning both match ups. An example from this year is Georgia having wins over both Tennessee and Oregon. Luckily for Oregon they play in a different conference and could qualify as a one-loss Pac-12 Champ. But, if they were 10-2, and had no conference title, why are they competing for a national title at this point?
Well, people want to argue we would get the same resemblance to that of March Madness and the Cinderella teams making runs at a national title but how often do those Cinderella teams actually end that run with a national title? Practically never. Since expanding to the 64-teams, the one, two, and three seeds in the NCAA Tournament have won 32 of 36 national titles. So, what about the other four seeds? Well, only two should get any attention as "Cinderella" and that was the seven seed UConn Huskies in 2011 and the eight seed Villanova Wildcats in 1985. So again, that argument is not valid.
The Blowout Bowl Problem
Expanding to twelve teams will just result in more blowouts. More? Yes. In the current four-team playoff format, there have been four games decided by more than 30 points. To add to that, just four of the semi-final games have been decided by 14 points or less. Five of the eight national title games have been decided by 15, 17, 22, 28 (x2) points.
Now, I am not arguing that we should expand. I think twelve teams is too much, and eight teams is pushing it, but six teams--well six teams is perfect.
For starters, this would eliminate the argument of a conference champion missing out on the playoffs. Teams like the 2016 11-2 Penn State Nittany Lions and the 2021 11-2 Baylor Bears would get in. Both were conference champions, and both were ranked fifth in the final College Football Rankings those years. We are seeing the same scenario playing out with the LSU Tigers this year following their win over Alabama, as the Tigers sit at the seven seed with two losses and the SEC West lead.
If this LSU team wins out, they should not make the four-team playoff. Even with their wins (including the hypothetical win over Georgia), if TCU, Ohio State/Michigan are undefeated AND if the Pac-12 Champions has just one loss, then those three teams deserve a spot over LSU. The only way this would be okay is if you dropped Georgia out of the top four. Because Tennessee has the head-to-head over LSU and despite no SEC title, have a better resume.
Six teams would eliminate that discussion. It would also propose the best opportunity for the conference champions of all the Power Five Conferences to make the playoff IF they are actually great and IF they actually deserve a spot. A conference champion could have three losses with the expansion to three teams, and why should that be awarded? This in turn rewards those like 2016 Penn State or 2021 Baylor or 2019 Oregon, who won their conference and finished at the five spots. But you have teams like 2018 Ohio State or 2015 Stanford who were conference champions sitting at the sixth spot who would also earn a spot in the playoffs.
And why did those teams miss the College Football Playoffs? Well, there were conference champions ahead of them but there were also teams that had one-loss but did not win their conference. 2016 Ohio State, 2017 Alabama, and 2021 Georgia are all prime examples of this with two of those teams winning the national championship without being a conference title. And this year we are seeing the same potential storyline play out as Ohio State, Michigan, Tennessee, and potentially Georgia could all find themselves with just one loss and no conference title.
The Bigger Question of Schedule Strength
Based on everything I've said, there could still be multiple teams that only have one loss but no conference title, competing for the six or even possibly the five seed in the playoff rankings. Well, that is where resumes come in and start to matter. Example, one-loss Michigan versus one-loss Tennessee, whose resume is better? Tennessee has more ranked wins and Michigan's non-conference schedule was a joke. Tennessee gets in. That is why non-conference scheduling going forward needs to be improved for resume talk. If you play Hawaii and UCONN, then you pretty much eliminate yourself from resume talk. Teams should be rewarded for competing in not only conference play, but also non-conference play. And the biggest reason is that if you have even just one win over a Power Five Team versus a team who played the Sun Belt and MAC, you have proven that you can play quality football against quality football teams and actually provide entertaining and competitive games within the playoff.
Wrapping things up, I want to state again that I do believe an expansion is needed but going from four to twelve teams tremendously increases the chances of blowouts and rewards poor resumes from both conference champions and those without a conference title. A six-team playoff rewards good resumes, ensures that a quality conference champion gets into the playoffs, and allows the best opportunity for the best teams to compete for a national title. I would love to see my Nittany Lions make the College Football Playoff, but not as an 11 or 12 seed. I want them to earn it, and you should want the same for your favorite team too.
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