The College Football Playoff committee has proposed that the playoff field should expand to twelve teams. My jaw dropped when I heard about this. I was so happy. To paraphrase Johnny Cash, they must have been reading my mail. A twelve-team playoff was exactly what I wanted. At least, it’s what I’ve wanted for about the past year or so.
When the CFP started, I thought it was just about perfect. Four teams sounded great. Two semis and a title game, with four high profile bowl games as appetizers. Year 1 was an absolute joy. Year 2 was different. I didn’t really think about it, but the NY6 didn’t really get my attention at all. I assumed it was because my blood ran orange, and with Clemson in the playoff, I didn’t think about much else except the Orange Bowl, and then the championship. That year, some of the NY6 games were after the semis, but I’m not sure I saw those games.
Next came the players who started opting out – if the games weren’t part of a playoff, they weren’t important, or at least not as important as a potential NFL career. The non-CFP bowls, even the NY6, became true exhibition games, featuring futures instead of the lineups that had started all season long. I looked around and realized college football had a three-game postseason, with a bunch of exhibition games that could be a lot of fun, but really weren’t meaningful. While those three games were fun to watch, it just wasn’t enough to compare to the post-seasons I enjoyed when I was growing up.
The college football post-season of my childhood was boss. After the excitement of Christmas, I always looked forward to the football games that would be starting that week, leading up to the best games on New Year’s Day. We had about 12 games – enough to cover most of the Top 25 teams – and it was just right. Well, just right if you didn’t mind having a champion decided with a system more akin to diving, gymnastics, and synchronized swimming, instead of head-to-head competition like NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the playoff needed more games, and thus more teams, but I wanted baby steps. Try six teams first, then eventually try eight. I am not lost on the fact that the college basketball tournament has become so huge and dominating that the regular season is merely a warm-up for most of the best teams. The now 68-team basketball tournament has gutted the regular season, and those that caution that growing the CFP too large might cause damage to a great regular season are wise to speak up.
The main problem is the current regular season with a 4-team playoff isn’t great. It is about two-thirds great. September and October are a blast, but by Halloween, there are usually about 8 teams that have any real chance of making the playoff, and probably 2-3 of those teams need chaos to happen to get to the top 4, and chaos just doesn’t happen that often. The other 57 Power Five teams are out of it. That’s seven out of every eight P5 teams that have no realistic chance at a playoff berth. Sure, they are playing for state & conference bragging rights and maybe a bowl game, but we’ve already discussed how those really don’t move the needle anymore. There are fans who will watch the national contenders no matter what, but a lot of college football fans tune out if their team is out of it. I call it ‘cubicle syndrome’ – people pay attention to their business, but rarely peek their head up above the half-wall to see what else is going on outside their corner of the world.
We could have Top 25 matchup, like #10 at #14, in the last week of the regular season – it might even be a big rivalry – and it probably will have zero effect on the playoff chase. I know some people don’t care about that, but I want a game like that on Thanksgiving weekend to matter.
Not only do we need more post-season games, but we need a way to make November as great as September and October. The more teams you add, the deeper the pool that is fighting for those playoff spots. How far do we expand? Six? Eight? More? How far can you go before you damage the regular season, like basketball has, where a team like Duke or Kentucky can sleepwalk through a conference tournament and lose in the 2nd round but not fall from the #1 line? How do you make the best teams give a flip to the bitter end?
The answer is byes and home field advantages, which means you can’t go with an eight or sixteen team field. It needs to be a six or twelve team field so the byes can provide needed motivation for teams at the top to keep pushing. Similarly, the home field advantage introduced in the first round keeps teams pushing too. In my opinion, there is no home advantage more significant in American sports than in college football. Six teams would be a fine first step, increasing the playoff to five games. That wouldn’t be bad, but a twelve-team field gives us the eleven-game post-season, roughly the size of the classic post-seasons from the ‘80s (some good things did come from the ‘80s, no matter what any of my friends will tell you).
Now, instead of eight teams fighting for a Top 4 spot, we will have upwards of twenty teams fighting for a Top 12 spot. The top dozen or so will be fighting for a home field advantage in the 1st round, and the eight that used to be fighting for the only spots available will be fighting for a 1st round bye. Nobody slacking off because they have no skin in the game.
I can only think of a couple things they can do better. Right now, the recommendation is to hold the 1st round at the home stadium of the higher seeded team, and play the quarters onward at neutral sites. I would not be shocked to learn that this plan is part of a compromise with the power brokers of the current bowl system, who have a responsibility for protecting their business interests, but the quarters should be at home sites also. Consider this: winning a Top 4 spot in the CFP ranking now gives you a spot in the semis. In the new twelve team playoff, it gives a Top 4 team a spot in the quarters. Yes, they have one less game to play than #5 to #12, but for teams like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State & Oklahoma, who have time shares in the CFP field, it would help to throw in the possibility of hosting a quarterfinal to keep these teams at the top motivated.
The second thing is the total number of games required to win a national championship. Right now, with a twelve-game regular season, a conference championship game and potentially four games to win the CFP, it could take seventeen games to win it all. I think if college football approves the twelve game CFP, they need to consider moving to the conference scheduling model used by the Big Ten in 2020. Instead of twelve games with a conference championship game, schedule eleven regular season games, with eight conference games. For the twelfth game, matchup the division winners in a championship game, then put #2 vs #2, #3 vs #3, etc., down the line, so you can declare a championship in twelve games for every conference member. That reduces the total games to a max of sixteen, with the possibility that a Top 4 team can wrap up a Natty in the fifteen games that teams routinely play now. 2020 proved we can make something like this happen.
I know there are a lot of people that aren’t excited for CFP expansion, or going as far as the twelve-team field, but I for one can’t wait.