There was just too much money at stake for them to not get this figured out:
So we’ve got obviously this year with the 4-team playoff. And then we have next year, which will be the last year of the 4-team playoff field.
Then in 2024 it will expand to 12 teams permanently.
I’m not sure why Thamel’s tweet is worded “in 2024 and 2025.” It makes it seem like that’s not a sure thing in 2026 and beyond. I feel like this is just because the TV rights deal expires in 2026, but there’s no way they could alter the playoff format after just a couple of years.
I guess they could expand it to 16, but I feel like that’s too much.
There is no way they could reduce the size of the playoff field after going to 12 for two seasons. I mean once you expand it, you can never go back.
I just don’t know why Thamel would word his tweet that way. I’m sure it’s just because of when the TV rights deal expires.
So the way this 12-team playoff format works is there will be four teams that get first-round byes. These will be the four highest-ranked conference champions. If the playoff began today, it would look like this:
Obviously we still have conference championship week left to play out but it would be Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC with first round byes.
Clemson, assuming they win the ACC, is also an automatic bid, as is Tulane, the presumed AAC Champion. There will always be one G5 team in the playoff field, as the six highest-ranked conference champions receive automatic bids.
The first round games are all played on campus, which is a really interesting dynamic here. You’d have Tulane at Ohio State, Utah at Alabama, Kansas State at Tennessee, and then Clemson at Penn State. This could get very interesting as these games are going to be played in mid/late December. Going up to Happy Valley in Pennsylvania in the middle of December is something Clemson, for example, would really want to avoid.
The next round of games will be played at New Year’s Six bowl locations, not on campus. So if you get a bye, you will not play a home playoff game. You skip to the quarterfinal round. Since there are six NY6 bowl locations and only 4 playoff games in the quarterfinals, the 6 bowl sites will rotate on a yearly basis between the quarterfinals and the semifinals: four of them will take the quarterfinal games, and the remaining two will take the semifinal games.
In 2024, the quarterfinal games are scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, and the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix. Then the semifinal games will be played at the remaining NY6 sites that weren’t used in the quarterfinals, so the Orange Bowl in Miami and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas at Jerryworld. The National Championship is kind of like the Super Bowl now, it doesn’t have to be played at any of the major bowl sites, although it can be. It’s just played wherever–SoFi Stadium in LA, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Tampa, Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, etc.
The way the quarterfinal/semifinal rotation works is that in 2025, the quarterfinal games will be the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl (the two semifinal sites from 2024) and then the Rose and Sugar Bowl. The semifinal games will be the Peach Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl. And then of course in 2026, the Rose and Sugar bowls would host the semifinals.
I’ve written at length about why I’m in support of this move. I really just like the idea of winning your conference guaranteeing you a spot in the playoff.
And I think it will increase parity in the FBS by removing the recruiting bottleneck that exists at the top of the sport, which funnels pretty much all the top talent to Bama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson.
They thought the four playoff spots would increase the level of parity in the sport by expanding access to the National Championship, but what it really did was kick off a recruiting arms race between the 4-5 best programs in the country to try and get a stranglehold on those playoff spots. It got to the point where basically everything west of Norman Oklahoma was irrelevant in the college football landscape; four spots, five conferences, one is getting left out. It ended up being the Pac 12 as the one team that was left without a chair when the music stopped.
It has now basically turned into Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma saying to recruits: you don’t have much of a shot of playing in the playoff unless you come here. And then that created a vicious (or, depending on who you root for, virtuous) cycle where the top recruits would funnel to the top 4-5 programs because those were the teams consistently making the playoff, and then those 4-5 teams continued consistently making the playoff because all the top recruits funneled to them.
The stranglehold appears to be breaking, or at least loosening this year, as we are currently looking at a playoff field of Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC. TCU and USC have never made the playoff before. But if one of them slips up, Ohio State gets in.
The fact that Ohio State, Bama and Clemson are all currently on the outside looking in is great for the parity of the sport. However, I think it would be preferable to have in the playoff field a mixture of heavyweight powers and “outsider” teams like TCU and USC (even though USC is a blueblood program historically). Like, for instance, while we all want to see new teams in the playoff, and we’re sick of Alabama, does anyone really think TCU or USC are better than Bama this year? I think because Bama is having a down year, it would be close between them and either of those teams, but let’s be honest here. Vegas would probably have Bama favored against both TCU and USC.
So that’s why I’m in favor of an expanded playoff: it would give us a good mixture of non-traditional powers in the field and it would cast a wide enough net to make sure it doesn’t exclude any big time programs that maybe have a few unlucky breaks and bounces go against them.
Along those lines, another reason I support the expanded playoff field is that I just think college football is way too unforgiving of a sport. Tennessee got basically knocked out of the playoff for the unforgivable sin of losing to the defending National Champions on the road. Tennessee lost to Georgia on the road and they basically were put in a position where they had little to no chance of playing for the SEC Championship, and thus they were going to need help to make playoff–they did not control their own destiny, even though they started the playoff rankings at #1 and had wins over Alabama at home and LSU on the road.
I also think of a team like 2015 Ohio State. They were defending National Champions, started off 10-0, but then lost their second to last game of the year to Michigan State. It was 17-14 on a last-second field goal. Michigan State got the spot in the Big Ten Championship game, won it and then went to the playoff, while Ohio State was left out, even though they were probably the best team in the country. They brought almost everybody back from their 2014 National Championship team. But one loss derailed their entire season.
The current system really incentivizes losing early as opposed to losing late, as if it’s actually different. If you lose early, you have a lot more games to work your way back up the rankings, but if you lose late, you’re basically screwed. Ohio State and USC both have one loss this year, but USC is in the 4 spot and Ohio State is in the 5 spot purely because Ohio State lost late in the season and USC lost about midway through it. It’s not like people are convinced USC is better than Ohio State, it’s just the way the rankings have to shake out–you have to fall when you lose, and if you win, it’s very hard to be dropped.
“Oh, but USC made it to their conference championship game and Ohio State didn’t!” That’s because Ohio State’s conference has divisions and USC’s conference doesn’t. If the Big Ten was like the Pac 12 and didn’t have divisions, if they just took the two best conference records and sent them to the conference title game, it would have been a rematch of Ohio State and Michigan. Instead, Michigan is about to play an 8-4 Purdue team in the Big Ten Championship. Purdue is 6-3 in conference play, Ohio State is 8-1. And yet Purdue is in the B1GCG because they play in the West division, where three conference losses was still good enough to clinch the division. But I guess this is a whole different conversation, so I digress.
I get why people don’t think a 12 team playoff wouldn’t increase parity: it just gives the powerhouse programs more margin for error. One or two losses won’t eliminate them anymore. Bama would be in the 12-team playoff this year, as would Ohio State–no questions asked.
And an obvious cause for skepticism of the 12 team playoff is because people thought the 4-team playoff would create greater parity, and it actually resulted in less parity.
In the first 8 years of the CFP (2014-present) there have been 5 champions: Ohio State, Alabama three times, Clemson twice, LSU and Georgia. Currently, Georgia is a pretty heavy favorite to win its second straight National Championship.
In the first 8 years of the BCS system (1998-2005), there were 8 different Champions: Tennessee, Florida State, Oklahoma, Miami, Ohio State, LSU, USC and Texas (although USC also had a part of the 2003 Championship as well).
In year 9 of the BCS, 2006, a ninth different team won a National Championship: Florida.
Now, certainly part of the BCS’ “parity” was illusory, fake. If you only give two teams a chance at a National Championship every year, there’s always going to be an element of luck and/or randomness in determining the two teams. One funny bounce could derail a great team’s season and knock them out of the running. It’s really difficult for a team to finish the regular season ranked in the top-2. It’s so difficult, in fact, that it usually requires some luck to pull it off. Even 2019 LSU had some close calls that year.
In 2006, USC went into the final week of the season ranked #2, just needing probably to win their final game against unranked UCLA to get in to the National Championship game against Ohio State. They ended up losing to UCLA 13-9 in an extremely close game that could’ve gone either way. If USC would’ve simply managed to win that game against unranked UCLA, then there’s no Florida Gators National Championship in 2006.
Florida was obviously really good that year and a deserving National Champion. But my point here is that they needed luck to actually get in to the National Championship game. They needed USC to lose to an unranked UCLA team in order to jump up to #2. This is what I mean about even the best teams needing good luck back in the BCS days.
In 2007, West Virginia was also #2 in the country going into the final week of the season, facing their unranked rival Pitt. #2 West Virginia, like #2 USC one year earlier, lost 13-9 to a bitter rival and missed out on a National Championship berth.
The BCS was an incredibly fickle system due to the fact that teams had almost zero margin for error.
You could make the argument that the BCS was too unforgiving, and thus luck and random chance played far too great a role in determining National Championships. The obvious issue is, what if the best team in the country happens to be unlucky that year? Well, then that sucks for them–they’re probably not going to make it to the BCS Championship. Better luck next year–literally.
Plus, it was obvious during the BCS that more than two teams were capable of winning a National Championship in a given year. In the very first year of the CFP, the 4th seed, Ohio State, won the whole thing. If the BCS were still in place in 2014, the National Championship would’ve been Alabama vs. Florida State. Those were the two teams that lost in the semifinals.
So I guess I’d say I’m actually of the opinion that the so-called “parity” of the BCS was very much luck driven. Or, put differently, it only created the illusion of parity by being highly exclusionary.
Because with the CFP, we’ve seen on three different occasions (in just 8 years) a team that was seeded lower than 2 win the College Football Playoff (2014 Ohio State, 2017 Alabama, 2021 Georgia), we have to conclude that there were at least a handful of years during the BCS where the true best team in the country was probably actually excluded from the BCS National Championship game–because the BCS only took two teams.
So, again, even though the BCS appeared to yield parity in terms of its results–it’s champions–in reality its champions were often decided by random chance and luck.
All this is my long-winded way of saying I don’t mind 2-loss teams making the playoff. Maybe even a three-loss team here and there (like 2017 Auburn, for example).
The BCS was simply way too unforgiving; the CFP is a little more forgiving by nature, but still pretty unfair given that there are 5 Power conferences and only 4 playoff spots.
I personally think 8 teams is just the right balance of forgiving and stringent, but that was never an option, so I’m cool with 12.
One final concern I had about the 12 team playoff, but haven’t really researched yet, is how the large playoff is working at the FCS level. They’ve had one for years, does it result in parity for the FCS?
Well, I don’t know if this is indicative of what would happen at the FBS level, but the FCS level, which has a 24-team playoff in place since 1978, is… uh… not exactly full of parity. (It started at 4, expanded to 8 in 1981, went to 16 teams in 1986, 20 teams in 2010, and then 24 teams in 2013.)
North Dakota State has won 9 of the past 11 National Championships at the FCS level.
The more they expand that playoff, the more North Dakota State wins.
I went through and looked at the history of the FCS in greater depth, and it looks like there have been 22 different champions since the 1978 season. 8 of those 22 teams have repeated at least twice as champions.
Honestly, there was pretty good parity at the FCS level until NoDak took over starting in 2011.
But a crucial difference here between FBS and the FCS level is that 8 of the 22 teams that have won the FCS Championship since 1978 have since moved up to the FBS level: Boise State, Georgia Southern, UL Monroe, Marshall, UMass, Western Kentucky, James Madison, and Appalachian State. Plus, Sam Houston State is moving up to the FBS next season. So that’s 9.
Plus, programs that never won FCS National Championships like Jacksonville State, Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Old Dominion have all moved up to the FBS level as well.
So because the FCS has that element of promotion, it kind of makes it a moot comparison.
It’s not like Alabama gets promoted to the NFL after winning 6 Natties between 2009-2020. They stay in college football and keep dominating.
I believe the possibility for promotion to the FBS both increases and decreases parity at the FCS level.
On the one hand, if the best teams are constantly moving up to the FBS level, it makes it easier for other programs to win championships.
But on the other hand, I think the fact that 9 of the 22 FCS Champions since 1978 have been or will be promoted to the FBS is a big part of the reason North Dakota State is so dominant: many of the best programs in the FCS are no longer in the FCS anymore. It means less competition for North Dakota State.
Imagine if the teams that have won CFPs had moved up to some imaginary upper-upper level of college football. So Bama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU are no longer in the FBS. That would obviously and by definition increase the parity since they can no longer win the FBS National Championship. You’d be left with teams like Michigan, TCU, USC, Tennessee and Penn State competing for the National Championship.
But imagine if Ohio State, LSU, Clemson, and Georgia all moved up to the imaginary upper-upper level, while Alabama stayed back in the FBS: Bama would be even more dominant since all their biggest competitors would be gone.
Without Clemson to stand in the way, Bama would’ve won additional National Championships in 2016 and 2018.
So I think a big part of the reason NoDak has been so successful is because, simply, all the other great teams in the FCS moved up to the FBS.
And no, I don’t exactly know why North Dakota State hasn’t yet moved up to the FBS. They absolutely should; they’re way too dominant at the FCS level to stay there much longer.
From what I gather, it’s because their stadium only holds 20,000 and that’s not big enough for the FBS. Plus, the FCS schools only have 63 scholarships while FBS schools offer 85; there’s a question of whether NDSU could actually afford all the things necessary to make the move up to the FBS.
Plus, what conference would NDSU join? They’re not a natural geographic fit for any of the G5 FBS conferences. They’re sort of close to the MAC, but most of the teams in the MAC are concentrated in Ohio and Michigan, which is pretty far from North Dakota. The closest team to NDSU would be Northern Illinois. So the MAC isn’t really a strong fit for NDSU.
The closest conference to NDSU would probably be the Mountain West, with the closest team being Wyoming. But then there are also teams in the MWC in New Mexico and Southern California, which is obviously really far from North Dakota.
Other than the MAC and the MWC, you have the AAC, the Sun Belt and C-USA. Those are even worse geographic fits for NDSU than the MAC and MWC.
But like the 12 team playoff being implemented by 2024 instead of 2026, if there’s a will, there’s a way. If there was a will for NDSU to play in the FBS, it could happen.
I think it should happen, just because of how dominant NDSU has become. I mean, come on: 9 of the last 11 National Championships at the FBS level? That’s just unfair. And it’s definitely because most of the top FCS programs have moved up to the FBS. This article in the Sioux Falls Argus Ledger from January says that attendance at the Fargodome, where NDSU plays, has actually begun to fall off in recent years as fans have almost gotten bored of their dominance. They’re ready to move up to the next level of competition. They’re a big fish in a small pond, and it’s getting played out.
So I don’t think an NDSU situation will emerge in the FBS when the playoff is expanded. There are very different dynamics at play in the FBS, namely the fact that FBS teams can’t get promoted to a level above the FBS.
Plus, Alabama dominates whatever system they put in place: they won 3 Championships during the BCS era and have won 3 during the CFP era. The great teams are going to be great pretty much no matter what.
If a team like Bama is going to dominate, better they have to do it in a large, expansive playoff field instead of a smaller one. That way, when they win, you know they won because they were the best team without a shadow of a doubt–you don’t have wonder if perhaps some other team that was excluded from the playoff might’ve beaten them.
Does an expanded playoff make it harder or easier for teams like Alabama and Georgia to win a National Championship?
On the one hand, they will have a greater margin for error in the regular season–Alabama, with two losses, would be in the playoff this year in a 12-team field. In a 4-team field, they’d be out.
But on the other hand, they’d have to win four really tough games in a row to actually win the National Championship. They’d have Utah in the first round, then TCU, then whoever comes out of that Michigan/Tennessee/K-State quadrant, and then finally they’d have to beat whoever comes out of the other side of the bracket–probably Georgia, but possibly Ohio State or USC.
That is a much tougher path to a Championship then whatever they have to go through in the 4 team playoff model. Last year, they had to play Cincinnati in the semifinal, and then Georgia in the National Championship.
There’s a much greater chance that something could go wrong for them in four games against top-12 competition.
And thus it becomes evident that the odds are really stacked against you if you don’t get a first-round bye. Because of how important the byes will be, I don’t think it’ll really water down the regular season as much as people think it will.
Plus, and I’ve gone over this in previous articles, but when I went back and put together 12 team playoff fields from previous seasons, there were very few instances of even three-loss teams making the playoff field.
Dating all the way back to 1998, the first year of the BCS, there would have been 288 total playoff spots if the 12 team playoff had been in place the whole time (12 * 24). Only 32 of those 288 spots would’ve gone to three-loss teams, or 11%.
Right now, just based on that graphic above, there’s only one three-loss team in that field: Utah at 9-3.
I don’t really think that’s a huge problem, honestly. And if Utah loses the Pac 12 Championship to USC and drops to four losses, then 10-2 Washington will move up and take their place.
But back to the main sticking point about the regular season being watered-down: it won’t be watering the whole thing down, it will only be watering certain games down. But other games become way more meaningful.
For example, teams like Bama, Georgia, Ohio State and Michigan will have a much greater margin of error, so if they get upset a time or two, it’s not going to knock them out of the playoff hunt. Those teams would have to lose three or four times to actually get knocked out of the playoff when it expands, and that almost never happens. Ohio State hasn’t lost three games in a season since 2008, and one of those losses was the bowl game. You’d have to go back to 2004 to find a time Ohio State lost more than two regular season games–they went 8-4.
Bama hasn’t lost three games in a season since 2010, Georgia not since 2016. Michigan went 2-4 in 2020, and 9-4 in 2019 with the fourth loss coming in a bowl game.
So these teams will almost never miss the 12-team playoff.
But, games which under the 4-team playoff model have no playoff implications will now have real playoff implications under the 12 team model.
The biggest complaint about playoff expansion is that it could “water down” what is currently considered the best regular season in sports. It’s a valid complaint, but only to a certain extent, and it’s not nearly as true as people think upon closer inspection.
I’ve already gone over this in a past article, but the reality is that some games between super elite teams will lose their significance, as one loss won’t knock them out anymore. With a 12-team playoff, the regular season will have a larger margin for error for the top teams.
But it also means way more meaningful games being played late in the season. It means more teams are playing games with playoff berths on the line in November. The simplest way to put it is that with triple the playoff spots, there will be triple the meaningful games being played late in the season. Every division title race inside the conferences will have a playoff berth on the line. Any team within spitting distance of the top-12 in the CFP rankings will be alive in the playoff hunt.
You know how, nowadays, there are sometimes entire weeks where there are no big time CFB matchups that affect the playoff race? That will not be the case with the 12-team playoff. There will be meaningful games every single week. Even if all the big boys are playing cupcake games, there will be some games a bit further down the rankings with playoff implications. Once you get into October, pretty much every weekend there will be multiple games that impact the playoff picture.
It’s going to be great, and I believe the tradeoffs will be worth it. It will not water down the drama and intensity of the regular season, it will just shift it. Sure, you probably won’t see Alabama or Ohio State knocked out of the playoff after one big upset, but you will see like 2/3rds of the top-25 playing meaningful games on a regular basis. The tradeoff will be so worth it. Right now, we go multiple weeks without seeing meaningful games.
Right off the bat, every conference Championship game has playoff implications. If LSU beats Georgia, they’re in the playoff with an automatic bid as SEC Champions. Right now, as it is, Georgia basically has nothing to play for in that game (just like last year’s SEC Championship when they were in either way). They’re in no matter what happens. And LSU is out no matter what happens, even if they beat Georgia by 70. So it’s kind of a pointless game, outside of seeding.
Under a 12-team system, Georgia would have the first round bye on the line, and LSU would have a playoff berth on the line. So that game actually has ramifications.
The Big Ten Championship right now is a similar situation: all that’s on the line for Michigan is seeding. Purdue is only able to play spoiler, but even if they win Michigan is still probably getting in. With an automatic bid on the line, Purdue could actually make the playoff and possibly deprive Michigan of a first-round bye.
Plus, that whole Big Ten West division race that just got resolved last weekend would’ve been part of the playoff race–Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois would all have been playing for a chance to get into the playoff.
K-State would be playing for a playoff berth in the Big 12 Championship, as would Utah in the Pac 12 Championship and UNC in the ACC Championship game. The Tulane vs. UCF AAC Championship game would also have a playoff berth at stake.
Every game that affects the participants in each conference’s championship game has playoff implications under a 12-team format.
And then there are the at-large bids as well.
For instance, last week’s Florida vs. Florida State game actually would have had some playoff implications. FSU is currently 13th in the CFP rankings, and they’re behind Utah, who is 11th, and K-State, who is 10th. If both those teams lose big in their conference championship games, then Florida State could jump up into the top 12 and get in to the playoff.
Last week’s Oregon vs. Oregon State game would have actually had some playoff implications as well. Oregon with a win could’ve set themselves up with an at-large bid (as well as a spot in the Pac 12 Championship game–but if they were to lose the Pac 12 Championship game, they would have still been in position for an at-large bid).
The bottom line is that you would have so many more teams playing meaningful games into November with a 12-team playoff.
Yes, it’s true we’d probably be deprived of seeing Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia have their seasons ended with one loss, but honestly that doesn’t even happen anymore. Those teams have to lose twice before they’re ever really officially out of it. And hell, Bama has 2 losses this season and they’re still alive in the playoff hunt–they can still somehow get in. It’s a very slim chance, but they’re not completely dead. ESPN says Bama has between a 16-19% chance of still making it.
So even in a 4-team playoff system, 2 losses don’t totally eliminate Alabama.
Now, people are talking about how the Ohio State vs. Michigan game would’ve been watered down in a 12-team playoff system, and that’s true: no matter the outcome of that game, they’d both be in the playoff if 12 teams got in.
But they still could both make it in the 4 team model! If USC loses, or if TCU loses, Ohio State is in.
I just think the 12 team playoff will make it so that way more teams are playing meaningful football deep into the season. I don’t think that’s deniable at all.
Yes, the blue blood programs will basically all be in every year unless they bomb spectacularly, but it’s also the case that it’s a tougher path to winning a championship once you actually get in to the playoff. So while the Bamas and Georgias and Ohio States of the world will be able to lose 2 games and still get in to the playoff, if that happens, they’ll have to win four playoff games against top competition to win a National Championship.
Alabama has 6 National Championships since 2009. Do you think they’d have more or less than that if the 12 team playoff had been in place the whole time? We’ll never know the answer to that, but I think they’d probably have less.
The 12 team playoff is happening whether people like it or not. And ultimately I’m confident that most of these concerns about the regular season being “ruined” will be not only unfounded, but that the opposite will prove to be true: it will make the regular season even more compelling because more teams will be in the hunt. There will be at least triple the amount of games with playoff implications on a weekly basis (because of triple the playoff spots).
I mean think about some of the weekend slates we’ve seen this season that have just not had any truly compelling games on them. That happens all the time. If you don’t have teams in the top-8 squaring off, then it’s a pretty boring weekend full of games.
With a 12-team playoff, there will be almost no weekends in the college football season without meaningful games with playoff implications.
This is going to be great for college football.