Breaking Down Realistic Options for College Football Playoff Expansion
Much like a perennial flower, expansion of the College Football Playoff is back in the news this spring.
The CFP management committee recently discussed "some 63 possibilities for change," which included quadrupling the size of the playoff field from four to 16 teams.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said there will not be expansion this season or the following season, but that it could be six, eight, 10, 12 or even 16 teams when it does happen.
That latter option feels highly unlikely, if only because it took more than a decade of voracious complaining just to get the powers that be to change it from two to four. But if expansion is coming once again in the not-that-distant future, what makes the most sense, given how things have played out since the College Football Playoff era began in 2014?
Six or eight have long felt like the most likely next landing spots, so we'll look at those options first. After that, though, we'll make the case for some less conventional formats, including one in which we wouldn't even know the size of the field until the end of the season.
If you've read anything I've written over the past few years on the topic of playoff expansion, you already know that six teams would be my preference.
Six would almost always be enough to encompass each of the teams that had a good enough season to warrant an opportunity to play for a national championship. In most years, it would also include one or two teams who aren't quite worthy of that honor, but I would rather see the occasional not-that-great team getting in rather than legitimate title contenders getting left out.
Six would also reward the two best of the best with a bye into the semifinals, which is why I significantly prefer six to four or eight.
As things currently stand, the only difference between being No. 2 or No. 3 is that the No. 2 seed gets to choose its jersey color. And even though the voting gap between No. 1 and No. 4 is typically massive in the Associated Press poll, the No. 1 seed isn't given any inherent edge over the No. 4 seed by virtue of its superior season. Heck, in the 2017 season, Clemson was the No. 1 seed and had to play No. 4 Alabama in New Orleans.
I'd love to see No. 1 and No. 2 get a little competitive advantage, if only because it would make the debate between No. 2 and No. 3 actually matter.
But the biggest reason I like a six-team format is because it's (hopefully) not big enough to mandate that each of the Power Five (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) conference champions gets a spot in the field.
There would be years when it ends up being one team from each of the P5 leagues plus one wild-card team, and it will be fine and fun when that happens. In fact, based on the final rankings, that would have been the case in 2014, 2015 and 2019. However, I'm not a fan of reserving a spot for each of the P5 champions, which would likely be the case if the playoff gets expanded to eight or more teams.
In each of the past four years, the winner of the Pac-12 conference championship was ranked outside the Top 10 of the AP poll at the time of that game. In three of those four years, the loser of the SEC championship game was ranked No. 4 heading into that final week. I'm happy to debate whether the Pac-12 winner deserves to leapfrog the SEC loser in those scenarios, but it shouldn't be an automatic switch.
(That's neither SEC homer nor anti-Pac-12 bias. I truly could not care less, as I don't even have a favorite college football team. I just want to see the best teams get in, and the Pac-12 hasn't had the best teams lately.)
One big question with an eight-team playoff format is: What can we do to make sure the best teams are rewarded for being the best?
In NBA, MLB and NHL, the best regular-season teams get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In NFL and FCS, the best regular-season teams get home-field advantage until the championship game. But thus far in CFP history, the best regular-season teams have needed to win back-to-back neutral-site games (three in a row in most cases, if you factor in the conference championship) in order to win a title.
Adding one more leg of neutral-site games to that equation would inherently increase the randomness of the playoff. (To date, it has been won just twice by the No. 1 seed, twice by the No. 4 seed and three times by the No. 2 seed.)
If it was instead decided to reward the better-seeded teams with home games in the first round of an eight-team College Football Playoff, that would be awesome.
"OK, UCF. We've heard your complaints, and after many years, we finally agree you deserve a chance to play for a national championship. Here's your ticket to Tuscaloosa."
That's the other big question about expanding to eight teams: Is it merely the top eight teams in the final rankings or are there conference-based requirements? If the latter, I would hope it's the highest-ranked Group of Five (AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC and Sun Belt) team, the highest-ranked team from each of the Power Five conferences (though not necessarily the five conference champions) and two wild-card teams.
Applying that format to this past season would have yielded a first round of:
- No. 17 USC at No. 1 Alabama.
- No. 8 Cincinnati at No. 2 Clemson.
- No. 6 Oklahoma at No. 3 Ohio State.
- No. 5 Texas A&M at No. 4 Notre Dame.
Yeah, that would've been fun. It probably would've produced the same final four, or there could have been an exciting Cinderella story stemming from a first-round road upset.
Every single time this expansion conversation starts up, it seems to be a coin toss between six teams or eight teams.
Why not split the difference and go with seven?
Compromises aren't always a great way to settle arguments, but seven is truthfully my favorite of the possible options.
At the top of the rankings, the race for the No. 1 seed would be much more important than ever before, as only one team would receive a bye into the semifinals. That reward for proving yourself as the best team in the country would make for more intriguing nonconference games, as there would be more incentive for beating quality opponents.
And wouldn't it be nice/fun to debate No. 1 as opposed to the current state of affairs in which all of the focus is on No. 4 every week?
Seven is also an ideal number for more-but-not-too-much inclusion, because it could be each of the Power Five conference champions, the best Group of Five champion and the top wild-card team from outside that sextet.
This past season, a seven-team playoff would have looked like this after No. 1 Alabama getting a bye:
- No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Oregon.
- No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Cincinnati.
- No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 5 Oklahoma.
Texas A&M fans still wouldn't be happy about that, but take it from someone who also covers men's college basketball: No matter the size of the tournament field, someone on the cut line is going to be livid every year.
To fix that a bit, it might be good to add in a stipulation that a Power Five champion would be replaced by a wild-card team if it finishes outside the Top 12 (or 10, or 16) of the CFP rankings. If so, and provided there's reseeding, Texas A&M would have taken Oregon's spot and the matchups would have changed to Clemson vs. Cincinnati, Ohio State vs. Oklahoma and Notre Dame vs. Texas A&M. Either way, seven would be a fine number.
It doesn't seem as though a five-team College Football Playoff has ever been placed on the bargaining table, but why not?
Five isn't as "clean" as a four-team or eight-team bracket, but given what we've seen thus far in the CFP era of college football, it's probably the fairest number. Plus, the five-team MLB bracket in the American League and National League—in which the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds have a "play-in" game for the right to face the No. 1 seed—has been quite enjoyable since its implementation in 2012.
In each of the past six college football seasons, there has been a clear dividing line either after the fourth-best team or after the fifth-best team—often the latter. With the exception of 2015, there has also always been a substantial gap between No. 3 and No. 4 in the final rankings, which is where the cut line would be for a bye into the semifinals.
That doesn't mean either or both of those things will hold true for the future, but five seems like it would be much less controversial than four has been.
Expanding just to five wouldn't be enough to guarantee a spot for each Power Five conference champion, though, which is probably why it is not an oft-discussed number.
In the CFP's seven-year history, the ACC and SEC have each been represented eight times, while the Pac-12 has only gotten in twice, most recently in 2016. Closing that gap is the biggest catalyst for the expansion conversations, and expanding to five would widen that gap rather than closing it, considering the Pac-12 has not finished any of the past seven seasons at No. 5 in the CFP rankings.
Anything More Than 8 Teams
In a normal year, the FCS playoffs feature 24 teams. Even this spring with the truncated season, that second tier of college football still managed to put together a 16-team bracket to determine its national champion.
Physically, logistically and mathematically, a larger playoff format is feasible for FBS.
But at what cost?
FCS has a larger tournament, but it also doesn't have conference championship games or bowl games outside of its tournament—aside from the annual Celebration Bowl between the MEAC and SWAC champions.
For the College Football Playoff to expand to 10, 12, 14 or 16 teams, conference championship games would probably need to be eliminated (both to reduce the physical toll on the players and because those games would become more or less redundant), and non-playoff bowl games would be impacted as well.
At that point, one has to wonder if it makes dollars or sense to expand the playoff that much.
Expanding to anything more than eight teams would also reduce the allure of regular-season football.
An enrapturing thing about FBS that you don't get in any other sport is the distinct feeling every single Saturday that a spot in the College Football Playoff could be at stake. Remember two years ago when Clemson almost lost at North Carolina in late September and we were all completely freaking out during that game? You can kiss that drama goodbye if 10-plus teams and/or Power Five conference champions are guaranteed a spot in the CFP.
If forced to choose one of the four options for substantial expansion, though, 14 would appear to make the most sense.
The top two teams each get a bye, and then there would be six first-round games (let's call that round the "Old Year's Six") leading up to four quarterfinals and two semifinals awarded in rotating fashion to the New Year's Six bowls. And with 14 teams, it would be more than fair to just go with the top 14 in the rankings rather than worrying about including specific conference champions or a certain number of wild-card teams. If you can't finish in the top 10 percent of the national hierarchy, too bad.
Here's hoping the playoff never expands to more than eight teams, though.
Perhaps the biggest reason this debate comes up year after year is that the number of championship-caliber teams changes from one season to the next.
Four was the perfect number in 2019, but five would have been so much better in 2018, six would have been ideal this past season and eight would have been more than reasonable in 2017.
It would almost certainly never fly for TV contract reasons, but it would be fantastic if the College Football Playoff could adopt a "Hall of Fame voting" sort of model in which the number of teams selected isn't set in stone.
The letters "BCS" are viewed as a profanity by many, but what if that formula (or some updated form of it) was reanimated for this purpose? A combination of AP, selection committee and computer rankings in which all teams that finish the season above a predetermined threshold get a chance to play for a national championship?
Setting a minimum of four teams and a maximum of eight teams might be necessary, but even allowing for annual flexibility within that window would be a breath of fresh air.
Obviously, figuring out the appropriate threshold for inclusion would be a fiercely debated endeavor, as would the scoring margin, strength of schedule and "bonus for conference championship" components of the computer rankings. It could be done, though, and setting a specific standard of excellence instead of a specific number of teams would (theoretically and drastically) reduce the amount of vitriol that we currently see and feel every year.
That could be great for college football fans as a whole, but, again, it would probably never happen because TV contracts dictate everything.