The powerful agents of the College Football Playoff are dangerously close to achieving a very, very successful expansion. For a sport that has specialized in half-hearted ideas for most of its existence, the new playoff plan stems directly from the perfection of “Cake Boss.” For a sports industrial complex that has been plagued with myopic solutions, this borders on the vision.
With CFP’s statement Thursday revealing a recommendation to grow from four to 12 teams, the group is prepared to avoid incremental expansion in favor of a broader move that should have greater staying power. Why bother with eight teams if 12 is unavoidable?
Adding playoff games on campus would forever alter and enhance the sport’s postseason. Games at home are where the real passion and atmosphere is; take advantage of it.
A recommendation to extend automatic bids to the top six ranked conference champions maintains the importance of league play and league titles, while falling short of gifting every Power 5 champion a guaranteed spot and offering a glimpse of multiple offers for Group of 5. We’ll take a closer look at that below.
And the willingness to manipulate the schedule rather than put more on the players’ back is a necessary recognition that the health of the athletes really matters. The CFP statement stated a recommendation to play the quarterfinals in the New Years and push the semi-finals and the championship game later in January, which would preserve a necessary cushion in December. Or there could be a discussion about moving the season start date to so-called “Zero Week” at the end of August, which is normally when only a few games are played.
Take it all and give CFP credit for a well-made recommendation. The pejoratives often associated with college sports – uncompromising, disconnected, averse to change – don’t apply today. Or last year really.
Now all of this must evolve successfully into action, of course. As the statement at the top says: “First step in a long process.” There are a million important details to work out: playoff schedule, implementation schedule, bowl participation, what a reworked CFP media rights deal would look like, but the commitment is there to improve the playoffs, and a model of 12 computers can work very well.
To recap the basic premise: six teams would receive automatic offers as the highest ranked conference champions; six more would be elected overall; the top four conference champions would receive free passes in the first round; teams seeded 5-8 would receive teams seeded 9-12 in games on campus; and then the group moves to the quarterfinals, semifinals, and a national championship game.
In the long and unfortunate history of dysfunctional college football postseason, this would be the best version yet.
In the days when polls decided everything and the best teams rarely played each other in the end, naming a champion was an exercise in guesswork. In the days of the two-team Bowl Championship Series title game, your team was out of the race if it wasn’t in the top six in November. In the days of the four-team postseason, your team was out of the race if it wasn’t in the top eight or top ten by then. Now, in theory, everyone in the top 20 will continue to monitor their playoff chances down the stretch.
As a source familiar with planning said Thursday: “This is a way to create postseason access for more players, more conferences, more schools.” And to interest more fans in a playoff race that has come to define the sport. And of course, of course, to earn more money. (Which, hopefully, could be used by sports shows for more than just soccer facility waterslides or a thirteenth offensive analyst in charge of analyzing third and length.)
Beyond the general expansion recommendation, the details produced by CFP Thursday contain a couple of interesting subsections:
- Is Notre Dame’s own athletic director advocating for a plan that could bring the staunch independent footballer closer to full Atlantic Coast Conference membership? The working group that transmitted the recommendation was headed by Jack Swarbrick. The CFP statement states that “the four highest ranked conference champions would be seeded from one to four and each would receive a goodbye in the first round.” Which means Notre Dame would not be eligible for anything higher than fifth place as long as it remains independent.
On the other hand, an independent Notre Dame making the playoffs would not have to play in a league championship game and therefore could have its own break advantage built in. It could also be in a position to host a first-round game on its campus.
“I hope I don’t know how we play one game less,” Swarbrick said Thursday.
Still: The idea that a dominant 12-0 team is not eligible for a top-four seed would seem disadvantageous. The ACC’s provisional football membership was a big deal for Notre Dame last season, ensuring that the Fighting Irish could play a full schedule while other conferences dumped games out of the league. And it unfolded like a Fighting Irish dream – they won the regular season title and advanced to a league championship game against Clemson that was a ratings hit (and a huge on-field mismatch in Clemson’s favor).
Swarbrick in no way indicated that this proposal would lead to a change in Notre Dame’s independent status, labeling seed ceiling No. 5 as “appropriate compensation.”
- As mentioned above, the presence of six automatic offers and the simultaneous absence of guaranteed offers for Power 5 conferences is important. That ensures the inclusion of at least one Group of 5 champion, but perhaps more than one. Using the 2020 season as a guide, the top six ranked league champions were Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, and Coastal Carolina. Pac-12 champion Oregon was No. 25, 13 places behind the Sun Belt winner, Coastal and also three places behind Mountain West champion San Jose State.
Therefore, the idea of automatic P5 brochures based on exclusive membership would be rejected. If any of those leagues underperform drastically, they can be replaced by more deserving champions. And it could possibly put multiple G5 teams into a tiebreaker that, when in four teams, has never accepted a single P5 outsider. (It’s probably worth noting that Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson was a member of the task force that wrote this recommendation.)
Even more intriguing is the idea of a G5 team in the top eight having P5 power for an on-campus playoff game – the kind of games those schools can’t perennially schedule. Looking back at last year’s CFP rankings, the premise that No. 9 seed Georgia plays No. 8 in Cincinnati in noisy Nippert Stadium is fantastic.
The playoff expansion is a good thing. Playoff games on campus are a good thing. Participation in a group of 5 is a good thing. The lack of an overt claim to Power 5 is a good thing. Twelve teams in the playoffs without cramming the extra games in December is a good thing.
College football is about to improve its product. Do not ruin it. Ratify the recommendations.
More college football coverage:
• Pac-12 puts its future in unexpected hands
• In college football, the drive for vaccination is on.
• The playoff proposal would mean no byes for Notre Dame
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.