In the end, expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams was a no-brainer decision for the sport. The additional amount of money available for television, combined with the prevailing feeling that the four-team format did not give sufficient schools and conferences access to college football’s premiere product, made it impossible to delay any longer.
Despite some complexities, which are still a work in progress to date, the sport’s decision makers have now agreed that expansion is the way forward.
But this week should remind us that college football is not going to benefit from an expanded playoff without losing something. When the playoff tour expands, either in 2024 at the earliest or in 2026 at the latest, the sport will be different.
And maybe not entirely for the better.
From a purely competitive standpoint, what happened this past weekend in college football was the best possible argument for keeping the four-team playoff alive. At around 3 p.m. EST, both third and fourth seed Michigan State were in big trouble, battling a fourth-quarter deficit before finally triumphing on thrilling last-second field goals.
Shortly thereafter, No. 2 Ohio State was pushed to the brink by Maryland before the eventual Buckeyes pulled together in the closing minutes. Then late in the evening, USC barely stayed in the playoff race with a narrow win over rival UCLA, while it was then no. 5 – Tennessee emerged from a shocking loss to South Carolina.
Overall, this was the day that makes college football unique among American sports: Almost every week, but especially at this point in the season, the stakes are so high that an unexpected misstep can change everything. Watching teams navigate that pressure — whether they beat it like Michigan and Tech-U or crumble like the Vols — is arguably the most exciting part of the season.
And make no mistake, when the playoff round expands to 12, it’s going to be different. In some ways, it wouldn’t be for the best.
If we could move last weekend’s games to, say, 2026, there would be no possible world in which they would feel important or full of tension.
Winners and losers:Michigan, TCU survives close calls; Tennessee stumbles
misery index:An embarrassing loss costs Tennessee a spot in the College Football Playoff
Coaches survey:Southern California joins the top five
more:Top five overreactions from Week 12 college football
While TCU likely can’t afford a single loss — something the team and its fans were all too aware heading into Baylor this past Saturday — they’re going to cruise to a 12-team playoff no matter what. Tennessee, which ranks 11th in the TODAY Sports AFCA USA Coaches Poll, is still holding on to one of the final spots. And unlike the winner-takes-all scenario that has set up for the Ohio-Michigan state game this weekend, it will functionally be a seeding affair since both teams will already be guaranteed a playoff spot.
Again, this is not a radical concept. The NFL is the most popular sport in America, and fans have no problem investing in the Week 15 game that will determine whether the Bills or Dolphins win a division or get the wild card. Likewise, the new world of college football will not be short on drama. More matches will be relevant late in the season and more teams will be in the race.
Oregon, which has no path to the playoffs now as a losing team, will essentially be in a position to secure a bid this weekend against Oregon State. Suddenly we became very interested in 9-2 Penn State, which pretty much fell off the map in late October. Notre Dame, the team left for dead in September, could suddenly enter the picture with a win at USC. Even Tulane-Cincinnati will have playoff ramifications because the American Athletic Conference champion will be in line for an automatic spot.
College football swaps
In the long run, that will be good for college football. While the world of teams that can actually win national titles might not look much different — Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State will be hard to displace as long as they get the bulk of their stellar talent — it would be nice if more fan bases and administrations felt part of the action. .
And when you start to look at some of the potential playoffs, do you think there will be any interest in Penn State in Alabama as a first-round matchup? Or how about Oregon going to Clemson? It’s a delicious world of possibilities.
But it will be a different world. And it’s okay to feel a little sad about the trade-offs that college football has to make.
Like it or not, the exclusivity of college football’s post-season has had a huge impact on the urgency of the regular season. Sure, Ohio State-Michigan will always be a huge game in any context. The expanded playoff won’t change what it means to these players or their fan bases.
But it would be foolish to deny the meaningful difference between the game that determines who gets a playoff bid and the game that determines the seeding or who gets a first-round playoff when both are already in the class. This does not mean that one is better or worse overall, but it will be a natural realignment of priorities and emotions as the season begins.
When college presidents finally agreed in 2012 to abandon the BCS and move to a four-team model, sports leaders prepared for the inevitability that every conversation during the season would revolve around the playoff. But the degree to which it pushed everything else to the background and made really good seasons feel less than good at many schools was more evident than anyone knew.
Would Clemson fans be on fire if they finished 13-1 and were relegated to the Orange Bowl? unlikely. How many Alabama stars will be in a bowl game this year? Teams that are having really good seasons like 9-2 in Washington or the height of Florida State aren’t talked about as much because they’re not in contention. That will change if they enter the final week of the season with a chance to sneak into the 12-team field.
Once the officials got a feel for how much the playoffs dominated the regular season, and how some teams were capturing most of those spots each year, it had to expand. During the first eight years of the CFP, only 13 different programs reached the semifinals. If you want a product that will attract coast-to-coast interest, you need to have coast-to-coast engagement. This is what the 12-team playoff would be designed for.
When that happens, just be prepared: Weekends like last Saturday, with the big favorites in trouble and fighting for their lives in the playoffs, won’t be intense. The heights will not be high. Bottoms will not be low. Just like the NFL, the drama will be a slow build towards the postseason rather than a weekly elimination contest.
In the end, expanding the College Football Playoffs wasn’t just the right move, it was the only one. But this past weekend was a reminder that he will never feel the same.