The College Football Playoff will finally expand.
After months of inaction, the playoff committee has decided to expand the tie from four teams to 12 teams, according to multiple reports. The expanded playoff would begin in 2026, according to ESPN.
The College Football Playoff has been four-team since it was introduced before the 2014 season. If it doesn’t expand before 2026 and stays at four for the next four seasons, it will fulfill its original 12-year television deal with ESPN.
College football leaders met multiple times to discuss expanding the playoffs over the course of 2021, but any potential expansion continued to be pushed back due to numerous variables, including number of teams, implementation date, contract structure television and how the current bowl system would be involved.
A 12-team playoff could play out in myriad ways and the playoff now has four years to determine how it wants the tournament to play out. He reasons that the top four teams will get byes while the No. 5-12 seeded teams will play each other in four first-round games.
But the locations of those games would have to be decided. Would they be played at neutral bowling sites or at the home stadiums of the higher-ranked teams? If it’s the latter option, would the top four teams also play a playoff game at home? How many games of bowling would be involved in an extended tiebreaker?
It’s also unclear if the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) will be guaranteed a team in the 12-team playoff. A possible field configuration would include the champions of the Power Five conference title games and the top-ranked Group of Five team as automatic qualifiers. That would leave six wild-card spots for the six highest-ranked teams remaining in the playoff poll.
If there were no guaranteed conference berths in a 12-team playoff, a highly unlikely scenario, the top 12 teams in the CFP standings could simply qualify for the playoff as the top four teams now do.
The obvious benefit of expanding to 12 teams
While there are still plenty of details to be ironed out regarding what a 12-team playoff will look like, there is one benefit that is already incredibly obvious from the news. Adding more teams to the playoffs will help college football generate more widespread interest in the postseason.
Teams like Alabama and Clemson have become constants since the playoffs were introduced in 2014. They have a combined 13 playoff appearances, while Ohio State and Oklahoma have been to four playoffs each. No other school has more than two playoff appearances and only 13 teams have made it to a College Football Playoff. That number was 11 before Cincinnati and Michigan earned playoff spots in 2021. Only two Pac-12 teams (Washington and Oregon) qualified for a CFP and Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team to make the four-team playoff.
Increasing the number of fans participating in the postseason will only help continue to make college football a nationally relevant sport and possibly even the recruiting playing field as well. With the size of the postseason field set to triple, recruits don’t have to watch just a few shows to have an almost guaranteed shot at a national championship.
Adding more teams to the playoffs is also likely to increase TV revenue for conferences and schools. The 12-team format will sell far more than the $470 million a year ESPN pays for broadcast rights under the current format. With 11 postseason games, ESPN will pay much more to have the rights to all of them or networks like Fox and NBC could get involved in the bidding to televise all or part of the postseason.
How might the bowls be affected?
Although it remains to be seen how bowl games will be involved in an expanded playoff, a larger title tournament shouldn’t result in the destruction of the bowl system. There are still more than 40 bowling games out there and ESPN, which owns and operates many of them, will continue to want holiday season programming. Teams that get six wins and become bowl eligible won’t suddenly find themselves without a postseason opportunity unless something unexpected happens on the college football landscape in the next four seasons.