The College Football Playoff is finally going to expand.
After months of inaction, the playoff committee said Friday that it is set to expand the four-team playoff to 12 teams in 2026. According to multiple reports, it's not out of the realm of possibility the playoff could expand to 12 teams in either 2024 or 2025.
The College Football Playoff has been four teams since it was introduced ahead of the 2014 season. If it doesn't expand before 2026 and remains at four for the next four seasons, it will fulfill its original 12-year television contract with ESPN.
"This is an historic and exciting day for college football," Mississippi State president and CFP board chair Mark Keenum said in a statement."More teams, more participation and more excitement are good for our fans, alumni, and student-athletes. I'm grateful to my colleagues on the board for their thoughtful approach to this issue and for their resolve to get expansion across the goal line and for the extensive work of the Management Committee that made this decision possible."
College football leaders met multiple times to discuss expanding the playoff over the course of 2021, but any potential expansion kept getting pushed down the road due to numerous variables, like the number of teams, the date of implementation, the structure of the television contract and how the current bowl system would be involved.
Conferences like the ACC and Pac-12 could also have been incentivized to expand the playoff sooner rather than later after the surprise move of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten earlier this summer. With the Big Ten and SEC poised to be the two most powerful Power Five conferences going forward, locking in a playoff format that includes a shot for everyone else seems like a wise move for all involved.
What the playoff will look like
The CFP said the 12-team format will incorporate the top six conference champions from the 10 active conferences and six wild card teams. The top four conference champions would get byes while the other eight teams would play first-round games at the home stadiums of the higher-seeded teams. Neutral sites would then host the final seven games of the tournament, denying the top four seeds the opportunity to play a postseason game at home.
The scenario above would also mean that defending national champion Georgia wouldn't have gotten a first-round bye if the 12-team format was in place in 2021. Since the Bulldogs lost to Alabama in the SEC title game, Georgia would have entered the playoff as the No. 5 seed and hosted a first-round game.
The playoff said first-round games will be held “either the second or third weekend in December” and there would be at least 12 days between conference title games and first-round playoff games. The four quarterfinal games and two semifinal games will be rotated amongst bowl games similar to the way the current New Year’s Six bowl games rotate as playoff semifinal sites. The CFP said that it would also take current bowl contracts into account for quarterfinal games.
Subject to reaching agreement with bowls, the four highest-ranked conference champions will be assigned to quarterfinals bowls on selection day in ranking order, and in consideration of current contract bowl relationships if those bowls are selected for the rotation. For example, if the Pac-12 champion were ranked #1, the Big Ten champion were ranked #3, and the Rose Bowl were a quarterfinal site, the Pac-12 champion would be assigned to the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten champion would be assigned elsewhere.
The obvious benefit of expanding to 12 teams
There is one benefit that’s already incredibly obvious from the news and something that Keenum referred to in his statement. Adding more teams to the playoff will help college football generate more widespread interest in the postseason.
Teams like Alabama and Clemson have become constants since the playoff was introduced in 2014. They have a combined 13 playoff appearances while Ohio State and Oklahoma have each been in four playoffs. No other school has more than two playoff appearances and just 13 teams have ever made a College Football Playoff. That number was at 11 before Cincinnati and Michigan earned playoff spots in 2021. Just two Pac-12 teams (Washington and Oregon) have qualified for a CFP and Oklahoma is the lone Big 12 team to make the four-team playoff.
Increasing the number of fanbases engaged in the postseason will only help continue to make college football a nationally relevant sport and also possibly even the recruiting playing field. With the postseason field size set to triple, recruits don’t have to eye just a few programs for a near-guaranteed shot at a national championship.
Adding more teams to the playoff will also likely increase television revenue for conferences and schools as well. The 12-team format will fetch far more than the $470 million annually that ESPN pays for broadcast rights under the current format. With 11 postseason games, ESPN will pay a lot 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.