CFB Drama: Is a 12 Team Playoff Coming Soon?

David Marsh Editorials 32 Comments

By the looks of it, a 12 Team Playoff is the preferred format for expanding the College Football Playoff. Currently it appears that the top twelve teams ranked by the playoff committee would make it into the playoff. This sounds good in theory but also raises further questions.

What if the Champion of a Power-Five Conference isn’t ranked in the top 12? Oregon won the Pac-12 Championship in 2020 but wasn’t ranked within the top 15, let alone the top 12. Yes, the 2020 season was a mess for so many reasons and this is unlikely to happen in the future but it is still conceivable for a two or even three loss team to win their conference. Should that team be allowed into the playoff?

How many spots will be given to the SEC? The SEC and the self-fulfilling prophecy has been a problem for decades. This is when SEC teams are highly ranked because they are in the SEC and they maintain or rise in the rankings for playing other ranked SEC teams. During the 2020 season the SEC played a conference only slate, this taught us that the SEC isn’t as strong as the pundits make them out to be. However, is this going to stop the SEC from taking up three or four playoff berths?

A 12 team playoff would be better than the four team invitation we are currently stuck with. However, what would be the best and most fair way to allocate those twelve spots to create a real and meaningful playoff?

David Marsh 
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: John Giustina

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This is why I love this community here…it is not the quantity of responses, but the quality. Such great insights that again–so many I had not thought of, and so well written.

If you are reading and have not commented, or haven’t in a long time–join us in the discussions! No matter how far out your opinion is … everyone will be polite and respectful!

(They have to because of the eye-in-the-sky enforcing our rules requiring civility.)

Let ol Matt get you back on track

Additional fairness items include eliminating the SEC “bye week” late in the season and making each conference play the same number of conference games and same number of out of conference games at similar stages in the season.
More teams in a playoff creates better out of conference matchups and sets the stage for big upsets. Not necessarily likely given the disparity between the top few teams and the rest of college football but possible. But don’t listen to me, I’m thrice divorced and live in a van down by the river.

FishIceCream

Great comments! The way that I understand this system is that it’s the “top 6 ranked conference champs,” which will get a non-power 5 team in every year, and potentially exclude a power 5 team in an odd year like last year. Power five is only excluded if there are two non-power five champs ranked higher, which is an odd year indeed.

After that, it’s the next best six by ranking. This makes Notre Dame, the SEC, and the B1G happy.

Honestly, I hate this proposal. It just shows the greed that drives all of this, as they consider it much better to jump to a strange 12 team playoff just because it increases the bottom line.

I read a quote yesterday by one of the bigwigs on the committee that made this proposal to the effect of this: We’re not too worried about teams playing 17 games, because the statistical chance that a conference champion that is seeded outside of the top four actually makes it to the final game is too small.

How can any of these supposed champions of higher education sign off on logic like that? Short answer – money.

I can’t find that quote at the moment, but I know I read it. Statements like this seem so hypocritical, annoy me, and make me mutter to myself. (Or here!)

After all my grumbling, I think this proposal would obviously benefit Duck fans like us, as it would essentially guarantee getting a shot. I would much prefer an 8 team playoff if we have to have one though.

I’ve mentioned a similar idea to David Marsh before, which would be reducing the number of games for the conference champion. All teams play 11 games, which in the PAC 12 would mean 8 conference games.

During the week that is now reserved for the conference championship game, the conference matches up numbers 1-6 from the North and South for a final jamboree. Numbers 1 vs 1 becomes the championship game, obviously.

North and south can trade off years for which division hosts the games each year. Thus, all teams get a 12th game, and for some of them it will determine which bowl bid they get, or whether they have a shot for the national championship. The only “loser” is the conference, which gets one fewer game in the year.

If I were made king for a year, I would establish by royal decree that no NCAA football teams could play more than 12 games before the bowls or championship. Conferences would have to figure out themselves how to limit all teams to 12 games – my proposal would work for any conference that had equal numbers of teams in two divisions.

The power 5 champs would all get in, one non-power 5 would automatically get in, and then the next two highest ranked teams would get at-large bids, for 8 total.

For the Notre Dame complainers, just looking at the four years before the pandemic season, these are the at-large bids that would have gotten into an 8 team playoff in my proposal:

2019: Georgia (5) Baylor (7)
2018: Notre Dame (3) Georgia (5)
2017: Alabama (4) Wisconsin (6)
2016: Penn State (5) Michigan (6)

So we can see, finishing in the top 6-7 should get you in to the playoffs even as an independent, which seems fair. We can also see which conferences still benefit most from this idea.

I am sure that my proposal has absolutely no chance of happening, because I will not be made King for even a minute, but I enjoyed sharing my dream with you all!

Logger29

Agree with the 8 game conference schedule. I personally think the non conference games could be reduced to one. Schedule a patsy or a toughie it won’t matter if the playoff is taking conference champs.

I say again – take the polls and rankings out of the game. Make winning your conference the qualifier. Force Norte Dame and BYU into conference memberships.

High school state championship playoffs are a good model.

If all college teams play 8 conference games plus one non conference game to begin the season all teams will have a nine game regular season. A conference championship is the 10th. So the eventual National Champion would have played no more than 14. The championship would be determined sometime in early to mid January.

The first step is to cut college football loose from NCAA governance. Create a national college football organization which would standardize conference schedules, number of non conference games, and the playoff format. Allow this organization to be the sole negotiator for media contracts for all of college football and establish a profit sharing system by which top dogs and bottom feeders get a piece of the pie.

Some schools may opt out and become some sort of D1 NIAA league, great more beer for the rest of us.

This may sound half baked and radical but I feel the sport has reached a tipping point. Unless something radical is done college football will follow MLB’s path and become a regional game with the southeast and Midwest dominating and teams like Alabama and Ohio State perpetually competing for a National Championship which is anything but.

Annie

Help!

So…the regular season would still be 12 games, plus a conference game? Which takes things into December.

And then a week for the 8-team play-in games, then a week for the remaining 8 teams to play? I think this is taking us up to just about Christmas? Then I guess it would be two games on New Year’s Eve day? Then the championship a week or two later?

Have I got that right?

The 8-team play-in games will be at the stadiums of four of those teams, so they’d probably get a good home crowd. And is it the same when the winners of the 8 teams left in the playoffs play the next four games, or where are those held?

I assume when it gets down to 4 teams the games will be at two of the major bowls on New Year’s Eve day?

Then the Championship game a week or two later?

And what about Naomi–I mean, what about traveling during the peak of the holidays? Inquiring minds want to know.

FishIceCream

I think you are right except that I can’t imagine at least one bye week will be built in for everyone, if not two.

After all the NCAA is “always” considering the fact that our student athletes have some tests to do and so on. Insert heavy sarcasm there.

So whenever the current championship game is, in terms of date, add one week at least, two at most for this version.

Nobody in the high level discussions could care less about how easy it is to travel or whether it is ethical to ask this of “student athletes” in a violent sport. Harsh, but my opinion!

DuckUp

I like the expansion but I 1000% agree with Jon Joseph. Drop a conference game, the divisions, and the pac12 champ game. If not we are looking at a 17 game schedule if u go all the way. We’re already at 15 games if u make the national championship.

Also these are student athletes. 17 games just seems like way to many. This isn’t the NFL where guys are making 40 mill a year like pat mahomes.

DanLduck

Access instead of success.
That’s what this 12 team set up would be. And it is intended to give the SEC the best edge, cuz we all know rankings always treat that league best.

For me 12 teams are too many. Have we ever thought that a team ranked below 5 is really a contender for nat. champ?!
The current system needs a change, but not to 12.

Something else, there is no equality in D1 football. The disparity between schools and leagues is vast. Yes, they all get 84 scholarships, but $$, facilities, state and local support, etc. makes the idea of a level playing field to decide a national champion seem ludicrous.
Wanting to give an underdog a chance makes for a great media story, but would a G5 champ really be better than any 2nd place Pac 12 team?

6 teams, the top 2 get byes. Make the season count, and make the playoffs separate from the bowls.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I have always thought about “why do they have 64 teams in March Madness?” The bottom 45 have NO CHANCE of winning the ‘Natty, and isn’t the tournament about crowning a champion? So why have so many that are not NC quality?

And the answer is…because making the tournament became a new goal, a new criteria for a coach and team.

I also objected to the “Play-in Four” as I felt it was another way to extract revenue from bubble teams who will never go anywhere…until UCLA went all the way to the Final Four!

One thing about the expanded playoff is how it will go four weeks, and thus while college basketball has “March Madness,” now college football will have its own blockbuster four weeks, that could be rich for all the conferences.

Jon Joseph has some thoughts and passed them along to me since he has some tech issues at the moment….

“If the proposal passes as is, the conference would be insane to not drop the 9th conference game, seriously consider dropping divisions and eliminating the conference champ game (in this order.) Playing 9 conference games threatens 1 team making the field let alone two.

Also, with no guarantee the Pac-12 champ is in and without the top 4 seeds getting a home game why in the hell play at Ohio State instead of at Kansas? Why play UGA in Atlanta instead of Purdue in Vegas?”

As always, elite stuff from Jon. He’ll be back in the near future…

RECRUITING!

Right now a massive preponderance of the top recruits in the nation go to the few teams perceived as “being able to be in the playoffs,” and it has made college football top-heavy. By giving more teams a chance–the best athletes will be more evenly distributed across all teams and that makes it better for everyone, IMHO.

DanLduck

As much as I want to see the Ducks play for championships, I want to see us play USC, not Stoney Brook!
I don’t want to see fewer league games and more mediocre teams from schools I couldn’t care less about.
Home games are important revenue and scheduling games now is already so tough.

But, if they expand to 12, it would be a necessary thing to do.

Jon Sousa

The only real good point I see in the proposal is that it would guarantee that at least one non-Power 5 team gets in each year.

I think I would prefer an 8 team playoff with the same 6 highest ranked conference champions and a maximum of 2 teams per conference. That gives an opportunity for two conferences to send two teams max.

Tandaian

The proposal does not include guarantees for conference champions. Instead, it calls for the bracket to include the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked other teams as determined by the CFP’s selection committee. 

Also under this proposal: Even if Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country, it cannot receive a bye or be seeded higher than No. 5.

Number of G5 teams ranked in the top 25 before bowls.

2011: #7 Boise St., #19 Houston, #21 Southern Miss.
2012: #15 Northern Illinois, #19 Boise St., #22 Utah State, #24 San Jose St. #unranked Wisconsin
2013: #15 UCF, #20 Fresno St., #23 Northern Illinois

2014: #20 Boise St.
2015: #18 Houston, #21 Navy, #24 Temple
2016: #15 Western Michigan, #24 Temple, #25 Navy

2017: #12 UCF, #20 Memphis, #25 Boise St.
2018: #8 UCF, #21 Fresno St., #25 Boise St.
2019: #17 Memphis, #19 Boise St., #20 Appalachian St., #21 Cincinnati, #23 Navy
2020: #8 Cincinnati, #12 Coastal Carolina, #16 BYU, #19 Louisiana, #22 San Jose State #24 Tulsa… #17 USC, #25 Oregon

P5 conference champs still are pretty much a lock with this setup.

You don’t need to be in the top 12, if you are a top 6 conference champion. Since 2011, only 2011 ACC (Clemson) was #14, was the only time a P5 champion wasn’t in the top 12. However, they still were a top 6 champion.

They also finally have penalized ND for being Independent. They can never get a bye because they will never be a conference champion.

Jon Sousa

Great observations Tandaian. Thanks for doing the homework.

Drake

Every playoff system will have controversy given enough time. However, I do think some changes need to be made to the current system. Since football pays the bills for many athletic programs, striving to keep football programs healthy across the various conferences, seems prudent.

Expanding the playoff will generate revenue. Spreading that revenue across more conferences on a regular basis seems healthier for college athletics in general. Therefore, I would be in favor of some type of expansion.

Change is probably inevitable. I would like to be optimistic that a change would improve upon the current system.

Carl N

So we start out with the bowl system, move to a system where the so called top two play for the championship. Next, top four, then move to the top 12 passing up what seems like the most logical and fair imho. Eight teams, with winner of each of the five big conference championship games getting automatic bids. Add in the top ranked team from all the other FBS conferences, leaving two at large berths.

Both of which automatically are seeded in to the number 7 and 8 spots. This to me reduces the SCC bias as we know one of the at large bids will likely be from the SCC each year. And it would be unfair to reseed that team towards the top. If you can’t win your conference championship you should have to play one of the toughest opponents.

How they seed the rest, well we can’t totally eliminate all bias. But if you go to a 12 team system it opens up space for more bias again. There will be more controversy each year on who gets the number nine through twelve at large bids, and who gets a bye in the first round. With eight teams, there is an incentive and reward for winning you conference title.

Maybe a little controversy on which team among the minor conferences get in. And controversy on the two at large berths. Thus controversy goes from seven spots down to three spots. I say keep it simple, eight teams is the “sweet spot” imho.
In 2020 this might have led to the following seeding:

  1. Alabama
  2. Clemson
  3. Ohio State
  4. Iowa State
  5. Cincinnati
  6. Oregon
  7. Texas A&M
  8. Notre Dame

Talk about some fun matchups. Plus given the Oregon – Ohio State game was cancelled, suddenly we get that game after all. We would probably have been crushed, but so be it.

Notalot

No twelve for me. Six in an incremental change would be okay. Fundamentally, the current 4-team format to determine the champion works just fine, but selecting team 4 is problematic and requires objective metrics..

Mudslide

No playoff selection system is or will be inherently “fair”. It’s not altogether fair now, and it won’t be anytime in the future as long as people and their subjective biases are involved in the selection process. It’s not science, it’s a beauty contest. And NCAA narcissism irritates me at times.

I say go back to the bowl system and call it good. Athletes and fans can experience the return to the joyous times of winning something important…a bowl…not something of modest irrelevance (irrelevant to the playoffs). If people want to imagine “National Champions”, then let them. It makes for good barroom talk.

Ye Olde Grump

Logger29

Mud, I agree with you about human bias and the current “Beauty Contest” passing itself off as a legitimate playoff.

I would be content with the old bowl structure.
Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle. There is probably no way of going back to what seem to me to have been the good ol days.

Mudslide

You’re probably right, Logger. Unfortunately. But while it is ever-so-unlikely…yet it is still possible that a selection controversy will boil over at some point in the future and sink this ship of self-congratulation by the NCAA. Imagine a one loss Alabama team being left out of the playoffs. (One can hope!) THE SEC bosses of college football would erupt in great turmoil and calls for (ta daaa)…change.

The only fly in the above hopeful salve is that it’s not too far fetched to believe that the NCAA will come up with something even more stupid.

Still a grumpy ol’ Mud

jrw

Coming soon? I had better come soon, because I’m pretty old and I want to see it.

GODUCKS15

The only way to make it fair for all teams is to get rid of the human factor and create a new conference alignment.
Create 8 power divisions and the winners of each division get automatic bids. Simply win your division and you’re in.

Time to move on from the ‘Eye’ test and make getting to the CFP’s simple.

There will still be the usual talk that X conference is weak and that winner doesn’t deserve to be in. It’s like that in many other sports conferences/divisions and still makes the playoffs valid.

Let SOS determine seeding.

Logger29

Very timely article David. Thanks. My answer to the question, “Coming soon?” Not soon enough for me.

The generic AP article, however, mentions several details which I find concerning.

First, conference winners will not receive automatic bids. The first 12 ranked teams will be seeded. Who determines the ranking, the media, the conference commissioners, a “Special NCAA” committee?

Second, the 4 highest ranked teams receive first round byes. Gosh, any guesses as to who those 4 teams will be? I’m betting the usual suspects with Norte Dame rotating in every couple of years because NORTE DAME!

Unless all conference champions get automatic bids – regardless of records or ranking, I don’t care how “worthy” a team may be, win your conference or stay home – expanding the field will not produce a “fair (er)”
model.

I fear all the current expanded playoff proposals will accomplish will be to allow the SEC and Big 10 even more teams to participate and receive the monetary rewards. This will only serve to under cut the supposedly weaker conferences and devalue conference champions.

The polls, AP, Coaches, USA Today are relics. They’re fun and make for great conversation but let’s take them out of the playoff equation. Wait until the conference champions are determined and then seed the teams.

UtahDuck

Interesting fact is notre dame wouldn’t actually qualify for a top 4 seed under the current proposal. The top 4 seats must go to the 4 highest ranked conference champions. so unless notre dame joins a conference they wouldn’t qualify for a top 4 spot.

I actually like this set up as you avoid the SEC getting two top 4 teams in the playoffs and avoiding the first week bye.

This also removes the polls completely from the equation you get 6 highest rated conference champions and the 6 highest rated teams following them and then the CFP committee ranks them.

Ducked

I think a 12 team playoff presents some problems. With the top four teams receiving a first round bye, that clearly creates an unfair advantage….an extra week of rest and practice, time for minor injuries to heal, and extra time to scout and prepare for their first opponent. An 8-team format creates a more level playing field.

And while it would be a monumental accomplishment for a lower seeded team to win the national championship, it remains highly unlikely. In a 12-team playoff they would have to win four games in four weeks against the toughest competition they have faced all season. But could it happen? Probably not, but there could be some shocking upsets that would make things extremely interesting.

I am not in favor of power five conference champions getting automatic entry into the playoffs. In basketball it works, but not in football. Too many worthy teams would be left out, as is the case right now in the current format. Oregon, unfortunately, in 2020 would have been the perfect example of why power five conferences should not be granted automatic entry into the playoffs. Being an Oregon fan, it’s tough to admit that.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Ducked….I sure love how you have become a mainstay in this community in a short time. GREAT posts.

The extra week of rest is meant to be an advantage for the top four seeds, because they earned it with receiving the high seed.

There are others in the “Big-3” that always make the playoffs–they do NOT like that format because they lose a week of revenue from the home gate and television, and that could be a boatload.

As noted above–at present, the conference champions are not automatic entries, and I think they should be. And Ducked, I love how we disagree in such a civil fashion!