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College Football Playoff expansion roundtable: The good, the bad, the what-ifs

Next week, the College Football Playoff management committee will consider a proposal to expand the CFP to 12 teams.

The proposal calls for the bracket to include the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six remaining highest-ranked teams as determined by the CFP selection committee.

So what happens now? First, the management committee would need to approve the plan. If it does, it goes to the board of managers, a group of 11 university presidents and chancellors. If they approve it, then the conference commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick will spend the summer figuring out how to implement it.

“It’s the first step in a long process that won’t end before September,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t start talking about it now. So let’s break down what we know so far.

What’s the best part of the proposed 12-team CFP?

Chris Low: How cool would it have been to see Coastal Carolina or Cincinnati on the big stage last season? Both teams were legit but were never going to sniff a playoff berth in a four-team format. In a 12-team format, based on last year’s final College Football Playoff rankings, both teams would have made it. Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 would have been shut out.

Kyle Bonagura: The month of November. One of the biggest issues with the four-team playoff was that it became clear about two-thirds of the way through the season — with some exceptions — which teams were going to remain relevant. This format keeps many more teams in the mix deeper into the season, which will inevitably lead to more meaningful games. This will keep more fan bases invested for longer, which is overwhelmingly positive for the sport as a whole.

Mark Schlabach: If nothing else, an expanded playoff at least gives more programs a belief they can actually make it. No other sport has a playoff as exclusive as college football’s current system — only 3% of the 130 FBS teams make the four-team playoff and only 6% of the 65 Power 5 teams get to go. This at least gives teams other than Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma a legitimate chance to make it. An expanded playoff might not change the outcome — Alabama or Clemson is probably going to win more times than not — but it at least changes things up. The CFP has gotten pretty stale.

Harry Lyles Jr.: Looking through the lens of things we love about college football, home postseason games would have incredible atmospheres. Regular-season college football games already have some of the best environments in sports, and when you add more stakes to those, it would be incredible to watch.

Alex Scarborough: I’m still not sold that we actually needed more playoff games or that they will in any way change the outcome, but I’ll take the expansion if it means postseason games taking place on campuses. It’s that important. The worst thing about the playoff and bowl system has always been how it removes the energy of being on campus. So bring on an even more raucous Tiger Stadium or a White Out in Happy Valley.

David M. Hale: Since the first conversation about a playoff, there’s been hand-wringing over its impact on the regular season, but those conversations often have the issue backward. Too few teams in the playoff actually makes tons of otherwise good matchups irrelevant if neither team has a shot at being in the top four. Of course, expand too much and there’s risk of teams coasting into a playoff spot, too, but I don’t think 12 gets us there. Plus, with byes and on-campus home games at stake for higher seeds, it seems unlikely anyone’s going to be resting starters in November, even if a spot in the top 12 looks fairly certain. More playoff teams means more games that matter for the playoff, and that’s a good thing.

Which part are you most skeptical of?

Hale: This system really doesn’t address most of the biggest issues currently plaguing college football. The extra spots offer a lifeline to the Group of 5 and Pac-12, but the SEC and Big Ten likely will ultimately benefit more, if history is any indication. College football desperately needs to expand its geographic footprint, but if this system played out over the past seven years, half the bids would’ve gone to the SEC and Big Ten. We’re also potentially asking some teams to play as many as 17 games, which will surely provide a windfall for the schools, conferences and sport — but it also shines yet another huge spotlight on the inequities facing the players. And if you don’t like the committee’s haphazard approach now, well, just wait until its role gets tripled.

Dave Wilson: Will the selection committee have the guts to rank multiple Group of 5 teams in position to compete? Or will they still be afterthoughts pitted against powerhouses?

Bill Connelly: Depending on what adjustments are made to regular-season scheduling — and generally, when it comes to giving up potential revenue from any game, the answer is “we’re not adjusting anything” — this would indeed create a scenario in which a team plays up to 17 games in a season. It’s hard for me to justify this if we’re not making major moves on both name, image and likeness rights and the medical trust fund idea that administrators have kicked around. The former is going to happen in one form or another, but the latter still isn’t guaranteed. The latter needs to be guaranteed.

Andrea Adelson: I have been an expansion proponent, but moving from four to 12 teams will do absolutely nothing to alter who will actually have a chance to win a national championship. The same four to six teams will be in the top four nearly every year and will still have a huge advantage on everyone else. Oh sure, getting a Group of 5 team is “progress,” until you start calculating A) where they will most likely get ranked (outside the top eight), and B) what that means for running the table to a championship (not gonna happen). It’s like giving the Group of 5 teams a lollipop they’ve begged for, only to turn a corner and enter a Las Vegas-style buffet reserved only for the Power 5. You think griping about blowout semifinal games in the four-team playoff was bad? Just wait.

What’s your favorite what-if about a 12-team playoff since the CFP’s inception?

Wilson: Would the raging 2014 Baylor-TCU debate have given us possibly a rematch of their 61-58 regular-season classic?

Lyles: It might not necessarily be my favorite, but some recency bias that I’d love to have seen play out is the 2020 season with Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina. We all felt strong about those two even as Group of 5 teams, and it would be interesting to see how it would play out in such a format.

Low: A “national championship” matchup in the second round between Alabama and UCF in 2017 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. And then a national championship parade the next day.

Hale: UCF. 2017. Enough said.

Who’s the biggest winner in this proposal?

Lyles: The fans. I think most people are reasonable and realize that no matter the format, the best teams in college football are always going to be there in the end. But everybody loves a good tournament with at least the potential for upset. And if you’re a fan of a team that gets to host a game, that’s even better.

Low: The rich get richer. The SEC fared pretty well in the four-team CFP playoff and in the old two-team BCS system. In 14 of the last 15 years, an SEC team has either won or played for a national championship, and that includes five different teams. So just because the playoff field is expanding, that doesn’t mean the usual suspects won’t still be the ones winning the hardware, especially now that even more of those usual suspects will be in the field.

Hale: The biggest winners are the SEC and Big Ten, which should come as little surprise because … well, they’re always the biggest winners. Under the current system, the Big Ten had six playoff teams in seven years. If the new system had been in place, they’d have had 20. The SEC would’ve had 11 teams in the playoff in just the past three seasons. More playoff teams translates to more revenue and better recruiting for the two leagues that were already lapping the field in both categories.

Scarborough: The Pac-12 finally has a shot now …. right?

Connelly: Considering the answer could be both “the Group of 5” and “the SEC and Big Ten,” I have to say I’m extremely impressed with the political calibrations involved here.

Schlabach: I can tell you who the biggest losers are: the bowl games that aren’t part of the 12-team playoff. Most of those second- and third-tier bowl games were becoming irrelevant because of a four-team postseason and player opt-outs, and now many will have an even tougher road.

Adelson: One athletic director told me the SEC pushed the 12-team model, which makes sense because the SEC is the biggest winner — and it’s not even close.

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