Over the past several seasons there has been a lot of debate over the format of the College Football Playoff. The current four-team format, which was introduced in 2014, has drawn criticism from some for being too small, while others think the playoff isn’t necessary at all.
Expansion of the playoff has been discussed continuously since 2014, but there has been no agreement on which format actually makes the most sense. With expansion on hold until 2025 due to the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 voting against a 12-team format, it is worth taking a look at the different possible ways the playoff could expand, and their benefits and drawbacks.
The Six or Eight Team Formats
While the four-team playoff is often viewed as being too small, there is a strong argument against expanding the tournament too much. Despite an expansion to a 12-team format being the official proposal made last year, the most popular expansion formats discussed have been a six or eight-team playoff.
The six-team model would involve all of the Power Five conference champions advancing to the College Football Playoff, along with the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff Top 25. The top two teams to make the playoff would receive a first-round bye.
During much of the College Football Playoff era, the selection committee has repeatedly emphasized the value they place on conference championships, despite that not always translating to the Top 25 rankings.
As a result, the six-team tournament seems to make a lot of sense. It places value on winning a conference championship, as those are the teams who would make the playoff. In addition, it limits controversy by limiting the impact of the committee’s Top 25 rankings to determining the Group of Five team that would make the playoff, and which two Power Five conference champions would receive a first-round bye.
Similarly, an eight-team format would involve each Power Five conference champion, a Group of Five team, and two at-large bids. The format has many of the same benefits as the six-team format, although there would almost certainly be controversy over the last two teams to make the playoff.
A notable difference between the two formats is the added benefit that the eight-team format would involve every New Year’s Six bowl game. Four games would be the quarterfinals of the playoff, with two games serving as the semi-finals.
During the last several seasons, multiple players have chosen not to participate in major bowl games due to concerns of being injured ahead of the NFL Draft. An eight-team College Football Playoff would address this issue. This format would encourage every team’s best players to play due to the opportunity to win a National Championship, and help maintain the prestige of college football’s most marketable games.
The disadvantage of expanding the playoff to eight teams is the added game that each team would play. This could possibly require the regular season to be shortened, impacting teams that won’t make the playoff. While this issue could affect a six-team or an eight-team playoff, it becomes drastically worse as more teams are added.
The Twelve or Sixteen Team Formats
Interestingly, when the College Football Playoff expansion was being discussed and eventually voted on, the proposed format was an expansion to 12 teams. The 12-team format would almost certainly require a reduction in the length of the regular season.
A 12-team format would involve the six highest-ranked conference champions, along with the six highest-ranked at-large teams. Like the six-team format, there would be first-round byes, in this case for the four highest-ranked conference champions, with the other eight teams playing on-campus games to advance to the quarterfinals.
Once the quarterfinals are reached the format is similar to the eight-team proposal, with every New Year’s Six bowl site involved in the hosting of a playoff game. The sixteen-team format would be a single-elimination tournament, with the first round of games being played on campus. As with the 12 and eight-team formats, the remainder of the games would be played as New Year’s Six bowl games.
The main drawback to the 12 and 16-team formats is the number of games that would be added to the winning team’s schedule. A top-four seed that won a 12-team playoff would play 16 games, which would expand to 17 games for a 5-12 seed. In the 16-team playoff, the champion would play either 16 or 17 games.
As a result, expansion to the playoff would almost certainly require a reduction in the length of the regular season, which would have a massive impact on programs that are unlikely to ever make the playoff but would still have their seasons reduced. In addition, one of the most exciting attributes of college football is the importance of every game. During the BCS era and the beginning of the College Football Playoff era, one regular-season loss could eliminate a program from National Championship contention, which could be lost if the College Football Playoff expands; especially to 12 or 16 teams.
No matter the format, there are significant advantages and disadvantages to College Football Playoff expansion. Potential expansion would help to limit controversy surrounding Group of Five teams not making the playoff or being treated fairly by the committee, and help further limit controversy by providing a guaranteed path, winning a conference championship, to making the playoff.
However, there are disadvantages. An expansion of the College Football Playoff could dramatically change the stakes of the entire regular season. In addition, while it could encourage players who would otherwise not participate in a bowl game to play in a playoff game, it may make the issue worse for the remaining bowl games. While expansion, in theory, seems like a logical step forward to take, it could have drastic unintended consequences on the future of the sport and must be handled carefully.