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What College Football Playoff Expansion Means for Clemson

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Syndication: Greenville BART BOATWRIGHT/Staff

News broke Thursday that the College Football Playoff is likely to (read: will) expand to twelve teams as soon as 2023, after a CFP sub-committee officially recommended such an expansion. The new playoff format would include six automatic bids for six conference champions — ensuring at least one Group of 5 team in the field — plus an additional six spots for the next highest ranked non-champions.

I had a few thoughts earlier in the week and rather than scream into the void with a lengthy Twitter thread, I decided to slap it in here and let y’all yell in the comments. With leaks dripping all week leaving essentially no doubt expansion is at hand, I hoped for an expansion to eight teams even though leaks began at six and quickly jumped to twelve.

My reaction to playoff expansion is two-fold: being a Clemson fan, I fear any change which could risk upsetting the very Clemson-friendly status quo; yet as a college football fan, I want what will allow for the most egalitarian sport possible, or more realistically, the greatest entertainment value to keep the most fans engaged for as long as possible.

These competing perspectives often do not align. The most relevant example is the current restrictive four team playoff format, which regularly provides Clemson the easiest possible path to a national title. But I will always default to what’s better for my favorite team over any other perspective. Whether this means laboring through boring conference schedules or (formerly) rooting for South Carolina to do just well enough to retain Will Muschamp in perpetuity, my dominant view defers to Clemson’s interest rather than what’s interesting.

It’s inarguable that the current format has been better to Clemson than anyone outside of Ohio State. The frequent SEC/B1G fan critique which claims Clemson walks through mostly “exhibition” games before playing its real, two game schedule in the playoff is obviously hyperbole, but the underlying premise hits pretty close to the mark: Clemson benefits from and remains insulated by the unequal playing field inherent in the current landscape.

In this sense, any playoff expansion hurts Clemson’s title chances because it invites more postseason competition and loosens the exclusivity Clemson enjoys among the top level of the sport. It is unquestionably a net loss if your primary interest lies in Clemson’s national championship chances. Plus, it brings additional wear on the amateur students’/semi-pro athletes’ bodies, which perhaps one day may be lessened at the expense of the regular season. That’s a bridge too far for most fans, athletic departments, and local economies; if we have to cut games, I hope it begins and ends with the increasingly pointless conference title games and not precious on-campus or non-conference contests.

Twelve teams make less sense to me than eight off the cuff, but my competing perspectives are aligned — or at least bargaining with one another, given expansion of some sort was imminent: Clemson’s path to the title grew wider and with more room for error in the regular season, but there is more competition along the path and will result in fewer titles —from a sheer mathematical probability perspective — than the current format would continue to allow.

If I can manage to take off my orange-tinted glasses though, it’s hard not to feel some excitement. Clemson should remain a CFP mainstay, while the wider, more crowded path is a win for the overwhelming majority of fans, conferences both powerful and overlooked, and even Notre Dame; not to mention the long term health of the sport.