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The 12-Team College Football Playoff is an Awful Idea

The money changers are intent on ruining something special and pristine in college football.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 CFP Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As you’ve likely heard by now, there appears to be significant momentum towards moving to a 12-team college football playoff. CFP’s board of managers may make a decision as soon as June 22 and a potential change would take effect for the 2023 football season (meaning two more years with a 4-team playoff).

Here’s how ESPN describes the proposal:

Under the 12-team format proposed by a CFP subcommittee Thursday, the bracket would include the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams as determined by the CFP selection committee. There would be no limit on the number of participants from a conference, and no league would qualify automatically.

Teams like LSU and Georgia, who can’t get past the elite team from the SEC - Alabama - seem to be most pleased with the proposal. The 12 team field will likely be heavily stocked with upper-middle class SEC teams like Georgia, Florida, LSU, Auburn, and Texas A&M. They, along with the Pac-12, appear to be the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed system.

Conversely, college football’s four elite teams: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are most negatively impacted. Every college football playoff since 2014 has had three of those four teams. Now those teams will have to play at least one extra game before reaching the final four.

While there are many downsides, there are at least a few big benefits.

  1. The system only gives the top four seeds to conference champions. That means Notre Dame would be locked out of receiving a bye. Perhaps stacking on top of the ACC TV money they’re giving up by remaining independent would finally push them to join the conference.
  2. The fact that — unlike an 8-team playoff — a 12-team model includes bye weeks helps prevent regular season games from becoming meaningless. Earning a bye will be the focus for the elite teams while others are focused on cracking the field of 12.
  3. The first round games will be played on-campus rather than at bowl sites. While this doesn’t mean an extra home game for Clemson (they would have earned a bye in each of the past six seasons), it adds value to regular season games for teams fighting for seeding between 5th-12th. Playing the first round game at home will be a big advantage.
  4. Bowl season used to be the best post-season in sports. A trip to the Sugar Bowl meant a great season was being rewarded. The Rose Bowl Classic had a special meaning to it. I remember traveling to the Gator Bowl in Dabo’s interim season and feeling like the outcome carried some weight. That’s long past as even formerly huge bowls like the Orange Bowl are sometimes relegated to mere scrimmages (Florida was blasted by OU last year while seemingly half their team opted-out). A 12-team playoff would provide a broader meaningful postseason now that four-team playoff and focus on the NFL draft has largely ruined bowl season.

That segues us into the downsides and these are both numerous and profound:

  1. Coach Saban correctly predicted that four-team playoffs - and more specifically the media’s myopic obsession with it - would hurt the bowl system. It has, but a playoff expansion would be the final straw. College Bowl pick’em will be dead. Traditions will fade. That’s sad.
  2. The scenarios for conference championship game losers are a bit ridiculous. On the one hand, if they drop out of the top 12 with a loss, then they would be better off not qualifying. They shouldn’t be punished for winning their division. What if they’re securely in the top 12, but have to play an elite team for the conference championship? Can they opt out?
    It becomes even more ridiculous if they pull an upset and make the playoff as a 5-12 seed. They’d then have to play as many as three playoff games. That’s four total postseason games on top of a 12 team schedule. Is that a reasonable ask of student athletes with classes and final exams? Alex Craft was right when he said conference championships would have to go.
  3. Unfortunately, it is always about money for TV executives, not the overall well-being of the sport and communities where it’s played. That means conference championships would likely stay while a regular season game would have to go. For the ACC that would likely mean an 8+3 model. Perhaps that leads to fewer Clemson vs. UConn type games, but it also likely means fewer Clemson vs. Texas A&M type games. The Big Ten already has a 9+3 model so they may have to drop a conference game. In total, this would result in less quality college football content over the course of the year.
  4. If you think the myopic focus on the current playoff system is bad, imagine how it will be when it is expanded. Teams without hope of making the playoff will really have nothing to play for. The already de-valued trips to bowl games will be rendered even less worthwhile. Would fans of teams that are 5-4 have any reason to watch the remainder of their season? Who cares about a bowl invite (if they even still exist)?
  5. This of course leads us to the point that it will only get worse. The NCAA basketball tournament still won’t stop expanding! Last year, coaches came out in favor of literally every team making the field. If you don’t think talk of a 14-team playoff will start a couple years into the 12-game playoff era, you’re kidding yourself. The NFL just expanded to 14 teams and they only have 32 teams in the league. This isn’t the end, just next.
  6. Finally, the system we have now is the best in sports at crowning the most deserving champion. Only one time in the playoff era could you even consider arguing that a team “got hot” and won. The 2014 Buckeyes would be that team, but they were also highly deserving. The best teams will still usually win in a 12-team format, but injuries and randomness will play a larger role.

To end with solutions rather than criticisms, here are two solutions that would be vastly better than this 12-team proposal.

  1. Start a second playoff for the Group of Five conferences. Another four game playoff would yield exciting, watchable games that far exceed the current bowl structure. Cincinnati playing Coastal Carolina for a Group of Five championship would be far better than watching one them lose to a two-loss SEC team in the first round. (Remember how Georgia beat them despite a spate of opt-outs last season?)
  2. Expand the current field to six teams. The top four seeds would be reserved for conference champions. The top two would receive a bye and the next two would get home field advantage in the first round. This system would help ensure geographic diversity while enhancing the value of winning your conference. It would also add meaning to the regular season as seeding would become paramount. On top of that, it would likely force Notre Dame into the ACC.

To the powers that be, I earnestly ask, instead of jumping to a 12-team playoff, could we consider a six-team approach with an accompanying playoff for the G5 schools?

While the 12-team playoff is an awful idea, a better idea is supporting my birthday fundraiser for charity: water. I began supporting this awesome charity after hearing the founder speak about his story and the origins of the charity. This fundraiser is in no way affiliated with VOX or SB Nation, but is available on Facebook here. I’d greatly appreciate any charitable giving you may feel so inclined to contribute.