This Space’s take on the structure of the college football playoff is, broadly, the same as it was when I wrote this, 18 months ago:
Four teams is fine; eight would be fine so long as it’s not a way station on the path to 16. At 16, you cheapen the regular season, and the importance of the regular season is the best thing about the sport.
Four is much better than 16.
OK, but what about 12?
Twelve is apparently the next step, probably starting with the 2023 season. That’s the recommendation of a subcommittee of the College Football Playoff management group, which is essentially the commissioners of the FBS conferences plus Notre Dame.
The entire management group will meet this week in Chicago and some details remain, but Notre Dame is on board, and so is the SEC, and so are the Group of Five schools for which this change represents opportunity.
Also, the relevant parties talked about it so openly last week that it must have been a test-launch for media input.
So it’s coming.
The apparent format: The field will consist of the six highest-ranked conference champions plus six selection committee picks.
The four top-ranked conference champions will get byes. The first-round games will be played at the home field of the higher seed. The quarterfinals (first-round winners vs Nos. 1-4) rotate among the New Year’s Six bowls, as least as long as that is contractually mandated.
Sites and times for the semis and final have not yet been determined.
All of which would mean:
*A non-power five team - the sixth conference champion (see above) - would get in the field every year. Cincinnati would have been it last year.
*Every year, a Power Five conference champion (most often, based on recent results, the Pac 12, which calls itself “The Conference of Champions,’’) would not get a bye. It’s unlikely but possible that two P5 conference champions would go byeless, if a Cincinnati or Boise State rank high enough.
*The national championship game would be the 17th game of the season for a conference champ that did not get a bye.
*Notre Dame cannot be a top four seed, even if it is the number one-ranked team in the country, until and unless it joins a conference.
*It is entirely possible that three or four teams from the SEC or Big Ten could get in in a given year.
This is, I think, good news in one broad sense. There has been for some time, and certainly for the entire playoff era, a very, very small top shelf in this sport. I would argue it includes only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and maybe Oklahoma. The drop-off from there is steep.
Of the 28 possible berths in the playoffs in its history, those four have had 20 of them.
In the history of the playoff, 21 games have been played. Only three did not involve, and only four were not won by, Clemson, Alabama or Ohio State.
Unlike dominant pro sports teams that can build around Michael Jordan or Brady/Belichick for a decade, these superpowers are doing it with a different core group every year, fed and cared for by decadently massive armies of coaches and trainers and sport scientists and quality controllers.
We’re not at the point where no five-star prospect would want to go anywhere but Clemson/Alabama/OSU (hat tip: Nolan Rucci), but the hard truth is we’re getting there, and a four-team playoff risks perpetuating their edge endlessly.
An expanded playoff could mitigate it. The current setup has done an excellent job of identifying the best teams. Expansion would surely accomplish that while letting some fresh air in.
An eight-team field would do that too. But it wouldn’t lean so hard as to compromise the strength of the field or the integrity of the regular season.
Over the playoff’s seven-year history, under the proposed 12-team format, 39 teams would have qualified at least once. They include Arizona and Colorado, Michigan (!), Western Michigan and Michigan State, Ole Miss and Kansas State, Coastal Carolina and Memphis.
They include exactly half of the Big Ten, and everyone in the Big Ten East division except Rutgers and Maryland.
Penn State would have made it four years in a row, 2016-19, including a four-loss 2018 team that lost to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, a team that compelled James Franklin to shake up his staff and nearly one-fifth of the scholarship players to enter the transfer portal.
Twelve might be better than four. It is certainly better than 16, at which point the drama of this sport’s annual every-single-Saturday narrative would deflate.
But eight would be better than 12.