The Case for a 12-Team College Football Playoff

There is no perfect system.

The four-team College Football Playoff has been a resounding improvement on the old BCS, but many have argued that a four-team field is too small to produce an undisputed champion. 2014 Baylor, 2014 TCU, 2016 Penn State, 2017 UCF, 2018 UCF, and 2018 Georgia all had legitimate complaints regarding the Playoff committee’s selections, and we will never know whether any of them would have vanquished Alabama, Clemson, or Cardale Jones. (Thus says the Minnesota fan; J.T. Barrett was short.)

An expanded Playoff would produce an undisputed champion by allowing deserving teams a shot at a national title. An expanded Playoff would also generate more entertainment for the masses and lots of money for ESPN, FBS schools, and the NCAA. The fans benefit, the corporations benefit, and the teams benefit. However, several tweaks must be made for the system to work.

A Field of Eight?

One common proposal is an eight-team Playoff including the five Power 5 champions, the highest-ranked Group of Five champion, and two at-larges selected by the committee.

The concept of auto-bids is an excellent idea, as it provides objective paths to every team in the country to snare a shot at a National Championship. Under the four-team system, a Group of Five team will not “get in” to the Playoff without 2007-level chaos elsewhere.

One flaw is that auto-bids provide a scenario where, for example, an 8-4 ACC Coastal champion could get in by beating Clemson. For multiple reasons, this is not an issue. First, this hypothetical Pitt-imitator would be a conference champion. Conference championships do have meaning according to the committee—as they should—and auto-bids present an objective path to the Playoff free of outside intervention. Win and get in, period.

Imagine an American Athletic Championship between Memphis and Cincinnati for a spot in the Playoff.

The issue with the eight-team model is with the at-larges. If the CFP had adopted the eight-team model from the start, the at-larges would be selected from this list.

  • 2014

    11-1 TCU/Baylor, 10-2 Mississippi State, 10-2 Michigan State. . .

    Add a 9-3 Ole Miss, which defeated #22 Boise State, #1 Alabama, 9-3 Memphis, and #7 Mississippi State. . . and lost by 30 to Arkansas. What would the committee do with that?

  • 2015

    12-1 Iowa, 11-1 Ohio State, 10-2 Notre Dame, 10-2 Florida State. North Carolina and TCU are two-loss dark horses here.

  • 2016

    11-1 Ohio State and 10-2 Michigan are in.

  • 2017

    Remember Auburn’s magical run? Add 11-1 Alabama, 12-1 Wisconsin, and 10-2 Penn State to this chaos.

  • 2018

    Unbeaten Notre Dame and 11-2 Georgia are in. 10-2 Michigan is out.

Based on the five seasons under the four-team model, the ideal number of at-large selections is four. This is in addition to the six auto-bids suggested for the eight-team model.

But the field should be twelve? Not ten teams? Yes.

The Twelve-Team Field. . .

Auto-bids go to the champions of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, and AAC.

If the Pac-12 and ACC deserve auto-bids, so too does the American Athletic. The AAC has matched the quality of two of the “Power 5” conferences for years. It may be time for a “Power 6.”

An additional auto-bid goes to the highest-ranked champion from the Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, or Sun Belt.

Boise State, Appalachian State, and Fresno State have all had very good seasons in recent years. Furthermore, in 2018, the Mountain West had more ranked teams (three) than the Pac-12 or the ACC (two each) in the final AP Poll. The new Group of Four would have enough quality between themselves to produce a Playoff-worthy champion almost every season.

The final five spots are at-large bids. While the ideal number would be four, the committee has proven it needs a bit of freedom. The worst-case scenario is #12 gets blasted by #5 and we all turn our attention to the other ten Playoff games scheduled. There will also be years when the Group of Four deserves multiple CFP bids.

. . . The Twelve-Team Schedule

With more available bids, each game of college football’s regular season might carry slightly less weight. . . but for a small change to the system. The first two rounds would be played in the stadium of the higher seed. In other words, the top four seeds would have home-field advantage until the semifinals. Additionally, the top four seeds get first-round byes. Seeds 5-8 get a home game in the first round. This would add incentive for the elite to play for seeding.

Some have complained that CFP expansion would add too much risk and strain for the players. Would this be the case?

The idea behind this argument is that extra games expose the players to extra hits, causing the risk of injury and the strain on their bodies to increase game-by-game.

Games # of FBS Teams, 4-Team CFP# of FBS Teams, 12-Team CFP
12+130130
13+7878
14+20-2420-25
15+0-22-12
16+00-6
1700-2

For a better grasp of the distribution, here is the table if all CFP participants played in a conference championship game. . . and the higher seed won each Playoff game.

Tables assume all conference and division champions are bowl-eligible. Tables do not account for cancelled games, such as UCF-UNC during Hurricane Florence.

Games# of Teams, 4-Team CFP# of Teams, 12-Team CFP
12+130130
13+7878
14+2020
15+28
16+02
1700

A switch to a twelve-team Playoff would lead to an average of six teams playing one more game than in the four-team system. Upsets would throw in an added wrinkle here, but no team would ever play more than seventeen games in a season. If schools are still concerned about the added game, then one of the non-conference weeks at the start of the season can be eliminated. Regardless, based on the distribution of games in the respective systems, this complaint is irrelevant.

A twelve-team CFP is the best route for college football to produce a national champion. The four-team Playoff has been an improvement upon the BCS, but further expansion must come. More football, please.

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