Every year for the past nine years, the four teams determined to be the best in college football competed for a national championship in the College Football Playoffs, the successor to the BCS national title game. It starts with two of the New Year’s Six bowls, which rotate on three-year cycles, being played around New Year’s Day to determine who advances to the national championship game at an NFL stadium.
That all changes in the 2024 season when the CFP expands to 12 teams, and I am very excited for this new format. In the past, there were a handful of teams, such as the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes, that I got tired of seeing in the playoffs every January. As a result of those teams making it year after year, several playoff games ended up turning into very boring blowouts.
With 12 teams however, there are eight more meaningful postseason games and the potential for several new matchups that ≠we may have never seen before. Imagine last season’s Fiesta Bowl between the TCU Horned Frogs and the Michigan Wolverines (a playoff game, no less), then imagine what teams would produce offensive fireworks of that same magnitude in their first-ever meeting.
So how does this new playoff system work and what teams would fill up the bracket? The 12 teams will consist of the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest-ranked teams that did not win their conference championship, which will most likely come from Power Five conferences. Out of the six conference champions selected, the top four will receive a first-round bye while the other two would have to play at least 10 days after the conference championship game.
Like most NCAA tournaments, the first-round games would be played on campus or at an agreed-upon neutral site. What this means is that venues where it is already hard for the road team to win, such as Death Valley, would become much more intimidating places to play as there is more on the line. Imagine the energy of the playoff atmosphere of the Buffalo Bills or San Francisco 49ers carrying over into an environment such as Neyland Stadium or the Autzen Zoo.
Following the first-round games, the quarterfinals take place over four New Year’s Six bowls while the other two cover the semifinals. The teams would not be reseeded prior to the quarterfinal round, and the winner of the first-round games would face the opponent that they would play if there were only eight teams in the playoffs (i.e., first vs. eighth or ninth, second vs. seventh). The national championship game kicks off the Monday following the divisional round of the NFL playoffs in mid-January.
While I look forward to all the possibilities the new format will bring, I want to take a closer look at the seeding. I am not sure what to make about the top four seeds yet in terms of how to approach handing them out to qualified teams. If the committee took the same approach in selecting teams like they did with choosing the four best teams under the old format, then there would be debate over at-large teams getting a bye not deserving it. With the conference champion approach, teams that were not expected to win it might take the spot even though they are worse than the team they beat and several at-large programs.
As for the fifth through 12th seeds, it will come down to the decisions made by the selection committee. The two remaining conference champions are not locked into the fifth and sixth seeds, as I have noticed through multiple hypothetical simulations. This seems fair because there are some conferences where other contenders might respectfully be better than the champion of another conference.
Having 12 teams in the CFP means that not as many programs will get snubbed from the tournament every year. Notable snubs from past tournaments such as 2014 TCU, the 2020 Texas A&M Aggies, the 2020 Cincinnati Bearcats and the 2017 Central Florida Knights, easily qualify under a 12-team format and potentially could have played in the national title game.
Now, the snubs are going to come from teams ranked anywhere from 13th to 20th. Using last season’s final CFP rankings, teams like the Washington Huskies (although they were ranked 12th, they miss the playoffs because 16th-ranked Tulane gets an automatic berth), Florida State Seminoles (13th) and both Oregon teams (14th and 15th) are on the outside looking in. Only Washington had less than three losses, so the debate over who gets the last spot would revolve around the quality of schedule rather than the team’s record.
Although the CFP Board of Managers unanimously voted to expand the playoffs to 12 teams, there will be people who are against it, similar to how some NFL fans (and players) do not like the seventh seed. In the NFL, that seed usually goes to a team with a record of around .500 that sleepwalked their way into the playoffs before bowing out against the second seed. In college football, the double-digit seeds would have double-digit wins and no more than three losses, thus not guaranteeing a blowout when comparing both teams. In addition, it is hard to lose two games or less in some conferences, which will only prepare the playoff for tougher competition with their season on the line.
The college football landscape is changing by the day, especially in terms of conference realignment, NIL deals and the transfer portal. While those three things make college football (and college sports) as wild as it is, the 12-team playoff is going to lead to seismic changes in scheduling, recruiting and ways to keep players safe over (at most) a 15-game season.
Until any of that happens, let us enjoy one last season of the four-team College Football Playoff.