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A 12-Team Playoff Could Work, But It Needs a Big Concession

Since Daniel Boone navigated the Cumberland Gap, Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase and covered wagons rolled across the prairie, America has always embraced expansion. Bigger has perpetually been seen as better, even if we had to steal the land to get there.

College football, a very American invention that has hewed closely to our nation’s expansionist ethos, is ready once again to reach for more. As Sports Illustrated reported last month, the College Football Playoff is poised to grow from its current four-team model. This week Yahoo Sports hinted at the details, saying that a 12-team version may win out as plans start coming into focus in the weeks ahead.

In an ideal world, this expansion will be accomplished without thievery. But when the robber barons of college sports are involved, don’t be so sure.

A 12-team playoff is a good idea. It could potentially be a great idea. To get to great, something would need to give. For the sake of the players, the powers that be would have to do something they are intrinsically opposed to doing—scaling back to go bigger. Downsize the pre-playoff in order to expand the playoff.

Specifically, take one game off the schedule. Don’t steal what little time football athletes now have in December to breathe, to heal, to maybe even pursue the quaint notion of focusing on finals for a week.

With a 12-team playoff that could be implemented no earlier than 2023, the schedule would probably look like the current setup, with a regular season running from late August through late November. Then there would be the usual week of conference championship games in early December. Then, to fit in the extra layers of playoff games, two additional rounds of postseason play.

The top four seeds get a bye, while teams 5–12 play on the campuses of the Nos. 5–8 seeds. Then the quarterfinals would pit seeds 1–4 against the winners. In a vacuum, both of those rounds of games would be really fun.

Looking at the 2021 calendar, that likely would mean the first round on the Dec. 11 weekend and the quarterfinals on Dec. 18. (The weekend closest to Christmas would be open.) Semifinals could remain on New Year’s Day and the title game can maintain its Monday night slot in early-to-mid January.

Again, fun. But it’s an excessively demanding December at a time when college football players are increasingly questioning what their obligation should be to their programs. Better to eliminate conference championship games and build in another open week at the start of December or at some point during the playoff.

That would, of course, not be a welcome cutback for the sport’s power brokers. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million fans usually tuning in the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten title games, they are ratings hits and with expensive tickets to match.

“Really valuable,” one league official said about its conference title game. “I don’t see that going away. I don’t think that’s negotiable for most of us.”

But in an era marked by a new focus on athlete health, mental and physical, it seems squishy to expand the season so that teams making the championship game play 16 or 17 games. The advent of the NIL Era does not magically make the players adult millionaires with a union. NIL-level compensation doesn’t alleviate concerns about college players completing a season of NFL length.

In a four-team playoff, the two playoff finalists in a normal season are likely to play 15 games, which is asking a lot. Urban Meyer, before winning the first CFP title in January 2015, talked about the wear and tear on his Ohio State team: “Aug. 4 through Jan. 12 you have three days off for Christmas—and by the way, when you go home, study your iPads. Think about that. I don’t hear much around when they’re talking about payoffs for conferences and all that, what about those kids? … We’re just finishing our 22nd week of football without a break, and they’re starting classes on Monday.”

Conference title games, while cherished by the leagues, are more expendable than convincing individual schools to drop back to 11 regular-season games and lose a week of home-game revenue. Leagues have made it harder to determine a true champion because of expansion (see: American themes of acquisition) and imbalanced schedules, of course. Lacking a radical realignment that would alleviate that, doing away with divisions would somewhat lessen that concern. (So would an expanded playoff, which would let in deserving teams that perhaps didn’t win their league due to scheduling differences.)

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren might see it differently today, but he wasn’t onboard with an expanded playoff when I talked to him in January. “I’m a believer that more is not always better and increasing is not always better,” he said. “What is the right number of games for a college football team to be able to handle? Eight teams, I’m not there yet. If I had to vote today, I’d say no (to expansion). I need a lot more information before I can say what I think it should be.”

Who gets the 12 bids would, of course, be another point of contention. Put it this way: the Power 5 conferences aren’t pro-expansion just to mollify the Group of 5 conferences. They’re pro-expansion to include more of their own. (This is why, as one league official put it Tuesday, “Any solution raises 12 other issues.”)

In 2020, the automatic bids would have gone to P5 champions Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Oregon. The G5 autobid would have gone to Cincinnati. The rest of the field, if relying on the CFP rankings, would have included Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia, Iowa State and Indiana. In 2019, autobids would have been LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oregon and Memphis (G5), with the at-large bids going to Georgia, Baylor, Wisconsin, Florida, Penn State and Utah. And so on.

The Group of 5 has only once had two teams finish in the final top 12 in the CFP rankings—and that was last season, when Coastal Carolina ultimately would have been knocked out to make room for Pac-12 champion Oregon. With the selection committee predisposed to downplaying those schools from outside the power structure, 77 out of 84 bids would have gone to Power 5 schools if a 12-team playoff had been in effect all along.

The fact that five of the seven G5 bids would have gone to American Athletic Conference schools (Cincinnati, Memphis, Central Florida twice and Houston) is why AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is pushing harder than ever for a new “Power 6” designation that includes his league. The AAC’s top team has ranked higher with the CFP than the league champion from the Pac-12 in two of the past three seasons, for what it’s worth.

But who gets the bids will be a year-to-year squabble. What will remain constant in a 12-team playoff is the increased demand on the players to keep cranking out TV inventory, unless the decision makers in college football do the sensible and humane thing and dial back the season by one week. Don’t steal what little downtime there is from the players in the quest for expansion.

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