SPORTS OPINION: College Football Playoffs expansion to 12 teams not the blessing in disguise many fans think it is


The phrase “blessing in disguise” is thrown around pretty commonly in conversation, but “disaster in disguise” is far less prevalent. These are the words that can be used to describe the plan for an expansion to the College Football Playoff. College Football fans alike will argue in favor of this new reality, but is it really what’s best for the future of the sport, or is it just another example of college football brass doing whatever they can to make more money?

CONTEXT: On Friday, September 2, 2022, the CFP’s board of managers voted unanimously in favor of the plan to expand from a four-team playoff to a 12-team playoff beginning with the 2026 season. They did so, however, with the hope that league commissioners will implement the plan before then, possibly even as early as 2024. 

The 12-team playoff bracket would include an automatic bid for the Power-5 conference champions as well as the highest-ranked Group-of-5 conference champion, plus six at-large bids. The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive a first-round bye.

For example, the four-team format last season saw Alabama as the number one seed taking on fourth-seeded Cincinnati in the semifinal as well as the number two-seed Michigan playing. the number three-seed Georgia. Under the new expansion format, Georgia would have dropped to the number five seed due to their loss against Alabama in the SEC Championship game, despite going 12-0 in the regular season. 

Baylor, being the next highest ranked conference champion, would’ve jumped them in the rankings and been awarded a first-round bye as the number four seed. Utah would’ve received an automatic bid for winning the Pac-12, as would Pittsburgh for winning the ACC, and the five at-large teams would’ve been as follows: Notre Dame, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Michigan State. 

A POSITIVE: Perhaps the only good thing about the CFP expansion plan is that it adds meaning to bowl games. The CFP, when it was established in 2014, dramatically lowered the value of the New Year’s Six bowl games. These are the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl. In a four-team playoff with two semifinal games, the CFP started a rotation for which two bowl games actually mattered for the playoffs. 

For example, last year the CFP semifinals had Alabama-Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl and Michigan-Georgia in the Orange Bowl. So the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl were all basically meaningless to the average college football fan, because there wasn’t actually anything on the line for the teams playing in those games. 

Some NFL prospects even skipped playing in these games to avoid the risk of injury as they looked ahead to protecting their draft status and playing at the next level. The 12-team concept at least allows all these bowl games to have meaning at the same time, which will increase viewership, and of course, money for the CFP, which is the root of every decision they’ve ever made.

PROBLEM #1: Something all college football fans enjoy about the game is how high-stakes the regular season games are. With only four teams getting into the playoffs, one bad loss in the regular season can potentially derail any chance you thought your team had of getting in. Nobody is really guaranteed a spot, and that makes every game of the regular season that much more important. 

Under a 12-team playoff format, the stakes of regular season games are dramatically reduced. Now that it’s easier to get into the playoffs, teams can go out and lose two, possibly even three games in the regular season and still get into the playoffs. CFP expansion doesn’t create any new drama, it just takes the drama from the regular season and moves it into the playoffs, which again, gives more money to the CFP in terms of viewership. 

Even for a really good matchup in the regular season, there’s a better chance someone chooses to tune in if the game has the word “playoffs” written somewhere in its title. The CFP is also putting lots of pressure on the new games to actually be exciting.  It’s okay for a game to be bad on any given weekend in the regular season because there’s so many other games on at the same time for people to watch, and they’re all relatively high stakes. 

Now, the spotlight is being shined on the playoffs, and if there’s a bad game, nobody is going to watch it. Going back to the example of last year’s playoffs, nobody wants to watch Ohio State blow out Michigan State in the playoffs like they did in the regular season 56-7. The 12-team format doesn’t make the playoff games any more important, but rather re-designates the importance from the regular season to the playoffs, which is just vanilla. 

PROBLEM #2: One thing that makes college basketball’s March Madness tournament so great are, of course, the Cinderella stories. Trying to create Cinderella teams in the CFP by adding more teams to the playoffs is understandable, but it’s unlikely it’s going to work out the way the committee would like it to in this regard. 

Take last year’s Cincinnati team for example. They went on an unbelievable run in the regular season and became the first Group-of-5 team ever to make the College Football Playoff. Then when they got there, they got handed a 27-6 whooping at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now, if a team were to replicate the season that Cincinnati had, rather than winning one game to make it to the National Championship, they would have to win at least two. 

A team with an at-large bid is being asked to win three straight games against top-ten and potentially top-five opponents just to get to the National Championship game. So yes, access to the playoffs increases when the bracket is expanded from four teams to 12, but is it really easier to make it to the National Championship? I really don’t think so. 

For that reason, it’s unlikely that this expansion is going to increase parity as much as people think it will. Not that there won’t be any upsets, but rather that it’s very difficult to expect a smaller team to go out there and win three games in a row against the likes of Ohio State, Georgia, and Alabama. Even in the four-team playoff it hardly ever happened.

PROBLEM #3: The next argument proponents for the CFP expansion have is that it’s going to level out recruiting. No it isn’t, at least not since the new NIL and transfer rules came into effect. A player profiting off of their name, image, and likeness is much more likely to draw their attention than “We’ve made the playoffs every year as a 12 seed but never actually won a game.” 

Recruits are still going to prefer playing for Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson over Oregon, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. As mentioned earlier, just because a team has better access to the playoffs doesn’t mean they have an easier path to the National Championship, and recruits are going to know this. This connects to the point that it doesn’t actually help parity in college football. Everything is connected. The same schools are going to keep getting the best recruits and they are going to keep winning no matter how many teams you allow entry into the CFP. 

Expanding the number of teams in the playoffs does not actually effectively solve any of college football’s problems and it arguably creates more of them. And, it would not be surprising if this was only the beginning of CFP expansion. The more money-hungry the NCAA and CFP collectively get, the further we stray from the beauty that was the old BCS format, back when there was real parity in college football. Sure, college football has its issues, but expanding the playoff only exacerbates them. While it may seem like a great idea on the surface, it’s really just a “disaster in disguise.”