If your part of the chorus calling for an expanded College Football Playoff, a couple of powerful voices have donned their robes and taken a seat in the choir.
Currently, four schools qualify for the postseason tournament that crowns a national champion at season’s end. This year, with Notre Dame qualifying, it means that two Power Five conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12) are sitting on the sidelines; last year, with the SEC landing two spots, it was the same P5 conferences on the outside of the playoff looking in.
Add in unbeaten UCF, undefeated a second straight season, and there are a growing number of voices calling for playoff expansion when the current 12-year contract expires in 2026 — if not sooner in many cases. A couple of those voices happens to be Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, with the former telling Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic that expansion — specifically a move to eight teams — is “an appropriate thing to begin thinking about.”
All three of the P5 leagues that have missed the playoffs on more than one occasion, the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, play nine conference games; the ACC and SEC, which have either qualified in each of the five years of the playoff as is the case of the latter or in four of five for the former, play just eight. Because of that imbalance, many are hoping — or pushing — for an expansion to be not a matter of if but when.
“Everyone has the same feeling; expansion is inevitable,” Alvarez, a former CFP selection committee member, told Auerbach. “When you can do it, and I think we need to serve more people. I think four was the right way to get started. In my opinion, we need to take a look of adding more teams into the Playoff, giving more opportunities. …
“I don’t know whether we’re serving all of our people now, when you have some leagues — our league (the Big Ten) as an example. Two years in a row, we don’t have anyone represented. The Big 12’s been the same way. The Pac-12’s been the same way.”
From Auerbach’s report:
There have been a number of informal conversations involving college football’s most important power brokers in recent weeks and months. The growing concern is that a system designed to nationalize the sport of college football — including a championship game that is played at different venues and will be held in the Bay Area for the first time this season — is being undermined and regionalized with teams from the Southeast regularly playing each other.
“The Playoff enjoys a level of support that I think is rather extraordinary,” Bowlsby said. “Would that (approval rating) go up if there are more teams involved? Probably. Does that mean it would avoid controversies? No, because you’ll always have arguments about the ninth and 10th spots. …
“Then, there’s the matter of how you do it. The devil’s always in the details.”
At least initially, you can forget about a 32- or even a 16-team playoff, with eight being the only number that most anyone of influence would be willing to consider. One of the biggest questions when it comes to expansion might be what to do with conference championship games — keep them and push a potential schedule to 16 games for two teams or get rid of them and keep that ceiling at 15. There’s very little question that the SEC, in particular, would balk at tossing aside its league title game for adding another round to the playoffs.
Of course, moving from a 12-game regular season schedule to one that consists of 11 games would allow championship games to continue on with an expanded playoff, but that won’t happen. Ever. Start the season a week earlier and hold the championship games the last weekend of November? Certainly a possibility.
And, if another round is added, how do you fit them in? Play them on the higher seed’s campus? At neutral sites? Again, more details to be worked out, although they shouldn’t be as hard to resolve as some would make it seem.
If all of the devils in the sport can somehow work out all of the details, the most popular model to replace the current one is this: each Power Five conference champion qualifies, as does the highest-rated champion of a Group of Five league. The remaining two “wildcard” spots would go to the two highest-rated teams in the CFP rankings that didn’t win their conference.
Such a format this season would’ve left the field looking thusly:
- No. 1 Alabama (SEC champ) vs. No. 8 Washington (Pac-12 champ, ranked No. 9 in CFP Top 25)
- No. 2 Clemson (ACC champ) vs. No. 7 UCF (No. 8, highest-ranked G5 team)
- No. 3 Notre Dame (No. 3, highest-ranked non-conference champ) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (Big Ten champ)
- No. 4 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) vs. No. 5 Georgia (second-highest-ranked non-conference champ)
In that format, Michigan, which was seventh in the last CFP Top 25, would be left out as they would’ve been leapfrogged by a pair of conference champions in Washington and UCF.
Some would also call for the same 5-1-2 model, but would seed the conference champs ahead of the two “wildcards.” This year, or any other year they qualify for that matter, that would leave football independent Notre Dame playing a road game if the quarterfinals were played at on-campus sites.
Then again, while Bowlsby is certainly a powerful voice in the sport, he’s just one of five Power Five conference commissioners. Late last month, the SEC’s Greg Sankey stated that expansion hasn’t even been discussed. And there’s the ACC’s John Swofford.
“I don’t think there’s a great shift in momentum to expand the playoffs,” the commissioner told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in late November. “I’m not suggesting that it will never happen. You never say never.
“I don’t think that’s something that’s imminent right now.”
Even the Big Ten’s Jim Delany didn’t seem too concerned when he saw his conference champion not make the playoff for the third straight year.
The moral of the story, expansion proponents? While it’s nice there’s some chatter among those that can help prompt change, don’t hold your breath for an eight-team playoff anytime soon.