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College Football Playoff Expansion: What model works best?

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The questions no longer seems to be “should it expand,” but rather what expansion will look like

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 31 College Football Playoff Semifinal - Cotton Bowl- Michigan State v Alabama
Defensive pass interference much?
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The College Football Playoff seems on an inevitable collision course in the next few years with sorting out what a post-2025 expansion model will look like. Gone are the arguments against expansion due to student-athlete safety and increased wear and tear expansion would cause to their bodies (at least for the most part, as at least one model tries to incorporate that concern).

Also gone seems to be any willingness to let the status quo of four teams stay as is. With that in mind, it seems a good time to take a look at the arguments against expansion, for expansion, and some of the more popular ideas for how to expand. The topic seems timely given the 12-team expansion model is reportedly the emerging favorite in early discussions.

Leave Format As Is

Even though this isn’t going to be the decision made from all outside perspectives, it is still something worth considering. While teams that maybe should have gotten in any given year are left on the outside looking in, uncompetitive semifinals and/or championship games are the norm every year. Expansion offers zero guarantees that will be fixed.

There is also the issue of student-athlete safety. This isn’t the NFL, and players are still very much in developing age ranges with their bodies. Adding in the wear and tear that comes in more games, more travel, more practices, and longer seasons offers a negative result only when it comes to those players’ health and safety.

Neither of these issues get resolved by expansion, and it even offers a continued downward spiral.

Arguments for Expansion

College football fans: raise your hand if you are tired of seeing Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma in the CFP. Everyone not a fan of one of those teams now has his/her/their hand raised, I guarantee it. While other teams such as Michigan State (to lesser success), Georgia, LSU, Oregon, and Notre Dame have made appearances, the CFP has quickly become the elitist of snobby elite clubs. In a sport of 130 teams, this quickly becomes an inherently unfair system.

As a result of the dominance of certain teams, an argument has quickly developed the last few years revolving around recruiting. The elite teams that are in the College Football Playoff more often than not stock up each year on all the most closely concentrated recruits, starving other teams of the opportunity to compete and creating far less level playing field than before the CFP. Paul Fanson has recruiting data on this and will be running his own follow-up series to this article in the coming weeks, along with simulating playoff expansion models so keep an eye out for that.

The other argument around fairness has to do with teams being left out. Michigan State in 2014, Ohio State in 2015, Penn State in 2016, UCF in 2017, a number of independent and Group of Five teams in 2020, and so forth every year there are arguably deserving teams left out in the cold. Should the eye test really allow a team a mulligan, or even sitting out on their conference’s title game, and still get in over another team, sometimes one that actually beat said team that got the bid over them? The growing chorus of fans in the sport are tipping toward ensuring those teams get a bid as well.

Also, some fans just simply value more football, and “more important” football, too. Most expansion models revolve around this idea, though some scrap existing conference title game formats and bowls for larger expansion models. On top of that, traditionalists view the small, but increasing trend among elite players not in the CFP opting out of games as concerning. That, and the New Year’s Six bowl games have lost some of their luster with the CFP. Certainly more football is a good argument when ignoring the reasons why that is bad for the players mentioned above. So with the main arguments for and against laid out, what do some of the expansion models advocate for?

Six-Team Format

The smallest of expansion models, a six-team format would give two teams a bye week. The “play-in” games could either occur on campus venues, be held at neutral sites, or possibly be incorporated somehow into the existing bowl structure. Generally this model would give an automatic bid to the Power Five conference winners and an at-large or the top Group of Five team, some models relying on polling and other models guaranteeing the Group of Five bid.

Criticism of this one would be the lack of at-large bids for teams.

Eight-Team Format

This one is probably where I would fall if I have to pick one. Most models for this would give an auto-bid to the Power Five conference winners, an auto-bid for the highest ranked Group of Five team, and then two at-large bids for the other highest ranked teams according to the CFP Committee.

This expansion model could go a number of ways for venues. One would use campus sites and seeding to determine locations for the first round game. Another model could be using the existing “New Year’s Six” bowls and base them either on seeding, or throw out seeding and use traditional bowl matchups with the at-large and Group of Five team placed in the other venues.

The criticism comes from programs that more often end up just outside the top-four looking in for most years and Notre Dame. Decreasing the amount of at-large bids from four to two, while increasing auto-bids that could give a team in the upper-teens or low-20s in rankings a bid is a tough sell for them.

The biggest obstruction to this format would likely be what to do with gate revenue for the first-round games. Home teams would fairly expect to keep it, but what about the other participants, especially the top-four teams who get zero fan sales even as a visiting team?

12-Team Format

The 12-team format is apparently gaining steam because of the criticism around an eight-team format. Giving auto-bids for conference champs and the highest ranked Group of Five team makes the conference title games even more important as they are default play-in games in this format, but it also gives strong leagues like the SEC an obvious route to get more programs in the league into the playoffs. Protecting the auto-bids for all conferences is a must for getting Group of Five and Pac-12 support, while giving more clear routes for the stronger leagues to get more teams in to flex their muscles makes them happy, too. Apparently there is also talk of just a 10-team expansion, but that bracket looks even weirder than the bye games given to this format.

The location for these games is thought to most likely have teams ranked No. 5-No. 8 as hosts on their respective campuses against the rest of the higher seeds, while giving opening byes to No. 1-No. 4. The New Year’s Six would likely then be incorporated somehow to the later rounds. Jim Delany is reportedly doing God’s work trying to keep the tradition behind the Rose Bowl alive as a consultant, which if successful should be reasonable atonement for adding Rutgers to the Big Ten.

16-Team Format

The final format suggestion with any real steam behind it, the 16-team expansion model is basically just a “give me more football at all costs” model. This one would most likely end up doing away with auto-bids as conference title games would probably need to be scrapped all-together to limit the number of games players are forced into as supposed amateurs. Campus games early-on in the playoffs would reign, rankings would make up most of the participants and venue pairings, and playoff chaos could reign more similarly to what we experience in college basketball perhaps. This model is highly unlikely, but is still brought up enough we have to mention it.


So that is where CFP expansion currently resides. The four-member working group tasked for the past two years with examining expansion is set to meet next month in Chicago on July 17 and July 18 to finalize its report to the CFP management committee. Then the following week the CFP board of managers will examine the findings and form their own decision to put forward for further consideration of necessary parties.

What do you all think of expansion ideas? Be sure to vote in our poll and then let us know in the comments what format you want to see! Then check back in the coming weeks for Paul Fanson’s follow-up simulations and data breakdown on recruiting in the CFP era.

Poll

What should happen around CFP expansion?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Nothing, hard to have three competitive games as is
    (20 votes)
  • 5%
    Six-team expansion
    (9 votes)
  • 42%
    Eight-team expansion
    (70 votes)
  • 27%
    12-team expansion
    (46 votes)
  • 12%
    16-team expansion
    (21 votes)
166 votes total Vote Now