A 12-team Playoff is better than 8, but there are legitimate questions worth asking
Playoff expansion is imminent, and apparently, a 12-team model is the leader in the clubhouse.
That’s what we found out Tuesday courtesy of Yahoo’s Pete Thamel, who reported that the 12-team Playoff model is the favored outcome heading into a key 3-week stretch full of meetings involving the sport’s top powerbrokers.
Thamel’s report is key because he talked to university officials, athletic directors, media executives and others involved in that process. The Playoff contract with the current 4-team model runs through 2025, and it won’t get ripped up unless all parties involved come to an agreement.
If you think about it, a 12-team model probably yields the closest result to that happening for a few reasons.
In theory, a 12-team model would have automatic bids for the Power 5 conference champs and for the highest ranked Group of 5 team. The rest of the field would be at-large bids. The top 4 teams would get first-round Playoff byes, and the rest of the field would be seeded according to their final ranking (No. 5 vs. No. 12, No. 6 vs. No. 11, etc.). The higher seeds would have home games in this hypothetical 12-team system.
That scenario appeases the Group of 5 crowd that simply wants a seat at the table. It also appeases the supporters of the 4-team Playoff, who would still see the top 4 teams get rewarded with that all-important first-round bye. It also ensures each Power 5 conference will at least have 1 representative, while not treating all conferences as total equals.
If there’s a problem with a potential 8-team model, that’s it. Not all Power 5 conferences are created equal. The Big 12 and Pac-12 haven’t won a national title in 16 and 17 years, respectively.
If we’re to accept a new system in which 6 spots go to automatic qualifiers (5 Power 5 champs and the top-ranked Group of 5 team) with only 2 wild card spots, that’s still not as beneficial to the stronger leagues as a 12-team model.
You could potentially have an 8-team field in which the No. 4 or No. 5 team in the rankings doesn’t make the field because of those automatic bids accounting for 6 of the 8 spots. That would entail multiple non-top 8 teams winning conference title games vs. top-3 teams who would still make the field with a loss. That isn’t incredibly likely, but it’s at least on the table for those bids to be stolen from a top-5 team without a conference title victory (A&M would’ve gotten the last wild card spot this past year in an 8-team Playoff).
There’s no real upside to a conference like the SEC or even the ACC, both of which have already put 2 teams into the field with the 4-team model (Notre Dame technically counted as an ACC school in 2020).
If we would’ve had a 12-team Playoff last year, here’s what the field would’ve been:
- Byes: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Notre Dame
- No. 12 Oregon at No. 5 Texas A&M
- No. 11 Indiana at No. 6 Oklahoma
- No. 10 Iowa State at No. 7 Florida
- No. 9 Georgia at No. 8 Cincinnati
Let’s break that down by the potential parties involved.
Is the ACC happy? Absolutely. It had not 1, but 2 teams with byes. Even better, they didn’t have to immediately run into Alabama or Ohio State in Round 1.
Is the Big 12 happy? Sure. New blood in the field is good. Having multiple teams in the field means that the Big 12’s Playoff hopes won’t just sadly be pinned on Oklahoma.
How about the Big Ten? Are they happy? Man, I’d hope so. Instead of Indiana getting screwed out of a New Year’s 6 bowl, it gets a second team into the Playoff with Ohio State enjoying a Round 1 bye.
What about the Pac-12? Um, for the first time since 2016, the Pac-12 would’ve had a seat at the Playoff party. You better believe it would’ve been happy … even if it was seeded No. 12 because a 2-loss Oregon team beat undefeated USC in the Pac-12 Championship.
And is that the SEC cracking an even smile? Indeed it is. Because when you put not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 (!) teams into the Playoff, you smile a little wider than usual.
But we mustn’t forget about the Group of 5, which would love that scenario as well. Why? Imagine going from not ever having a team in the field to hosting a Playoff game. That’s a massive win, and a major opportunity for the “see, we belonged all along” argument to gain some legitimacy.
All of those parties would still be able to sell their conference title games with the potential automatic bids up for grabs. The incentive to either get a first-round Playoff bye or host a home Playoff game would still create enough regular-season motivation.
The TV parties would go from having 3 Playoff games to broadcast to 11. So whatever media package that’s settled on would be much greater than the current one, which reportedly averages a $470 million payout.
Throw out all of those elements, and it’s not hard to see why the 12-team model could be the thing that yields a ripped up Playoff contract starting as soon as 2023.
But we shouldn’t necessarily just accept this with arms wide open (shoutout Creed). If we’re going to triple the field of the Playoff, we need to ask — and answer — several pivotal questions.
Question No. 1: Would we really ask teams to potentially play 17 games?
That’s the biggest potential issue here. Think about this scenario and apply it to last year, but just pretend we had a normal, 12-game regular season.
A lot of people were saying that Oklahoma would’ve been scary had they made the Playoff.
So in the 12-team model, Oklahoma would’ve entered the Playoff with an automatic bid for winning the Big 12, but not with a top-4 seed. Keep in mind that including the conference title game, the Sooners would’ve already had 13 games (in a non-COVID season). So they would’ve played in Round 1 (Game No. 14), then if they won that, they would’ve moved on to Round 2 with 8 teams remaining (Game No. 15). Then the semifinals would’ve followed (Game No. 16) and then if Oklahoma still had enough bodies left, they would’ve played in a championship for Game No. 17.
Let’s not forget that the NFL, a league with players making millions of dollars protected by a union, just now adopted the 17-game regular-season schedule (which could push the max to 21 games for the Super Bowl teams). Would we really ask a team like Oklahoma to play a 17-game season? That’s a ton of football with a lot of injury risk, especially if you’re essentially asking a team like that to close the season with 5 consecutive games vs. top-15 competition (that includes the conference championship).
What if Spencer Rattler, the potential No. 1 overall pick, tears his ACL in Game No. 17 and loses out on millions? Those insurance policies don’t cover everything. Could that scenario unfold with the 4-team model? Absolutely, but it would be a tough look for college football if it decided to increase multiple games and it had top draft picks getting hurt on the Playoff stage.
Now some might look at that and say, hey, why don’t you reduce the regular season? Can’t you cut out 1 of those cupcake nonconference games?
Sure, but the blowback from universities would come in the form of lost revenue for those home games. Only 4 teams every year could recoup that by hosting a Playoff game.
Would that be enough to incentivize the rest of the Power 5? Or would there would a strong pushback even from contenders who don’t want to miss out on that home revenue? If Alabama expects to get that first-round bye every year, it isn’t getting that home revenue back, though obviously, it gets it on the other end with increased Playoff payouts under the new TV deal. More likely is that Power 5 teams without much top-12 hope like Kansas, Vanderbilt and Rutgers would voice those concerns.
But the bigger concern here selling a model that could produce a 17-game season. I’m old enough to remember 21st century teams that won titles by only playing 13 games. Shoot, 2001 Miami only played 12 games. Going to 17 would be a massive jump, and as we’ve seen at the professional ranks, once leagues bump up the total games, they never want to reduce.
That issue has to be addressed.
Question No. 2: Would there be reseeding after the first round?
Meaning, would the No. 1 seed be locked into the No. 8 vs. No. 9 winner or would the No. 1 seed just face the lowest remaining seed from the Round of 12 winners? That’s quietly an important thing.
Let’s again use last year as the model. If there wasn’t any reseeding after the first round and those matchups were locked in, here’s what that would’ve looked like:
- No. 12 Oregon at No. 5 Texas A&M — Winner faces No. 4 Notre Dame
- No. 11 Indiana at No. 6 Oklahoma — Winner faces No. 3 Ohio State
- No. 10 Iowa State at No. 7 Florida — Winner faces No. 2 Clemson
- No. 9 Georgia at No. 8 Cincinnati — Winner faces No. 1 Alabama
If Oregon knocked off A&M, that means the Irish would have had the most favorable Round of 8 matchup compared to any of the other 3 teams with a bye. Is that fair? Does that matter?
I definitely think it’s significant. There’s already a lot of motivation for those top-4 seeds, and in theory, the No. 1 seed does have the advantage of potentially facing no better than a No. 8 seed. That’d be just like the NCAA Tournament. There’s obviously no reseeding there. It’s worth mentioning because in this field, a top-4 seed has to win 3 games compared to 6 for the NCAA Tournament champ.
If I had to guess, I’d assume there wouldn’t be reseeding after the Round of 12. Coaches of the top-4 teams would also want to have the benefit of scouting a specific matchup instead of wondering if they could play a team from any of those 4 games.
But in that scenario, Notre Dame facing Oregon while Alabama had to face Georgia would’ve riled up the Crimson Tide faithful.
Question No. 3: How could other bowl games maintain any relevance?
I’m not “bowl games are meaningless” guy. I promise.
But if the Playoff field goes to 12, you can’t sit here and say that those non-Playoff bowl games will suddenly gain more relevance. That’s not how this works. The “Playoff or bust” mindset will be more realistic for a greater percentage of teams. The more the Playoff becomes like the NCAA Tournament, the more the rest of the bowl schedule starts to feel like the NIT.
Nick Saban has been banging that drum forever (never mind the fact that his team played in exactly 1 non-New Year’s 6 bowl in the last decade). There is financial gain from bowl games, which is the entire reason there’s been an increase in them over the last few decades.
The question that those non-Playoff bowl games would be trying to settle on is how to increase those incentives. There are 44 bowl games set for 2021, and only 3 of them will be Playoff games (6.8%). If 11 Playoff games are part of a 12-team system, that share obviously flips.
But maybe that model doesn’t matter as much anymore. This nugget from a USA Today story last year shed some light on that disparity of revenue:
The Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Peach and Cotton bowls, plus the national championship game, paid out a combined $549 million to conferences and schools in 2018-19, according to NCAA documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
By comparison, the other 33 bowl games last season paid out a combined $99 million.
And again, that’s with the current TV deal. That number would likely see a significant uptick in the 12-team model.
The state-by-state increase in legalized gambling suggests that people are still going to watch the Bahamas Bowl at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. But that doesn’t address the issue of players opting out of a game that’s going to seem less significance because of how much more obtainable the Playoff is, and how great the letdown could be for teams who miss out of the 12-team field.
Question No. 4: How much would it devalue the regular season?
Yes, I finally got there.
I already outlined why I actually think the 12-team model has a lot of incentives that the supporters of the current model would like. You’d still have your top-4 seeds get byes and the conference title games would still be incredibly important with automatic bids on the line.
A point I haven’t brought up yet is that there are actually a bunch of SEC contenders who are loading up on juicy home-and-home matchups with the expectation that those wildcard spots would allow for a 2- or even 3-loss team to make the field. In 2028, Georgia’s nonconference schedule includes games at Texas, vs. Florida State and vs. Georgia Tech. Even Florida, which famously never travels outside of the state for nonconference road games, has a 2031 nonconference schedule that includes matchups at Texas, vs. Arizona State, at Notre Dame and vs. Florida State.
As college football fans, we’ll be salivating at some of these home-and-home series in a short while. We have expected Playoff expansion to thank for that. That’s the positive.
But the question, as it always is, is whether that’s going to ruin the best regular season in sports. To illustrate that point, let’s use 2019 as the example.
In 2019, LSU beat Florida en route to an undefeated season. In a 12-team field, LSU would’ve had a bye as the No. 1 seed. Florida, despite the fact that it suffered 2 losses and didn’t even win its own division, would’ve made the field and gotten an 8-9 matchup vs. Wisconsin. Let’s say the Gators braved the cold playing in likely a December game in Madison. What would be next? A neutral-site game vs. LSU.
LSU just put together a totally dominant regular season, including a win in primetime against Florida. And basically, we’d be there 2 months later like “hey, that last game didn’t really count. This one does.”
That’s the drawback. We’ve never seen a regular-season rematch take place in the 4-team Playoff (the 2011 BCS had that happened and the college football world was up in arms about it). In the 12-team model, it seems inevitable that there’d be several scenarios like that. Some would say, well, that’s no different than college basketball. Others would say, well, when do you start watching college basketball? March.
There would have to be a different understanding of regular-season significance. In the early stages of the 4-team Playoff, we had no idea how to handle a loss. Remember when Ohio State was done after losing to Virginia Tech in 2014? Remember when Alabama was done after losing to Ole Miss in 2015?
Over time, we got better at diagnosing those “Playoff elimination games.” It’s not as murky when 7 years of a 4-team field have yet to yield a single 2-loss team. It would, however, get murkier in the likely scenario that 3-loss teams would be in (Iowa State would’ve made last year’s field with 3 losses).
The stakes might not be quite as high for a November battle of unbeatens. Those games, we’ll be aware that both teams are likely in the Playoff. Those games don’t really occur as often as some think, though.
While there will be a bit less emphasis on the regular season, there’s still plenty of incentive to rack up quality wins and at least make the conference title game, so it might not diminish September-November as much as some are speculating.
Question No. 5: Isn’t this just going to rile up the SEC bias crowd even more?
If I had to guess, yes. Yes it will.
Why? While the Pac-12 and Group of 5 are tickled just to finally be guaranteed an invite to the party, the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten are sure to cry foul when a minimum of 3 SEC teams are in the field on an annual basis. I actually ran through each year of the Playoff era and found the total number of SEC teams who would’ve made the 12-team field (under the premise of the 6 automatic bids and 6 wild cards going to the highest ranked non-automatic qualifiers):
- 2014 — 3 (Alabama, MSU, Ole Miss)
- 2015 — 1 (Alabama)
- 2016 — 1 (Alabama)
- 2017 — 3 (Georgia, Alabama, Auburn)
- 2018 — 4 (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU)
- 2019 — 3 (LSU, Georgia, Florida)
- 2020 — 4 (Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia)
To be fair, the Big Ten would’ve also had a 4-team bid in 2016. Go figure that the Pac-12 would’ve also had 3 teams in the field that year while the SEC would’ve just had Alabama. The conference supremacy debates would’ve undoubtedly been out in full force.
I’d argue that conference strength will be debated that much more just like in the NCAA Tournament. Are you a 3-bid league? Or are you a 1-bid league?
In a way, though, this system could finally actually reward conference strength. It could allow the Big Ten, who would’ve had 3 teams in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 fields, to have a different showing than being considered “Ohio State and everyone else.” That’s essentially what the ACC has been with Clemson. It would’ve been a 1-bid league in 2018 and 2019, both of which were years that Clemson advanced to the title game.
What’s now possible isn’t just a potential all-SEC title game. We’ve already seen that twice in the last decade. Imagine if the SEC got 4 teams into the field and it sent 3 to the Round of 4. You think you’ve heard “S-E-C! S-E-C!” chanted loudly before at bowl games? That would be on a different level.
Or on the flip side, imagine if the SEC got 4 teams into the field, but none of them won a Playoff game and they were all gone by the Round of 4. Oh, the trolling we would get. That would also cast some doubt on the system for rewarding the SEC when it had such a poor Playoff showing. Brace for both of those outcomes.
So what does this all mean?
Stay tuned. As Thamel said, the next 3 weeks will determine this.
Until then, let’s all run through every season ever with the 12-team model and crown new national champions.