While excitedly announcing plans to expand the college football playoffs, postseason system officials played down the revenue windfall that will come with the tripling of the number of participants and declined to speculate on whether a new format will hamper the realignment of the conference.
Instead, they stuck to a strict script, touting the number of additional athletes who will be able to play games with national championship implications and the number of additional fans who will be able to seek out playoff contenders.
“It will be a new day for college football,” Mississippi State President Mark Keenum said late last week after the announcement was called “historic.”
Without a doubt.
Expanding the college football playoffs from four to 12 teams will fundamentally change the sport on and off the field – for better or for worse.
More regular season games will have playoff implications, but bigger games will no longer have winner tension.
The new format will break up a conference caste system reinforced by the four-team model, but it won’t stop the growing gap between haves and have-nots.
More teams will play in the championship tournament and bowl matches that suffer from player apathy will be replaced with playoff matches.
But a bigger field probably won’t increase the number of teams that have a realistic chance of winning the whole thing.
When the expansion will come is yet to be determined. From 2024, but no later than 2026.
“Overall, it’s a day of celebration,” said CFP executive director Bill Hancock.
The game of the century, that in-season clash of highly ranked teams with seemingly everything on the line, has gone from a college football staple to an endangered species. The 12-team playoffs will now extinguish that and redefine what it means to play an important regular season game.
Take last year’s Ohio State-Michigan game as an example. The Wolverines not only snapped a long losing streak in the rivalry, they also eliminated the Buckeyes from the Big Ten and the playoffs.
As part of a 12-team playoff series, this game is for seeding and a first-round bye.
The flip side is that under the new format, any team that enters the final month of the season with a chance to win their conference is a playoff contender.
Think back to last Thanksgiving weekend, with Ohio State-Michigan and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State essentially playing playoff games and Alabama facing Auburn with playoff hopes in jeopardy.
It was pretty good.
What if Wisconsin-Minnesota, Michigan State-Penn State, Oregon-Oregon State and three different Atlantic Coast Conference games involving Clemson, Wake Forest and North Carolina State also had playoff implications?
For some fans, that sounds even better. For others, these teams only dilute the field.
“What has motivated the presidents and me as well is that we need to have the opportunity for greater team participation in our nation’s national championship tournament,” Keenum said. “And having only four teams, we felt like it wasn’t fair to our student-athletes from a participation standpoint.”
Yes, it’s all about student-athletes, who will likely need to play 16 games — maybe even 17 — to win a national championship.
Combine that with what could very well be a $2 billion annual payment to major conferences for media rights to the new playoffs, and it’s yet another step toward paying players.
“We’re just getting started, but I’ll tell you that the management committee and the board starting last fall had some important conversations about a way to provide player benefits,” Hancock said. “We don’t know yet what they will be. We have just started down the path for this.
The new format will remove some of the subjectivity on how the field is selected. The selection committee currently choosing the so-called top four teams is not going away. But six spots in the 12-team field will be reserved for the top conference champions (chosen by the selection committee). There will be no distinction between the 10 FBS conferences. At least not officially.
“This is a merit-based format that recognizes the value of conference championships while simultaneously allowing general access to six deserving teams,” American Athletic Association Commissioner Mike Aresco said.
The nicknames Power Five and Group of Five also seem to go the way of the dinosaurs. But make no mistake, the power and wealth of college football will continue to consolidate.
Massive TV deals for the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference allow the Super Two to separate themselves from the rest of the Power Five as those revenues are converted into competitive advantages.
The new playoff format and the access it provides could help keep the Pac-12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference alive, but there still isn’t a school in those leagues that wouldn’t make the jump to the Big Ten or the SEC if the opportunity arose. .
“I don’t know how that plays into the whole landscape of college athletics,” said Keenum, who leads the college leadership group that oversees the playoffs.
Some hope that increased playoff access could increase parity on the field, as more schools are able to use playoff appearances to attract rookies.
That might help on the margins, but it’s uncertain at best whether it fills the ever-larger talent gap between a small number of elite teams like Alabama and Georgia and the rest.
First-round playoff games, some played on campus, should be far more entertaining than traditional marquee games, which are now routinely skipped by top players prioritizing NFL Draft prep.
The whole postseason should be better, but the blowouts that plagued the four-team playoffs are still likely to happen, just in the later rounds. And an expanded format only increases the chances of one of the super teams winning the title.
The college football playoffs are getting bigger. Whether this improves is a matter of personal preference.
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This story was originally published September 4, 2022 1:20 p.m.