The NFL plans to expand from 12 to 14 playoff teams. Does this mean College Football Playoff expansion is inevitable in the coming years?
The NFL playoffs are expanding and college football may be next.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Wednesday evening the NFL playoffs will expand from 12 to 14 playoff teams for the coming season. Both conferences will gain an additional postseason team, but only the top seed would get a bye in the NFL playoffs. The proposal adds two Wild Card games with No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5 in both leagues under the new format.
Not that long ago, the MLB expanded from eight to 10 playoff teams to create the intriguing Wild Card games. The NHL recently revamped its playoff structure on account of divisional realignment stemming from the Winnipeg Jets’ move from Atlanta. And of course, we are in the first decade of the College Football Playoff. What are the chances playoff expansion happens in the college ranks?
Admittedly, four teams feels like the right number. At least one Power 5 conference will be left out of the equation annually. Sometimes, two Power 5’s end up settling for an overhyped New Year’s Six bowl that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Having automatic qualifiers from winning a bad conference destroys meritocracy, but the playoff will expand one day soon.
You can hate College Football Playoff expansion with every fiber of your being, but you have to accept the inevitable. It’s happening, but not for several years. ESPN signed a 12-year contract to televise the first dozen installments of the College Football Playoff as we know it. We’ve completed half of the 12, but things aren’t changing until the 2026 NCAA season at the earliest.
In terms of overall competition, the playoff should not expand beyond four teams because the best team out of the Group of 5 occupying the No. 8 seed can’t win three straight playoff games en route to a perfect 16-0 national championship-winning season. But there are two reasons expansion is inevitable: an increased national interest in the playoff and above all, money.
In the first six years of the playoff, the ratings have not been what ESPN was hoping for. People aren’t used to watching playoff games on or around New Year’s Eve. The Rose Bowl could not be more stubborn about its time slot, making it insanely difficult for college football to dominate New Year’s Day as it always should. Plus, the Pac-12 can’t hang in the current four-team format.
Only twice has a Pac-12 team made the playoff: The 2014 Oregon Ducks and the 2016 Washington Huskies. We know the south will watch the playoff regardless of who is in it because college football is king below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Big Ten usually gets a team in, which helps, but a lack of a West Coast audience is why playoff expansion will happen in 2026.
Going from four teams to six teams is possible, but we should expect the playoff field to double in size once a new television contract is finalized. There will be representation from all Power 5 conferences, a Group of 5 champion and two at-large Power 5 teams rounding out the octet.
The Selection Committee will likely pick the best team from each Power 5 conference, regardless of if a team won a conference title. In most instances, that will be the case, but there will always be outliers. Just look at what happened in 2016 with the Big Ten. The Penn State Nittany Lions won in Indianapolis, but it was the one-loss at-large Ohio State Buckeyes who got in that year.
No, it will not just be television executives, the Group of 5 and the utterly toothless Pac-12 who will be clamoring for College Football Playoff expansion. The best programs in college football will also want this. The reason for this is the national quarterfinals won’t be neutral-site affairs like the entire playoff is now. These games will be played at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team.
Of course, this will shatter the bowl system as we know it, but what college football behemoth wouldn’t die for a home playoff game? The amount of revenue schools like Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State could make from a home playoff game would be outrageous. Not only would they make the playoff, but an inferior team would have to come to their stadium and deal with crowd noise.
Are automatic qualifiers stupid? Undoubtedly so, but it would be beyond foolish for us not to believe College Football Playoff expansion is on the horizon. There is too much money and too much national interest to be had for the Power 5 not to agree to this.
Arguing over who the best two-loss non-champion from the Power 5 will be eye-gouging-ly frustrating bracketology, but don’t be blind towards the future of college football. Playoff expansion happening, whether you want it to or not.