Future of CFP: How would 12-team playoff look this season?
The College Football Playoff is two years away from expanding, and those involved in growing the format from four to 12 teams have already said the first two seasons will be a test run.
They are committed to the basics of the format long-term: 12 teams, six conference champions and six at-large teams.
“Twelve, six, six is solid, solid, solid in the minds of the presidents and the commissioners,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said Friday, when expansion, starting in 2024, was announced.
Hancock left the door wide open to reconsideration of where the quarterfinals are played for the 2026 season and beyond. It will be interesting to see if other tweaks are made.
The field was set Sunday for the second-to-last four-team CFP.
Now, let’s take this season’s final selection committee rankings and apply the future format.
This is how a 12-team playoff would look. Remember, the top four conference champions get first round byes. So a team can be ranked in the top four, like TCU and Ohio State this season, and not get a pass to the second round. Teams 5-8 get homes games, but the conference champions do not get preferential treatment after the top four seeds are handed out.
No. 9 Kansas State (Big 12 champ) at No. 8 Tennessee (at-large) winner vs. No. 1 Georgia (SEC champ) at the Sugar Bowl.
No. 12 Tulane (American champ) at No. 5 TCU (at-large) winner vs. No. 4 Utah (Pac-12 champ) at the Fiesta Bowl.
No. 11 Penn State (at-large) at No. 6 Ohio State (at-large) winner vs. No. 3 Clemson (ACC champ) at the Orange Bowl
No. 10 USC (at-large) at No. 7 Alabama (at-large) winner vs. No. 2 Michigan (Big Ten champ) at the Rose Bowl.
First off, that looks pretty awesome.
These matchups will always be a bit of a crap shoot as far as quality is concerned, but that Tulane-TCU-Utah line looks incredibly watchable as does Penn State-Ohio State-Clemson.
Clearly, there are some potential issues here related to which teams get byes.
This was an unusual playoff field this year. Never before had two teams that didn’t win their conference make the field as TCU and Ohio State did.
In the committee’s final rankings Clemson was seventh and Utah was eighth, but because they won their conferences they jumped ahead of the line to became the three and four seeds.
The commissioners who put this format together wanted to emphasize conference championships. There is merit to that idea, but seeing how that can play out, where the third and fourth ranked teams in the country get bumped into the first round will make some fans cringe. Especially, those who root for the teams getting bumped.
The potential ramifications extend to the quarterfinals.
By shuffling those rankings to defer to conference champions, it exposes top-seeded Georgia and No. 2 Michigan to Tennessee (ranked sixth) and Alabama (ranked fifth), respectively, in the next round.
If seedings matched the committee’s rankings, Georgia’s second round opponent in a 12-team playoff would be the Utah-Kansas State winner. Michigan’s would play the Clemson-USC winner.
No reason to start fretting about these quirks now, but the 2026 season will get here soon enough and it’s good to be prepared for the arguments to come.
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