Group recommends expanding College Football Playoff to a 12-team bracket

A subcommittee tasked with evaluating the future format of the College Football Playoff recommended on Thursday a drastic change that would broaden the bracket to 12 teams split evenly between conference champions and at-large bids.

Termed "the first step in a long process," the recommendation would bypass a simple doubling of the current four-team format and revolutionize the final stages of college football's race for the national championship, while raising concerns over whether such expansion would further dilute the stakes at play during the regular season. 

The proposal came from the four-person expansion working group of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick.

Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood celebrated with the National Championship trophy after beating Ohio State in the 2021 CFP National Championship game.

"This proposal at its heart was created to create more participation for more schools and more players," said College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock. "In a nutshell, that’s the working group’s message: more participation."

Under the recommendation, the bracket would consist of the six top-ranked conference champions and six at-large bids. No conference would automatically qualify for the playoff, and there would be no cap on the number of participants from one conference. The rankings would still be determined by the selection committee.

The four highest-ranked conference champions would be given a bye into the "second round" of games to face the winners of games matching the next eight seeds in games played at the home stadium of the higher-ranked team. The quarterfinals, semifinals and finals would then be played at a neutral venue. (The current format features all games at neutral-site locations.)

That portion of the recommendation could create controversy. A non-league champion ranked higher in the playoff rankings than a conference winner would not be eligible for a first-round bye, for example. In addition, requiring a conference championship to finish in the top four would cause trouble for an independent program such as Notre Dame, which would be ineligible for a bye and would need to win four straight games to claim the national championship.

"I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game or don’t have a conference championship," Swarbrick said.

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The group's proposal suggested playing first-round games "sometime during the two-week period after conference championship games," followed by the quarterfinals on either Jan. 1 or Jan. 2, depending on whether New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, and on the following day.

The suggested bracket would not be adjusted to avoid regular-season rematches or games between teams from the same conference, which has been a guiding principle during the four-team era, and the seeding would remain in effect across each round. 

If the quarterfinals and semifinals are played as part of the traditional bowl lineup, the group recommended that teams "be assigned to their traditional bowls for quarterfinal games with priority going to the higher-seeded team."

Aligning those rounds with the current postseason would "keep the bowl system relevant and recognize those people that want to participate in the semifinals and quarters," said Thompson.

The recommendation introduces major changes to the current postseason format. 

For starters, the format would ensure a spot for at least one team from the Group of Five conferences and perhaps more, should multiple teams from these conferences finish inside the top 12 of the final playoff rankings — as was the case in 2020, when Cincinnati finished No. 8 and Coastal Carolina No. 12.

The suggested format also expands the race for the national championship to potentially include teams from every one of the Power Five leagues: the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Under the current landscape, the SEC and ACC have eight playoff bids while the Pac-12 has just two, and none since 2016.

But the proposal would not necessarily guarantee a spot for the champions of any Power Five conference: No. 20 Oregon was the top-ranked team from the Pac-12 in the pandemic-influenced 2020 season, meaning the league would not have sent a team into the playoff.

With half of the field consisting of at-large bids, it's also possible that one conference, likely the SEC, could dominate the bracket. 

While allowing the top seeds to automatically move into the next round creates an incentive to finish in the top four, expansion could cheapen the regular season and lead teams to focus on scheduling inferior competition during non-conference play.

"The practical effect of this would be with four or five weeks left in the season, there will be 20 or 25 teams with a practical opportunity to participate," Bowlsby said. "That should make for an extraordinarily good October and November."

The 12-team format would also create a scenario where one or two teams play as many as 17 games: 13 during the regular season, counting the conference championship, and then games in the first round, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.

"A third of the total field of 12 will play the same number of games they would have in a normal year with a bowl game," Swarbrick said. "The route to get to 17 in this model isn’t impossible, but there have been a lot of things built in to make that highly unlikely."

Using last season as an example, the 12-team format would have given No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 6 Oklahoma opening-round byes.

The Sooners would have met the winner of No. 12 Coastal Carolina at No. 4 Notre Dame; the Buckeyes would have faced the winner of No. 11 Indiana at No. 5 Texas A&M; the Tigers would have met the winner of No. 10 Iowa State at No. 7 Florida, and the Crimson Tide would have played the winner of No. 9 Georgia at No. 8 Cincinnati.

The proposal now goes to the playoff management committee, which meets next week in Chicago, but no final decision would be made until September at the earliest, Hancock said. The playoff is currently operating under a 12-year deal that began in 2014 and is scheduled to expire after the 2025 season. The working group did not recommend a date for implementing any changes to the format.