In the end, expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams was a no-brainer decision for the sport. The amount of additional television money available, combined with a widespread feeling that the four-team format wasn’t giving enough schools and conferences access to college football’s premiere product, made it impossible to delay any longer.
Despite some of the complications, which are still being worked out as we speak, the sport’s decision-makers have now agreed that expansion is the way forward.
But this week should remind us that college football will not gain from an expanded Playoff without losing something. When the Playoff expands, either in 2024 at the earliest or 2026 at the latest, the sport will be different.
And maybe not entirely for the better.
Purely from a competitive standpoint, what transpired last weekend in college football was the best possible argument for keeping the playoff at four teams. At around 3 p.m. Eastern, both No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 TCU were in big trouble, facing fourth-quarter deficits before ultimately prevailing on dramatic last-second field goals.
A little later, No. 2 Ohio State was getting pushed to the brink by Maryland before the Buckeyes ultimately got their act together in the final minutes. Then late in the evening, USC barely stayed in the Playoff race with a narrow win over rival UCLA, while then-No. 5 Tennessee got knocked out by a shocking loss to South Carolina.
All in all, it was the kind of day that makes college football unique among American sports: Almost every week, but particularly at this point in the season, the stakes are so high that one unexpected slip-up can change everything. Watching teams navigate that pressure — whether they overcome it like Michigan and TCU or implode like the Vols — is arguably the most exciting part of the season.
And make no mistake, when the Playoff expands to 12, it is going to be different. In some ways, it won’t be for the better.
If we could transport last weekend’s games to, let’s say, 2026, there is no possible world in which they would feel as important or filled with tension.
WINNERS, LOSERS:Michigan, TCU survive close calls; Tennessee stumbles
MISERY INDEX:Embarrassing loss costs Tennessee spot in College Football Playoff
COACHES POLL:Southern California joins top five
MORE:The top five overreactions from college football’s Week 12
Whereas TCU likely can’t afford even a single loss — something the team and its fans were well aware of heading into Baylor last Saturday — they would cruise into a 12-team Playoff no matter what. Tennessee, now No. 11 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, would still be hanging on to one of the final spots. And as opposed to the winner-take-all scenario that has been set up for this weekend’s Ohio State-Michigan game, it would functionally be about seeding since both teams would already be guaranteed in the Playoff.
Again, this isn’t a radical concept. The NFL is the most popular sport in America, and fans have no problem getting invested in a Week 15 game that will determine whether the Bills or Dolphins win a division or get the wild card. Likewise, the new college football world will not lack for drama. More games will be relevant late in the season and more teams will be in the race.
Oregon, which has no path to the playoff now as a two-loss team, would essentially be in position to secure a bid this weekend against Oregon State. We’d suddenly be very interested in 9-2 Penn State, which pretty much fell off the map in late October. Notre Dame, a team that was left for dead in September, could suddenly get into the picture with a win at USC. Even Tulane-Cincinnati would have Playoff implications since the American Athletic Conference champion would be in line for an automatic spot.
College football trade-offs
Over the long haul, that will be good for college football. Though the universe of teams that can actually win national titles probably won’t look much different — the Alabamas, Georgias and Ohio States of the world are going to be hard to unseat as long as they get the bulk of the blue-chip talent — it will be a good thing for more fan bases and administrations to feel like they’re part of the action.
And when you start to look at some of the potential playoff matchups, do you think there’d be any interest in Penn State at Alabama as a first-round game? Or how about Oregon going to Clemson? It’s a delicious world of possibilities.
But it will be a different world. And it’s OK to feel a bit wistful about the trade-offs college football will have to make.
Like it or not, the exclusivity of college football’s postseason has had a meaningful impact on the urgency of the regular season. Sure, Ohio State-Michigan is always going to be a massive game in any context. An expanded playoff won’t change what it means to those players or fan bases.
But it would be foolish to deny the meaningful difference between a game that determines who gets a Playoff bid and a game that determines seeding or who gets a first-round Playoff bye when they’re both already in the bracket. That doesn’t mean one is better or worse overall, but it will be a natural reordering of priorities and passions as the season unfolds.
When college presidents finally agreed in 2012 to ditch the BCS and move to the four-team model, the sport’s leaders braced for the inevitability that every conversation during the season would revolve around the Playoff. But the degree to which it has pushed everything else into the background and made really good seasons feel less-than-good at so many schools has been even more pronounced than anyone knew.
Are Clemson fans going to be fired up if they finish 13-1 and get relegated to the Orange Bowl? Unlikely. How many of Alabama’s stars will even participate in a bowl game this year? Teams that are having really good seasons like 9-2 Washington or surging Florida State don’t get talked about much because they aren’t in contention. That will change if they enter the final week of the season with a chance to sneak into the 12-team field.
Once administrators got a feel for just how much the Playoff would dominate the regular season, and how a few teams were hogging most of those spots every year, expansion had to happen. Through the first eight years of the CFP, just 13 different programs have made the semifinals. If you want a product that draws coast-to-coast interest, you have to have coast-to-coast participation. That’s what the 12-team playoff will be designed to build.
When that happens, just be prepared: Weekends like last Saturday, where the big favorites are all in trouble and fighting for their Playoff lives, won’t be as intense. The highs won’t be as high; the lows won’t be as low. Just like the NFL, the drama will be a slow build toward the postseason instead of a weekly elimination contest.
In the end, expansion of the College Football Playoff wasn’t just the right move, it was the only move. But last weekend was a reminder that it won’t ever feel quite the same.