This weekend is college football conference championship weekend. For the school’s involved, it’s a chance to add hardware to the trophy case, but for the casual college football fan, most of the focus revolves around who will make the College Football Playoff. From that perspective, there are really only two teams worth paying attention to this weekend: TCU and USC. Currently ranked at No. 3 and No. 4, they’re the only teams in action who are in a true “win and you’re in” scenario. The only other teams playing this weekend who are also Playoff contenders - Georgia and Michigan - will likely get into the Playoff even if they don’t win this weekend.
But all of that will soon change.
With the Rose Bowl finally falling in line (they had previously insisted that the game maintain it’s traditional timeslot on New Year’s Day), we will now have a 12-team playoff beginning in 2024, just two short years away. So if we had that 12-team playoff format this season, what would be on the line in this weekend’s games? The short answer: a whole lot more.
Conference Title Games
- AAC: No. 22 Central Florida vs. No. 18 Tulane
- ACC: No. 23 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Clemson
- Big 12: No. 10 Kansas State vs. No. 3 TCU
- Big Ten: Purdue vs. No. 2 Michigan
- Pac 12: No. 11 Utah vs. No. 4 USC
- SEC: No. 14 LSU vs. No. 1 Georgia
The current 12-team playoff proposal has autobids for the sis highest-ranked conference champions along with six at-large bids (with the four highest-ranked conference champions receiving first round byes). That means that every single one of the game above would have a Playoff berth on the line. That’s 12 teams battling for a spot rather than just two.
The counter-argument here is that a 12-team format removes the incentive for the top teams to play their best players late in the season if their playoff spot is already ensure. But that’s where first round byes come in, and make no mistake, those will be coveted spots. Getting a week to rest up while your future opponent hammers it out versus another top 15 team will be an advantage everyone strives to get. That means even for the teams playing this weekend who would already be guaranteed a playoff spot if they lose (Georgia, Michigan, TCU, USC), there is absolutely incentive for them to put forth their full effort (as if a conference title weren’t incentive enough). There are other teams like Clemson, Kansas State and Utah who COULD potentially still land an at-large spot even after a loss, but they’d be putting their fate in the hands of the often unpredictable selection committee.
Bottom line: There would be a lot more intrigue heading into this weekend with a 12-team playoff than we have with the current four-team model.
But what about the regular season?
Just to go down this rabbit hole a bit further, let’s look at what would have been on the line in last weekend’s rivalry games in the new playoff format (since the argument expansion has always been that it de-values the regular season):
19 Tulane 27, 24 Cincinnati 24: This game would go from “winner goes to the conference title game” to “winner still has a shot at the Playoff.”
16 Florida State 45, Florida 38: As it was, this was just a rivalry game without a lot of real stakes. But with an expanded playoff, this would have propelled FSU into contention for an at-large Playoff bid.
South Carolina 31, 8 Clemson 30: This wouldn’t have been the Playoff death knell that is was in reality, but it would have killed the Tigers’ chances at a first round bye, and meant they suddenly need to win the ACC Championship Game just to get in the Playoff. Still a lot on the line.
3 Michigan 45, 2 Ohio State 23: Would this loss have been less catastrophic for the Buckeyes with an expanded Playoff? Absolutely. But it would have killed their chance at a first round bye and a conference title. And because college football is first and foremost about rivalries, I don’t think many Buckeye fans will tell you losing to the Wolverines for the second straight year would have stung any less just because they still had a chance at sneaking into the playoff.
12 Kansas State 47, Kansas 27: Sure, this propelled KSU to the Big 12 title game. But imagine if they had playoff hopes tied to this game? And likewise, imagine Texas still having title game and playoff contention should the Wildcats had lost.
21 Oregon State 38, 9 Oregon 34: This loss was already devastating for the Ducks, costing them a spot in the Pac 12 Championship Game. But in the four-team format, their playoff chances were already pretty slim. In a 12-team format, they would have still been very much in playoff contention. But now down at No. 16 after this loss, they’d have no shot.
6 USC 38, 15 Notre Dame 27: This win kept USC in contention for the top four. It was a huge game. But in a 12-team playoff, you’d have USC trying to get a first round bye and Notre Dame still desperately trying to get an at-large spot. So you’d have something on the line for both teams instead of just one.
Texas A&M 38, 5 LSU 23: In the current format, this completely nixed LSU’s playoff hopes, dropping from No. 5 all the way to No. 14. But even in a 12-team format, it would have stakes. A win over the Ags would have meant LSU would be in play for a first round bye, and likely still get a playoff at-large spot even if they lost to Georgia the next week. With the loss, to A&M, they’d now have to upset Georgia to get in the playoff, and even if they did, they’d likely be out of the running for a first round bye.
An expanded playoff field will undoubtedly change the lens through which we watch a lot of these games. But I’d argue that in many ways, it will be for the better. One regular season loss will no longer be as catastrophic as it currently is, but we’ll also have way more teams (and way more games) with actual stakes in November, instead of having a laser focus on the small handful of teams still in contention. And ultimately, any college football fan will tell you that playoff implications were never what makes a regular season game matter, and that will continue. We love college football for the traditions, the atmospheres, the rivalries and the hatred. None of that is going anywhere no matter how many teams qualify for the playoff.
How do you feel about the expanded playoff format?
This poll is closed
Love it! More college football!
Could be fun but worried how it might affect the regular season
Hate it. Leave my stick in this mud, please.