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If autobids are off the table, which Playoff model makes the most sense?

It’s still the offseason, so let’s talk some hypotheticals

NCAA Football: 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey took the mic to kick off SEC Media Days on Monday, he inevitably was asked about the potential for expansion of the College Football Playoff.

This time one year ago, it seemed imminent, if not a foregone conclusion that Playoff expansion would happen, with the concept of a 12-team playoff that included autobids for the top six conference champions (and first round byes to the top four conference champions). But since then, the changes in conference realignment (Texas/OU to the SEC, USC/UCLA to the Big Ten) have likely changed the power dynamics in this conversation significantly. Namely, the SEC and the Big Ten have enough of the big name programs to stage their own playoff if they wanted to. I don’t think that’s their intent, but it doesn’t mean they won’t leverage that threat to get other conferences to agree to a format that the power conferences believe is in their best interest. Better to be in a playoff format that you think is less than ideal than to be left out of it entirely.

While Sankey was careful not to say anything definitive in his comments this week, many took his comments to imply that the SEC may no longer support autobids for conference champions in any format. After all, a 16-team conference with the largest collection of traditional powers will obviously benefit from having the most at-large spots as possible. If that is the case, what does the best model look like? Let’s examine the options.

Four-team playoff

No changes to the existing format.

  • Advantages: Keeps the importance of the regular season intact (even one loss can potentially knock you out)
  • Disadvantages: In most years, you have multiple one-loss Power 5 teams who do not get a shot at a national title.

Six-team playoff

The top two seeds get first round byes, meeting the winners of the 3/6 and 4/5 games in the semifinals.

  • Advantages: Most years, this format will allow all one-loss Power 5 teams (or potentially undefeated G5 teams) a spot in the playoff.
  • Disadvantages: There will still be years where a one-loss team (or a team who otherwise feels deserving of a spot) is left out. This format may give a disproportionate benefit to the top two teams (with a bye) without giving much greater access into the playoff.

Eight-team playoff

Straightforward three-round playoff with no byes.

  • Advantages: It’s rare that a team ranked outside the top eight has a legitimate gripe about getting left out. It certainly feels like this would cover all of the bases.
  • Disadvantages: Most years, if not all, you would have two-loss teams who make the playoff. That alone could begin to erode the importance of the regular season, because that first loss (and even the second one) are no longer as catastrophic as they used to be.

10-team playoff

Seeds 7-10 play opening round. 5/6 seeds get one bye, 3/4 seeds get double bye, 1/2 seeds get triple bye.

  • Advantages: Adds two more teams.
  • Disadvantages: Very complex (would be hard for many fans to grasp, and making some playoff teams play up to five games to win a title while others may only have to play two doesn’t seem like a good system. I don’t think anyone is seriously considering this, but thought I’d include it nonetheless.

12-team playoff

Seeds 5-12 play opening round, top four teams get first round bye.

  • Advantages: This format almost certainly gets every deserving team in playoff. If you won your conference but are ranked outside the top 12, it’s likely because you had 3+ losses or simply did not play a challenging schedule. Could effectively end the debates we currently have anually about teams who “should have gotten a chance to play for a title.” The 12-team format also gives sufficient reward to the top four seeds, which maintains the value of the regular season. In this format, you won’t see teams at the top “taking games off” because they’ve already secured their spot, because that first round bye would be invaluable.
  • Disadvantages: Like other expanded formats, this does mean that losing a game means less than it used to. But expanded playoffs do mean a loss means less, it will also add significant meaning to many late-season games that under the current system have no bearing on playoff contention. Each individual game may mean less, but they number of games that “matter” will increase.

16-team playoff

Four-round playoff, no byes.

  • Advantages: You add four more teams while still having a four-round playoff similar to the 12-team playoff.
  • Disadvantages: Removing byes does introduce the potential for top teams to take their foot off the gas at the end of the season. A higher seed is nice, but may not be enough of a carrot to keep teams from resting players in important games down the stretch if they think their playoff spot is “in the bag.” And this potential cost may not be a worthy consequence just to get teams 13-16 invited to the party.


I really thought I might change my tune regarding my preferred format for the College Football Playoff if autobids go away. Perhaps leaning toward an eight-team format, or even less. But ultimately, I find myself still gravitating toward the 12-team model. I think it keeps the ability to reward the teams at the very top, while virtually ensuring that no “deserving” team is denied their fair shot to play for a title.

Fight me in the comments.


If autobids are off the table, which College Football Playoff format do you prefer?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    4-team (current)
    (17 votes)
  • 10%
    (22 votes)
  • 33%
    (74 votes)
  • 0%
    (0 votes)
  • 40%
    (88 votes)
  • 8%
    (18 votes)
219 votes total Vote Now