A 12-team College Football Playoff is one step closer to reality.
The College Football Playoff management committee announced Thursday afternoon that the working group considering options for playoff expansion has formally recommended expanding the playoff to 12 teams.
“The four-team format has been very popular and is a big success,” the members of the four-person working group said in a statement. “But it's important that we consider the opportunity for more teams and more student-athletes to participate in the playoff. After reviewing numerous options, we believe this proposal is the best option to increase participation, enhance the regular season and grow the national excitement of college football.”
In the currently proposed 12-team playoff model, the first six berths would go to the highest-ranked conference champions – guaranteeing at least one Group of 5 team will make the field, though not giving automatic berths to all five Power 5 champions – while the other six berths would go to the highest-ranked at-large teams in the final CFP standings.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, one of the four members of the working group, said the decision to recommend a 12-team model over an eight-team model is so the expanded playoff could provide guaranteed berths to conference champions without reducing the number of at-large berths avaialble.
“My sense is there's been an expectation for automatic access,” Sankey said during a media teleconference. “I don't think automatic access works if you're reducing opportunities for those teams that are highly ranked. In other words, going to eight and allocating a certain number of (automatic qualifiers), thereby reducing effectively the at-large numbers is not something that really resonated from my perspective.
“12 obviously finds a halfway point between those conference champions that could have access, the six best, and then six of the most highly rated teams. Now, there's going to be intersection between highly ranked teams and conference champions, but ultimately that is one of the opportunities that 12 presents.”
No conference would qualify automatically under the proposed playoff format, and there would be no limit on the number of at-large teams who can qualify from any conference, but it would guarantee at least six conference champions making the 12-team field.
The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive first-round byes, while the other eight teams would play first-round games at the home stadiums of the higher-seeded teams.
The rest of the games, beginning with the quarterfinals, would be played at bowl sites, so teams with first-round byes would not have the opportunity to host a playoff game on campus.
First-round games would be played in the two weeks following conference championship games, while the quarterfinals would be played on January 1 (or January 2 if New Year's Day falls on a Sunday) and an adjacent day. Semifinals and championship game dates have not yet been determined, though semifinals “likely will not be played as a doubleheader.”
When asked why the top seeds wouldn't have the opportunity to host games on campus, Mountain West commissioner Craig Stephenson – another member of the working group – acknowledged that the current proposal is only a recommendation, and that issue will continue to be discussed. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, however, said he's “not sure that playing in East Lansing, Michigan, on January 7th is a really good idea,” even though the quarterfinals (which would actually be played on Jan. 1 or adjacent days under the recommended model) would be played only a couple weeks after the first-round games.
“There has to be some accounting taken of stadiums that have to be winterized in the months of December and January and the like,” Bowlsby said. “There are some practical aspects to it. There are some philosophical aspects to it. But I think, generally speaking, we tried to strike a compromise that recognizes there's an opportunity for some home games but also recognizes that particularly New Year's Day, as was mentioned before, has long been a bastion of college football.
“There's also a significant advantage built in to the top four teams by not having to play, by having opportunity to watch their opponent in a contest, one of which they're going to be playing, and yeah, did that debate take place? Certainly. I actually think there's some stress around playing even that first-round set of games on campuses with December commencements and placement of those games, the ability of some of these communities to host on short notice that type of influx.”
Under the proposed format, teams would be seeded in accordance with the CFP rankings, and the bracket would remain intact throughout the playoff with no reseeding after rounds; the No. 1 seed would play the winner of the first-round game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, while the No. 4 seed would play the winner of the first-round game between the No. 5 and No. 12 seeds, regardless of who wins each first-round game.
The new playoff format still has to be approved by the full management committee, which meets next on June 17-18, and the CFP board of managers, which has a scheduled meeting for June 22. That said, the new playoff format will not be finalized before September, and the expanded playoff will not begin until 2023 at the earliest.
“This is a very exciting moment for college football,” the working group members said in the statement. “We think we can capture what student-athletes and fans love about the game and extend it to more people in more places, while enhancing what's great about the regular season.”