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Why the CFB Playoff is Expanding and Everything to Know About the 12-Team Format

College Football Playoff

College Football Playoff

College football’s postseason format is officially on the path to change, as the four-team championship will become a 12-team CFB Playoff in the near future. On Thursday, a working group of the CFB Playoff’s management committee recommended the postseason shift to a 12-team format after studying the issue for the last two years. The four-team version is still in place for 2021 and ’22, so the earliest the new format could begin is after the ’23 season. However, the start date and which bowl games will be involved are two of many details to be sorted out in the next few months. But what is known is six teams will gain an automatic bid by winning their conference, and the other six spots will go to programs through an at-large selection. Winning a conference has extra importance now, as the six highest-rated champions will be guaranteed a spot in the playoff. 

Several reasons are the driving force behind the shift to 12 teams, including better access for all 130 teams, an opportunity to enhance the regular season and adding importance to conference championships.

Here’s everything to know about college football’s new playoff format, along with the reasons on why it’s changing in the near future:

Why the CFB Playoff is Expanding and Everything to Know About the 12-Team Format

Why is it the Playoff Expanding to 12 Teams?

College Football is All About the Playoff Now

Even though college football has 130 teams and intriguing conference races throughout the year, the focus of the sport has shifted to the CFB Playoff. It’s the conversation that happens throughout the offseason and into the year, especially after the rankings from the CFB Playoff Committee are released. With the sport shifting to more of a CFB Playoff/National focus, having more programs involved and extra postseason spots will help add intrigue to the regular season.

Access and Fair Path to a Title for Every Team

Under the current format, just four teams make it to the CFB Playoff every year. Under the new agreement, 12 programs are in every season. Currently, just three percent (four of 130) have a chance to make the CFB Playoff every year. Under the 12-team format, the number of teams qualifying for the postseason increases to nine percent.

The new format is a boost to the Group of 5 teams, which is ensured at least one spot every year thanks to the conference championship requirement. Also, it’s possible the Group of 5 will claim two playoff bids in some seasons. Winning a national championship will be very difficult for a team outside the Power 5. However, this format allows for the Group of 5 to make the playoff and prove their case in the process.

Enhance the Regular Season (Maybe?)

There are concerns from many fans about what an expanded CFB Playoff would do for the regular season. Yes, some games aren’t likely to be as important or meaningful as they would be in a four-team format. However, the expanded playoff hopes more spots equals more intrigue for a larger pool of teams in the final two months of the season. Having better access for all 130 teams increases the hope and provides more opportunities for games to matter outside of the usual Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State run at the top of college football.

Adding Importance to Conference Championships

With the opportunity for a bye week and a guaranteed spot in the playoff, winning a conference will have extra importance in the 12-team format. Upsets are bound to happen in a conference title game, but a 7-6 or 8-5 team that accomplishes it won't be guaranteed to make the playoff since they are likely to be ranked too low to earn an at-large spot and not high enough as a conference champion to be an automatic bid.

More Revenue

More teams and games, along with a format that could increase the popularity of the sport is certainly going to help the bottom line. Some estimates have CFB Playoff expansion revenue doubling as a result of the new format.

Eliminate Subjectivity

Subjectivity has been a part of college football since its inception. However, times have changed and fans aren’t as keen on subjectivity or rankings. This format eliminates some of that by locking in six conference champions and giving greater access for every team in college football. As a result, this allows for programs to “settle it on the field.”

Fatigue of the Same Teams in the CFB Playoff

Since the inception of the four-team playoff in 2014, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State have accounted for 20 of the 28 (71 percent) of all trips to the postseason. With more available spots, teams from different conferences and programs across the nation will have a chance to get into the playoff. More variety is wanted by most fans after the same teams have dominated at the top.

Everything to Know About CFB Playoff Expansion

When Does the 12-Team Format Start?

TBD. The new format won’t start in 2021 or ’22. However, while the current agreement runs through the ’25 season, the format could change before then.

How Many Teams?

12 teams. Every year, 12 teams will make the CFB Playoff.

Does This Force Notre Dame to Join a Conference? What About a Bye?

No. This won’t change the dynamic for Notre Dame in terms of conference affiliation. However, the Fighting Irish are not eligible for a bye week in this format. This program essentially has an off date already without a conference title game, but when the 12-team format begins, Notre Dame will not rank any higher than No. 5 in any season without a move to a conference.

Guaranteed Spots and Bye Weeks?

Six. That’s the amount of guaranteed bids to the playoff. The CFB Playoff Committee will continue to rank the top 25 teams every season. The six highest-rated conference champions in the top 25 are granted automatic bids to the playoff. The four teams ranked as the highest-rated conference champions will receive a bye to the quarterfinals. However, no conference – Power 5 or Group of 5 – is actually guaranteed a spot. And as we mentioned above, Notre Dame is not eligible for a bye week.

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Will the Committee Avoid Rematches?

No. According to the release from the CFB Playoff, no consideration or modification of rankings will be deployed to avoid rematches from the regular season.

How Do the At-Large Spots Work? Any Restrictions on Teams?

Just like the conference champions: Six at-large teams are locked in. These spots will go to the highest-rated six remaining teams in the CFB Playoff top 25. There are no restrictions on how many teams can make the playoff from one conference. So yes, in theory, it’s possible the SEC or Big Ten sends four teams to the postseason in some years.

First-Round Games Breakdown

The new format has some built-in incentives to hopefully maintain intrigue throughout the regular season. While the top four teams get a bye, programs ranked No. 5-8 will play a first-round matchup at home. Tentatively, these matchups will be played in the two-week period after the conference championship games.

A bracket for the matchups in the first round follows a traditional 5 versus 12, 8 versus 9, 7 versus 11 and 6 versus 10 format.

Quarterfinals and Semifinals Shift to Bowls

Neutral sites and bowl games are back for the quarterfinals and semifinals. It’s uncertain if these games will take place at the current New Year’s Six bowls – Orange, Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach – or if different locations will join the mix.

Quarterfinals are slated for January 1 or January 2, while a working date for the semifinals was not released on Thursday.

Championship Game is Still a Neutral Site

The national championship for every college football season will remain at a neutral site. For the 2021 season, the game is slated for Indianapolis, while the ’22 version is going to Los Angeles, followed by Houston in ’23.

What’s Next

A 12-team CFB Playoff is happening, but more specifics are coming in the future. Also, we can’t rule out a few tweaks to some of the details already released. On June 17-18, the management committee – conference commissioners of the 10 leagues and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick – of the CFB Playoff will meet to review the recommendation. The CFB’s board of managers – this includes one school president from each of the 10 conferences and Notre Dame – will then discuss this proposal on June 22. If the board authorizes a study of the 12-team format (as expected), the next milestone to watch comes in September. The September meeting would be to discuss the review and inputs, along with an official decision on the change in format.

Hypothetical 2021 CFB Playoff

Using Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2021, here’s how a hypothetical 12-team playoff would look this year:

Top Four: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Ohio State

Next Highest-Rated Champions: No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 9 Oregon

First-Round Games

No. 12 Notre Dame at No. 5 Georgia

No. 11 Florida vs. No. 6 Texas A&M

No. 10 North Carolina at No. 7 Iowa State

No. 9 Oregon at No. 8 Cincinnati

Second-Round Games

Notre Dame/Georgia Winner vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Rose)

Florida/Texas A&M Winner vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (Fiesta)

Iowa State/North Carolina Winner vs. No. 2 Clemson (Peach)

Oregon/Cincinnati Winner vs. No. 1 Alabama (Sugar)

Semifinals (using higher seeds as winner)

Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State

Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma