If you haven’t heard, the College Football Playoff will be expanding to 12 teams at some point eventually, they say (somewhere between 2024 and 26, I think). Those 12 teams will include at least the six highest-ranked conference champions, as well as six at-large bids. When I first saw that news, a fellow writer remarked that they were not excited for a five or six SEC-team playoff. And on the face, that feels totally valid. And there’s no accounting for how the committee will vote now that rankings 5-12 actually matter. But how would the new format have affected previous seasons?
First of all, the Big Ten would have thrived. No conference would had added more teams, and the Big Ten would have erased its 4-team deficit in overall participants, passing the SEC to become the most-represented conference. The SEC would have three more representatives in the last five years, but in the actual four-team playoff, they already had four more reps! So how does this all break down? Let’s get into it.
In the first year, 2014, Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State made the playoffs, with Baylor and TCU the next two out, sparking the re-introduction of the conference championship game to their league. Michigan State was ranked eighth and would have made the playoffs, and the Big 12 would have also added Kansas State to be the most-represented conference, tied with the SEC (who would have added Mississippi State and Ole Miss). A conference that totally missed the playoff would have added THREE teams. Boise State would have been the G5 rep, and Arizona would have joined the party. The ACC would have remained at one team, so it would be ACC 1, Big 12 3, Big Ten 2, Pac-12 2, SEC 3, and G5 1. Wisconsin would have missed out by two spots, and Georgia Tech would have been the unlucky #12 team bumped for G5 champ.
In 2015, it was the Pac-12 who was left out, with champion Stanford finishing sixth in the final CFP ranking. The Big Ten would have added Iowa and Ohio State, and the ACC would have added Florida State and UNC. The Big 12 would have added TCU, and fellow Texans from the University of Houston would have attended as the sixth-highest ranked G5 conference champions. Notre Dame also was in line for an at-large bid, finishing as #8, rounding out the field. That makes this the first year in which the vaunted SEC would not have added a team, despite Alabama going on to win the title that year. Conference-mate Ole Miss would have been bumped from their #12 ranking to make room for Houston, stranding them on the outside looking in. Northwestern and Michigan were right behind them at #13 and #14. The conference makeup would have been ACC 3, Big 12 2, Big Ten 3, Pac-12 1, SEC 1, G5 1, plus independent Notre Dame.
The SEC would have again failed to add teams in 2016, with #1 Alabama sitting high above next-highest ranked #14 Auburn. The ACC would have two teams after adding #11 Florida State, the Big 12 would have just one with #7 Oklahoma joining the fray, and the Big Ten would add three teams for the first time to make four total, with #5 Penn State, #6 Michigan, and #8 Wisconsin all getting in. USC and Colorado would join for the Pac-12 to make three and Western Michigan, ranked 16th, would represent the group of five conferences. Oklahoma State would have been bumped from their #12 spot, and no Big Ten teams were ranked besides the four above.
The SEC was the first conference to have two teams in the actual playoffs in 2017, and they would have added 7th-ranked Auburn to that to make three dirty traitorous Southerners. The Big Ten would again have added three teams though, in a year where they missed the playoffs entirely; the cluster of Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State would have joined in, with #16 Michigan State and #21 Northwestern missing out. The Pac-12, who also missed the playoffs thanks to the SEC’s two bids, would have added #8 USC and #11 Washington, and the ACC would have added #10 Miami to go alongside top-ranked Clemson. The Big 12 would have remained stagnant at one team, while UCF would be the first G5 team to not need an autobid, as they actually finished the season ranked #12.
Again the Big Ten missed the playoffs in actuality in 2018, and again they would have added three teams hypothetically. #6 Ohio State, #7 Michigan, and #12 Penn State would have represented the B1G East, while B1G West champ Northwestern was all the way down at 22. The SEC would have made waves, adding three teams to join Alabama in Georgia, Florida, and LSU, and #8 UCF and #9 Washington would have been the only reps for their respective conferences. Clemson, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame all made the real 2018 playoffs, and all three would not have been joined by conference mates in an expanded format (Clemson and Oklahoma because their conference mates weren’t good enough, Notre Dame because they don’t have any friends).
2019 would have ended the Big Ten’s rule of threes, but also ended their real streak of missing the playoffs. Ohio State would have been joined by #8 Wisconsin and #10 Penn State. The ACC would have stuck with just Clemson, again, and the Big 12 would have added #7 Baylor alongside #4 Oklahoma. The Pac-12 would have gone from none to some, adding #6 Oregon and #11 Utah, and Memphis would have stolen an at-large bid from Auburn as the sixth-best conference champ. The SEC still would have added two, though, with #5 Georgia and #9 Florida comfortably getting in.
2020 was a very weird season, and so a couple weird things would’ve happened here, too. First of all, the Pac-12 still would have missed the playoff. The final rankings had AAC champ Cincinnati ranked eighth and Sun Belt champion Coastal Carolina ranked 11th. The 4-2 Oregon Ducks were ranked 25th and, as I understand it, would not have received a bid because the format protects the six highest-ranked conference champions, and not the P5 champions and a G5 representative. So, G5 teams would have went from none to two, and the Pac-12 would’ve stayed in lockdown. The SEC would have added three teams, which makes sense because media bias and limited sample size, with #5 Texas A&M, #7 Florida, and #9 Georgia all joining in the fun. The ACC would have stuck with just Clemson, while the Big 12 would have added Oklahoma and Iowa State to the nobody they actually sent. The Big Ten would have 6WIndiana, with #14 Northwestern and #15 Iowa just missing out. Notre Dame rounded out the actual field, and sadly would have been safe here.
Finally, last year, we saw a real G5 team in Cincinnati plus two teams from the SEC keep the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 out of the playoffs. The ACC would have added #12 Pittsburgh, their conference champion, and the Pac-12 would have sent champion #11 Utah, while the Big 12 would have sent both #7 Baylor and #9 Oklahoma State. The Big Ten already sent #2 Michigan, and would have additionally sent #6 Ohio State and #10 Michigan State. The SEC, who had both national champion Alabama and runner-up Georgia, would have also sent #8 Ole Miss. Also, #5 Notre Dame would have made it in, which is bad.
Again, these rankings were made when the committee was considering things like “Is team X better than team Y,” and “Is their resume stronger?,” and not “Would this have higher TV ratings?” We could totally see five or six SEC teams year one. All I’m saying is, in a vacuum, playing hypotheticals, we would not have in the previous eight years.
And here’s the thing: six SEC teams in a 12-team format is (theoretically) only as bad as two in our current four-team format, and we’ve already seen that twice. While the SEC’s raw numbers would have gone up from ten in eight years to 22, its share of the field would have gone down from roughly one-in-three teams to less than a quarter. The Big Ten would actually gain share of the field, going from 18% of participants to 24% (thanks to zero-to-six change in 2017 and 2018). The Big 12 would have gone from one-in-eight to nearly one-in-six, and the Pac-12 would have gone from an abysmal one-in-sixteen to a less-terrible one in eight. The ACC would lose some sway, going from over one-in-five down to one-in-eight. Obviously the biggest winners would be the Group of Five conferences, who went from one real participant out of 32 to a guaranteed at-minimum one in every field of 12.
Ultimately, this change shouldn’t be about conference representation (though it very likely is). It should be about “is the potential national champion being left out in the current playoff format?” And are they? Maybe. There’s a couple teams ranked fifth or sixth throughout the years that could’ve put up some fight. I don’t think anyone in the 9-12 range has much of a chance, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
Do you favor the current CFP expansion?
This poll is closed
No, too many teams
No, too few teams
Old bowl system!