Originally found on CBS Sports:
Shortly after the concept of an expanded 12-team College Football Playoff was publicized 28 months ago, Bob Bowlsby had a revelation. If some was good in the playoff era, more was better. Except the then-Big 12 commissioner — one of the original architects of the expanded field — wasn’t thinking of the structure itself, he was considering of the unbridled hype it would create.
On Nov. 1 of any given season that will feature a 12-team playoff, there would be 30-35teams in contention for those 12 spots, Bowlsby said in June 2021. That concept solved a lot of the sport’s deepest dilemmas. One being that college football has been dominated by a small number of elite teams, creating at least a perception that half of the FBS doesn’t matter.
Now, as the clock ticks down to less than a year before the expanded playoff debuts?
“I stand by the original statement,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports recently. “They may not all be legitimate contenders, but there will be people saying, ‘We got a chance.’ I think the number holds water. It’s going to be a vastly different environment.”
What college football does with that extra layer of hype will be fascinating to watch. It can’t be bad, and it might even mean raises for those social media graphic designers who celebrate everything from uniform changes to award watch list mentions.
It will be a variation on Bowlsby’s theme, the college football version of Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber.”
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
“The interest is going to peak up even more,” said Craig Thompson, the former Mountain West commissioner and another original architect of the expanded field. “Whether Bob’s right on [with] 30-35, which I think will be fairly accurate, it’s going to be, ‘By golly, my team didn’t make the championship game of my conference, but we only had two losses. My 10-2 team is a heck of a lot better than your 11-1 team.’
“Record TV ratings. Attendance is up. … A lot of people say it’s the ruination [of college football], the sport is professionalized. No. … It’s a new era, new generation.”
This week being the debut of the College Football Playoff Rankings for the 2023 season, that layer of hyperbole largely hasn’t been considered yet. What college football does with that additional buildup is yet to be determined.
Less than 14 months away from that first 12-team playoff game, CBS Sports spoke to three of those four original architects of the expanded playoff. Bowlsby, Thompson and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey were asked to consider what they had wrought. (Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick did not respond to an interview request.)
Specifically, with more than a quarter of FBS teams expected to be in contention down the stretch — using 35 of 133 FBS programs as the benchmark — what would it mean for …?
Cinderellas: College football has stubbornly stiff-armed non-traditional teams playing for national championships. Now, it can’t be avoided. If the 12-team playoff was in place this season, Air Force, Tulane and Liberty would be in contention for a playoff spot on Nov. 1. Ah, but expand your mind for the expanded playoff. This season, so would the likes of Missouri, Ole Miss, Louisville, Oregon State, Utah, Kansas State and Fresno State.
Coaching security: Would coaches on the hot seat be considered more secure just by getting their teams in the mix for a spot? Such has been the long-time case in the NCAA Tournament where teams hang banners just for participating in the 68-team field. It’s one thing to get a bonus for getting into the field of four. ADs better get ready for contract language added that awards bonuses for getting in the 12-team field.
Seeding amplified: The top four seeds (all conference champions) will get first-round byes. That in itself will cause a competition within a competition to avoid having to play an extra game.
Win and you’re in: Not exactly. In a 12-team field, there might be multiple teams that lose their last game and still find a spot in the playoff. That happened last year in the four-team field with Ohio State.
The first-time inclusion of three-loss teams: It’s unavoidable with a 12-team field, but consider the discussion ahead. CBS Sports found that, since the CFP debuted in 2014, 15 teams have finished in the top 12 of the final CFP Rankings at 9-3. (For brevity’s sake, conference championship game losers who finished 10-3 were not considered.) That’s an average of 1.66 per season. The SEC led that category with six of the 15.
“To me, the record shouldn’t matter as much as the quality of team,” said Florida AD Scott Stricklin, a former member of the CFP Selection Committee. “I go back to the basketball [selection] committee example. That happens all the time. Teams whose record doesn’t look as good as others, but they played a much better schedule and had a much better resume and got in, got a better seed.”
Stricklin is among a small group of Power Five ADs who saw the expanded playoff coming and adjusted their football scheduling accordingly. Florida’s non-conference schedule next year includes Florida State and Miami. The Gators also have home-and-home series with NC State, California, Colorado, Arizona State and Notre Dame scheduled through 2032.
“Every AD is going to be watching really closely these first two or three years of the 12-team playoff to see what direction the committee goes,” Stricklin added. “If they pick shiny records that may not have been through as tough a schedule over teams that have challenged themselves more in the nonconference, it’s going to dictate how teams schedule.”
Sankey said part of the SEC’s ongoing conversation about whether to go to a nine-game conference schedule is “a nod” to the expanded playoff.
“That makes an additional loss not a point of removal from consideration,” Sankey said. “In fact, playing a stronger schedule may be a point of inclusion in the playoff. There have been teams that made the four-team playoff with an all [Power Five]-type schedule. People are concerned about doing that because of the risk. I think this opens up the ability to play a more aggressive schedule.”
Those architects were originally tasked by university presidents in January 2019 to determine whether expansion was feasible, possible, even wanted. They were the Lewis and Clark expedition of the postseason — seeking to find whether there was any “there” there in terms of expansion.
They studied more than 60 models that included six-, eight-, 12- and even 16-team playoffs.
Their original idea remains mostly intact, lately having to survive the latest round of realignment (that isn’t over yet). It took a long-protracted process to move the expansion up from 2026 to 2024. That was only after Bowlsby walked out of a January 2022 meeting in a huff. The process to start in 2024 was finally salvaged in September 2022 by the leadership of Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, chairman of the CFP Board of Managers.
“Going back, trying to evaluate formats, there was kind of a constant observation about the impact on the regular season,” Sankey said. “Among the [larger] group, and then I think even among the commissioners, the four-team playoff affected the regular season. How do you bring more people into that conversation?”
The money is the money. The new playoff, when it is open for bidding by potential rightsholders, may surpass the $2 billion mark annually. That would mark the largest college sports TV contract in history. But altruistically, expansion was about access.
The access just might keep the sport from blowing up. An expanded playoff keeps Oregon State and Washington State — wherever they end up — in the mix. With or without those schools, the Mountain West arguably becomes the strongest Group of Five conference.
“I just think back to 2014, which is the first year of the four-team format … we were No. 1 in the country for longer than any other team that season,” Keenum told Mississippi Today last year. “Now, obviously, we didn’t make the four-team playoffs in the end, but we would have been very much a part of this 12-team format. In fact, we would have hosted a first-round game in Starkville. Can you imagine what that would have been like?”
CBS Sports research earlier this year showed that, since the CFP began in 2014, an average of 7.3 teams from the combined SEC and Big Ten would have made the 12-team field. That leaves an average of only 4.7 spots for the rest of college football.
That threatens to continue a common theme: The BCS and four-team playoff have been exclusive. Since 2006, the postseason has been dominated by the SEC in terms of championships. Since the 1998 debut of the BCS, the Big Ten has played in most of the major bowls (now referred to as New Year’s Six bowls). Cincinnati and TCU notably broke through the past two seasons.
Sankey observed that expansion was good for “the West.” A Pac-12 team has not played in a CFP game since 2016, the longest drought of any Power Five conference.
If ESPN’s original idea for a weekly rankings show was to promote the playoff, think about the national conversation being on blast beginning in 2024. That was also part of the the architects’ long-term plan.
The selection process will become more difficult if only because of the number of “misses” in these reconfigured leagues. That is, conference teams that you don’t play. The era of the round-robin is over in major-college football.
In the new 18-team Big Ten, beginning in 2024, teams will play each other home-and-away at least once every five years. In the 17-team ACC, it will take seven years for some teams to play other conference opponents home-and-away. In the ACC’s eight-game conference schedule, each team will miss playing more than half the league each season.
Coaches typically have bonuses of $500,000 to $1 million written into their contracts if they make the playoff. An expanded field might actually dilute those bonuses, according to Chad Chatlos, managing director of the college and coaching practice for TurnkeyZRG executive search.
“Now that there are 12 spots, I think the pressure on coaches is even higher,” Chatlos said. “Thing about is, you could have gone 10-2 at LSU and the fans would be not happy, but they’d be like, ‘Hey, we won 10 games.’ Now, if you can’t get one of the 12 [spots] … I hate to say this, because the pressure on coaches and the unrealistic expectations on coaches is out of this world. Now, it’s even going to get worse.”
Those playoff bonuses might now be “diluted,” according to Chatlos, because playoff berths will be “easier” to achieve. What is likely to emerge, he said, is tiered system of bonuses based on advancing in the playoff.
The CFP selection process has been the least transparent in the game’s history of rankings. AP Top 25 voters are allowed to reveal their ballots on a weekly basis. At the end of the season, the coaches reveal their final votes from the Coaches Poll. We’ve gotten none of that from the CFP Selection Committee. No inside look for the public at how the ranking sausage is made. Considering the field is about to be tripled, the committee’s recusal policy is about to get a lot more complicated.
More teams in the hunt, more of everything to consider. For everyone who has agonized over the past quarter century about who got left out, get ready for whole new concept arguing over who might get in. Fun.
“Right now, there is a lot of tension every week about who might stumble and fall out, who might fight their way in,” Bowlsby said. “There might be less than that [in the future].”