College football is suddenly like a rebellious teenager getting piercings and purple hair, desperately trying to break the mold established by traditionalist parents. The sport wants to be radically different than its lineage and wants everyone to see it.
Perhaps you missed it last Friday because you were already indulging in your Labor Day weekend, but the College Football Playoff board of managers, a collection of university presidents and chancellors, voted to expand the playoff from four teams to 12. The new format goes into effect no later than 2026.
Flinty college football used to begrudgingly move toward change at the speed of a horse and buggy, and now it’s zooming down the evolutionary highway like a Tesla Model S on autopilot. The CFP skipped right over doubling the national championship vehicle to eight teams to tripling it.
Between radical conference realignment, the transfer portal, NIL (name, image, and likeness) money for players, and now a 12-team playoff, college football is almost unrecognizable. I’m here for it, and it’s mostly for the better. Many of these changes were overdue, especially the ones that empower players to control their destinies and line their pockets. But you do worry that too much change too fast could destabilize the sport, stripping it of its grandeur.
College football’s massive makeover is like going from the wishbone to the Air Raid offense. The sport has come out of the dark ages and is now in an age of enlightenment and opportunity. Of course, let’s not give the powers that be too much credit. Equity is not the driving force behind playoff expansion. Money is.
Cash rules everything around college football. As the financial incentives have grown, so has the appetite for change. The NCAA, which does not oversee the College Football Playoff, and the Power 5 schools also got a push from the courts as players fought for their capitalist right to capitalize on their popularity.
(Yes, that’s reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young of Alabama you see hawking Dr Pepper and participating in the Nissan Heisman House campaign.)
It was only 25 years ago that we were still crowning split national champions using the archaic poll system. In 1997, Michigan and Nebraska were named co-national champs. Michigan took No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, and Nebraska was No. 1 in the coaches’ poll.
The first season of the clunky Bowl Championship Series was 1998. The first season of the College Football Playoff was 2014. By fusty college football standards, we’re witnessing evolution at light speed.
I do harbor some concerns about CFP expansion, which was previously recommended by a task force charged with exploring the matter. The 12 teams will be the six conference champions ranked highest by the selection committee, plus the six highest-ranked remaining teams. The top four seeds will receive byes into the quarterfinals.
College football’s greatest draw is the inherent import of every regular-season game. It’s part of the sport’s beauty, majesty, and pageantry. Every loss for a team with championship aspirations feels like the end of the world. It’s the best regular-season product in American sports (sorry, NFL).
That tension and passion could be attenuated if teams know that two or even three losses won’t prevent them from playing for a national title. It could alter the fundamental fabric of following college football.
Bigger isn’t always better. College football’s power brokers could kill the gridiron golden goose.
The flip side is that if schools know that one loss isn’t going to sink their season, they could engage in tougher scheduling, leading to more intersectional marquee matchups.
Only time will tell what consequences — negative or positive — expanded access to the national title chase has on the bread-and-butter college football product, the regular season.
One has to wonder if there will even be six conferences worthy of having their champions in the playoff by 2026.
Power conference cannibalism isn’t over. USC and UCLA fleeing for the Big Ten could lead to a chain reaction of conference consolidation that leaves the Pac-12 or the Big XII a hollowed-out husk. The Atlantic Coast Conference also has a wary eye cast on the almighty Southeastern Conference poaching some of its key members (Clemson, North Carolina, and Florida State).
College football rainmakers probably hope that an expanded playoff acts as a stabilizing force for realignment, guaranteeing antsy members of the Pac-12, which hasn’t had a playoff participant since 2017, a seat at the table.
That’s nice, but it still might not be enough for schools to ignore the cash waterfall that the Big Ten and SEC are enjoying with their TV rights. The Big Ten recently signed a seven-year, $7 billion TV rights deal.
The hope is that the expanded format can be implemented in time for the 2024 or 2025 seasons so no money is left on the table. But if the CFP remains a four-team dance through the end of its current contract, the format might have to be reworked before it goes into effect because true power conference schools will not look kindly on being left out in favor of weakened or watered-down conferences’ champions.
There are only 10 Division 1 conferences right now. Any conference consolidation could force a revision of the format that leans away from half the field being conference champions.
Ostensibly, the 12-team format is a boon for the American Athletic Conference, which sent Cincinnati into the playoff last season, and the Mountain West.
The power conferences still run the show, and they want to preserve the current division of haves and have-nots.
There’s one aspect of its past that college football just can’t quit: bowls. The quarterfinals and the semifinals of the expanded CFP will take place at bowl sites, and care will be taken to honor past bowl affiliations like the Pac-12 and Big Ten’s connection with the Rose Bowl.
You didn’t expect college football to completely abandon tradition, did you?
College football has become a game of change. But, hopefully, the sport remains as wonderful and compelling to follow as ever.