Expanded College Football Playoff should adopt '5+7' model to incentivize regular season, add quality matchups

After years of debates and multiple rounds of voting, the College Football Playoff finally approved a new, expanded 12-team format for the 2024 season. And for about eight months, the future of the sport’s postseason seemed to stabilize. Then, last summer, the Pac-12 as we knew imploded. 

The Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC all swooped in and picked at the Pac-12’s remains, swelling their numbers and drastically changing the math in the college football landscape. The result sent the CFP power brokers back to square one. Since then, we’ve seen debates on format, meetings with no votes and votes with no results. 

The CFP Board of Managers will meet again next week, and it’s expected (according to ESPN) that they will vote to move from the current 6+6 model to a new 5+7 format that will reduce the number of automatic bids for conference champions to five, adding an additional at-large bid. 

It’s not a perfect change without flaws or downside for some, but it should have a positive impact for both the regular season and the CFP’s first round.  

Why the hold up? 

Expansion to 12 teams was formally approved for the 2024 and 2025 seasons on Dec. 1, 2022. At that time, a 6+6 format provided access for champions from more than half of the FBS conferences. Any changes to the playoff format or the financial distribution model requires a unanimous vote, and to this point a change off of that 6+6 has not garnered unanimous support from the board. 

Because while the Pac-12 no longer has enough teams to hold a regular-season conference schedule or a conference championship game, it does still have a seat in the CFP meetings. Its representative, Washington State president Kirk Schulz, is reportedly the hold up. He is concerned on how the two remaining schools — Washington State and Oregon State — will be paid out in the next CFP contract without knowing what their affiliation would be. 

The hope is next week’s meeting will allow the board to resolve the issue one way or another, bringing clarity to the playoff race for 2024. 

Keeping 6+6 changes original intention of CFP

There was a period of time when the Pac-12’s demise appeared to be a win for the Group of Five conferences. The American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and the MAC agreed to the 6+6 format knowing they would likely be competing for one playoff spot among them, similar to how things previously worked for the New Year’s Six bowls. But heading into 2024, there are only four power conferences in college football, and a 6+6 format increases the access for the conference champions from those leagues. 

But staying at 6+6 is a break away from the intended balance in the field. Six automatic bids between 10 FBS conferences allowed for automatic playoff access to a majority of leagues. It also more or less fell in line with how the selection committee has ranked teams throughout the 10-year history of the four-team playoff. 

But with nine FBS conferences, giving six automatic bids away has changed the balance of the bracket and put another conference champion into the field. Finding the next-best conference champion after the New Year’s Six representative is much more difficult. In several previous seasons, that would have meant a playoff representative from outside the top 25. 

Adding importance to the regular season

The 6+6 model guarantees at least two Group of Five conference champions. While it’s possible those two teams would be in the top 10 on Selection Sunday, that scenario doesn’t seem likely based on rankings from previous years. So those teams would probably go into the CFP as the No. 11 and No. 12 seed in most seasons. That gives the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds a home game against a Group of Five team in the first round.

Meanwhile, a 5+7 model probably only puts one Group of Five team in the field (likely a No. 12 seed based on rankings from past seasons). In that scenario, the only way to avoid a first-round matchup against one of the top at-large teams is to win your conference or be the highest-ranking non-champion. That feels like a more exclusive club and an honor that’s worth fighting for in the final weeks of the season. Win your conference or be the next-best team, or face a likely top-10 team in a one-off, on-campus setting with your season on the line.

Odds suggest a No. 12 seed will beat a No. 5 seed at some point, but many of the most disruptive programs in New Years Six history have moved to the Big 12. Cincinnati, UCF and Houston have combined for five of the 10 Group of Five spots and two of its four wins in New Years Six bowls. 

Liberty, the team that would have been the 12-seed this year had the playoff already expanded, would have entered its Fiesta Bowl matchup against Oregon as a 17-point underdog. In moving from six automatic qualifiers to five and creating more competitive first round matchups, you have also put more value on being a conference champion or, at worst, the No. 5 seed.

5+7 will feature better first-round matchups 

Cinderella stories are great for basketball’s NCAA Tournament, and as mentioned earlier there will likely be a 12-over-5 stunner at some point to give a “December Madness” feel to college football’s version of bracket busing. But for on-campus games in a win-or-go-home scenario, fans are going to want to see teams of comparable caliber. 

While it’s not exactly apples-to-apples, you can take this past year for example. Georgia finished at No. 6 in this year’s final CFP rankings. A 5+7 format would have meant a first-round rematch with No. 11 Ole Miss for the Dawgs. A 6+6 format would have given viewers No. 24 SMU (which lost the Fenway Bowl to Boston College) heading to Sanford Stadium. It’s not hard to decide which game most fans would rather watch. 

More potential opportunity for ACC and Big 12 

On paper, adding an at-large seems to play into the hands of the third- or fourth-best team from the Big Ten or the SEC. But don’t overlook the value that it could have to the ACC and the Big 12. Those two leagues will be looking to get as many shots as possible to prove on the field that the gap between their leagues and the Big Ten/SEC is not as large as the narratives might suggest.

The Big 12 would have put a champion and an at-large team into an expanded field in 2021 (Baylor, Oklahoma State) and 2022 (Kansas State, TCU), and that’s not even counting the would-be appearances by new members Utah and Cincinnati during those seasons. The ACC would have been in a similar position in 2015, 2016 and 2017 with both a conference champion (Clemson) and an at-large team in the 12-team field in either the 6+6 or 5+7 formats.

The expanded College Football Playoff is going to change the way we talk about the national title race, and fans are going to be engaged to see it all play out in 2024. There is a lot of noise around decisions like this as college sports continues to experience growing pains, but if the CFP managers want to put together the best-possible championship bracket and add importance to the regular season it will move forward with a 5+7 format for the 2024 season. 

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