It’s the college sports conversation that just won’t die: Should the College Football Playoff expand? Basically since the second the playoff debuted back in 2014 there has been a push to get the thing beyond four teams. And it appears as though, the powers that be in the sport are finally listening.
Last week, all the major conference commissioners got together, and the topic on the docket was expansion. Apparently, they talked about 63 different playoff expansion scenarios (how you can get to 63, I have no idea), with an expansion to eight or even 12 teams seeming to be seriously discussed. To be clear, no changes would be made until 2023 at the earliest, and even that’s far from final. But for an event that has basically become the “Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson invitational” in recent years, it’s probably time for the good of the entire sport of college football to expand this thing, with a 12-team playoff picking up the most traction right now.
So, now that it seems clear that change could be on the horizon soon, the question is: Who would benefit most from an expanded field, especially if it goes to 12? Here’s our list:
1. The Pac-12
As someone who lives in the Pac-12 footprint, I hate to say it: Other than a few quirky, “Pac-12 After Dark” tweets, West Coast football is basically irrelevant. Sure, it’s nice to have an Arizona-Washington game on at 1:30 a.m. ET to fall asleep to after you get home from the bar on a Saturday night, but in terms of competing for titles, the Pac-12 might as well be the Sun Belt. The league has sent just two teams total to the playoff, and none in the last five seasons. For comparison’s sake, Clemson has made the playoff five different times since the last time a Pac-12 team has even been in it.
And because it’s clear that there are no teams ready to compete for a title in the Pac-12, recruiting has kind of become kind of a “chicken or the egg” thing: The Pac-12 needs elite recruits to compete for titles, yet the elite recruits in the region know that to actually compete for championships, they need to leave the area. It’s worth noting that the projected starters for Alabama (Bryce Young – California), Clemson (DJ Uiagalelei – California) and Oklahoma (Spencer Rattler – Arizona) all played high school ball in Pac-12 states. Ohio State’s best returning receiver (Chris Olave), Clemson’s top returning receiver (Joseph Ngata) and one of LSU’s top corners (Eli Ricks) are all from California as well.
To be fair, both USC and Oregon have recruited well in recent years (and Young would’ve gone to USC had Kedon Slovis not emerged the year before) but there is no single way for the Pac-12 to get itself back on the national radar quicker than for the College Football Playoff to expand. Assuming that all Power 5 champions would get an automatic bid, these programs could now sell kids in their region “You don’t have to go to Ohio State or LSU” to compete for a playoff berth. No the league won’t win all those battles, but win enough and you might finally have a team at USC or Oregon good enough to compete for a title.
Yes, this has a little bit of a “participation trophy” feel to it, but if you’re the Pac-12, who cares? You need to be in the conversation and this is the best way for it to happen.
2. Group of Five schools
I’ll be honest, I love just about everything about college football, but the one thing that I hate is that the Group of Five schools have essentially been shut out of playoff conversation. To be clear, I’m not saying Cincinnati could’ve beaten Alabama last year or UCF would’ve won a title a few years ago. But the idea that you can win all your games and not be able to compete for the top prize in your sport seems absurd to me. What made it worse this past season was that it was clear the committee was going out of its way to make sure that Cincinnati wouldn’t even be considered for a berth. If you’ll remember, they dropped three straight weeks while not playing a game because of Covid, all while Ohio State stayed in the same position, even when they weren’t playing either.
So assuming there is an expanded playoff and assuming the best Group of Five team gets at least one bid, I think it will help these teams immensely. First off, regardless of whether they can win it or not, they’ll be able to compete for a championship. Something that every FBS team should have a chance at if their record is good enough. But beyond that, it could help them retain good coaches and even – in this transfer portal era – good players. Sure, the coach at Boise State, Cincinnati, UCF or BYU may leave for a good job eventually. But they won’t have to rush out the door straight to the Power 5 to ensure they get a shot at the title.
You could argue that the Group of Five’s might be helped even more than the Pac-12 in this scenario.
3. The second best SEC team
If you noticed, I led this article with a picture of Kirby Smart: And with good reason. In 2018 and 2019 the Bulldogs finished No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff poll, meaning they were the first team out of contention for a playoff berth. Last year, Texas A&M was No. 5 in the final poll.
Regardless of whether any teams could’ve actually won the title or not, the most important point is this: In each of the last three seasons, the fifth place team in the final College Football Playoff poll came from the SEC. The year before that (2017) the SEC did in fact get two teams in. Those two teams – Bama and Georgia – played for a title, meaning that in each of the last four seasons, the SEC either got two teams in or had the first team out of the playoff. Oh, and even two seasons ago when LSU won the title and Georgia finished fifth in the poll, Alabama played LSU tougher than anybody, so it isn’t a stretch to say that the SEC had three of the five best teams in the sport.
This is all a long-winded way of me saying that in virtually every season, the SEC has more than one team good enough to win a title. Now they’ll finally get a chance to prove it.
4. The best team in the Big Ten not named “Ohio State”
To this point, there have been seven total College Football Playoffs and in five of them the Big Ten has had a participant. In four of those seasons, that team has been Ohio State. The only time that a Big Ten team not named “Ohio State” made the playoff – and you’re not going to believe this – was when Michigan State made it back in the playoff’s second year.
One, it’s wild that Michigan State has made a College Football Playoff appearance and Texas, USC, Florida, Michigan and Penn State are among the teams that haven’t. But it also shows that right now the Big Ten is “Ohio State and everyone else.”
The disappointing thing is that in years past, the Big Ten has had teams that were good enough to finish in the top five or six of the playoff poll – but just couldn’t bust the door down to get in. There was the year (in 2016) that Penn State finished fifth behind Ohio State, and multiple years where both Michigan and Wisconsin were good enough to get in. I’m not saying that any of those schools would’ve won it, because well, if Ohio State couldn’t, they wouldn’t have. But at the same time, how different would a program like Michigan be looked at right now if Jim Harbaugh even had one playoff appearance to his resume? Or Penn State with James Franklin? Or even Wisconsin, maybe college football’s most proverbial “good, but not elite” program of the last few decades.
With the way Ohio State is recruiting, they’re not slowing down anytime soon. And the only way for anyone else to get a shot out of the Big Ten might be an expanded playoff.
5. The best team in the ACC not named “Clemson”
I’d argue – and I don’t think it’s really a debate – that the gap between Clemson and the second best team in the ACC is greater than any conference in college football right now. I’m not even sure there is a close second.
So this isn’t really about an expanded playoff allowing someone to “catch” Clemson in the near future. Instead, it’s more about the hope that a Miami, Florida State or North Carolina could win just enough to qualify for an at-large berth. Then from there they’d be able to use the ability to call themselves a “playoff team” to spur recruiting in hopes of one day catching Clemson.
Again, I’m not sure there’s a program that’s anywhere close to Clemson. But in this scenario, they wouldn’t need to topple Clemson to get to the playoff. Just take care of everyone else.
Unlike the Big Ten and ACC, I’m not totally sure that an expanded playoff would help the Big 12 as a whole. That’s because in the Big Ten and the ACC, there are a bunch of different teams jockeying for that position of “second best program in the conference.” In the Big 12 – with due respect to Iowa State, who won the league last year – there are two programs that tower above everyone else: Texas and Oklahoma. Therefore, I’m not sure expanding the playoff really helps “the Big 12” as much as it helps “Texas.” Sorry Kansas State and Texas Tech fans, it’s true.
But Texas? For all the bad “is Texas back?” jokes that everyone (myself included) makes, the Longhorns really haven’t been nearly as awful as many of us make them out to be in recent years. No, they haven’t been a national title contender in a decade, but as awful as we made Tom Herman out to be, he finished second in the Big 12 once and in third place twice. And even last year in the season which led to his firing, the Longhorns were 7-3. They would’ve been 8-3 if a game against Kansas hadn’t been cancelled, and their three losses were by two points (TCU), three points (Iowa State) and in four overtimes to Oklahoma.
I mean, at most schools that season will get you an extension. At Texas it gets you fired.
Still, with Steve Sarkisian now in charge, it seems likely that maybe a few of those close losses become close wins. And just like that a second place finish now gets you in the playoff.
The Longhorns still have a long way to go to actually win the thing, but you’ve got to get there before you can win it. And if Steve Sarkisian can be simply as good as Tom Herman was, he’ll get there sooner rather than later.
This is kind of a combination of both the Pac-12 and Texas sections above. But, an expanded playoff will allow the Pac-12 to claim a playoff participant every year. And like Texas, USC hasn’t been as bad as people think the last few years. As you may or may not remember, they actually went into the Pac-12 Championship game this past season undefeated (the fact that they weren’t even really in the playoff mix shows you just how far the Pac-12 has fallen).
Still, with an expanded playoff the Pac-12 will have an auto bid, and they have an advantage that even Texas doesn’t have: When the Trojans are rolling, there is no one in Southern California that can compete with them for the top players. Even at its best Texas still has Oklahoma and Texas A&M right in their backyard. But for USC, other than Ohio State or Clemson coming to poach a player, or an occasional uptick at Oregon, the Trojans should be able to get just about any player they want in the region.
Admittedly, the Trojans still probably need a coach other than Clay Helton to push them over the top and win an actual national title. But an expanded playoff would be really, really good for that program.
8. The third best team in the SEC
You kinda get the point by now, but let’s be honest: If there are 12 teams in the playoff, you know three SEC teams will get in basically every season. And realistically, right now, the third best team in the SEC is still better equipped to win the darn title than the best team in both leagues.
And while a second entry into the playoff will certainly help programs like Georgia and LSU, a third entry might help those fringe programs on the rise. You know, the ones that aren’t consistently great, but can piece together a really special season every so often and find themselves on the sport’s biggest stage.
Like oh, I don’t know, an Ole Miss. Mississippi State or Kentucky – all teams which have won 10+ games in recent years.
Yup, I just said it: For schools like Texas, USC, Ole Miss or Kentucky, a 12-team expansion might be just what’s needed to get into the playoff here soon.
(For more talk on an expanded College Football Playoff, you can listen to Monday’s Aaron Torres Podcast below)