College Football Playoff expansion: What 12, 16 and 24-team playoff brackets would look like in 2021
If four teams weren't enough, talks of expanding the College Football Playoff have increased in recent months.
In June 2021, the College Football Playoff's management committee proposed a 12-team playoff to replace the current four-team format. It was the first step in what looks to be a long process in reshaping the College Football Playoff.
As we ponder expansion and what the 2020s have in store for college football, I enjoyed putting together four alternative playoff brackets for the 2021-22 postseason. The first is a replica of what the College Football Playoff group pitched last summer. The other three feature all ten FBS conference champions receiving automatic bids.
As I tuned into championship week last weekend, I couldn't help but think how exciting it would be if each conference championship game carried more weight, and a bid to the Playoff was on the line. Of course, expanding the postseason would likely require cutting a regular season game or two from each team's schedule, which FBS schools would need to agree to. It could be a tough sell. But let's dream big. Let's be idealistic. Here are four alternative playoff brackets to the current model:
The College Football Playoff management committee's proposed 12-team playoff (with 2021 College Football Playoff rankings)
In the College Football Playoff's working group's proposal, 12 teams would compete for a championship. The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive first round byes, while teams ranked 5 through 12 would play at on-campus sites. Higher seeds would host their round one games, and later rounds would be played on neutral turf. The six highest-ranked conference champions would each receive an automatic bid, while six at-large teams would make up the rest of the playoff field.
I've taken the current College Football Playoff rankings and translated it to bracket form. I haven't changed anything. Georgia is currently ranked #3, but with the top four conference champions receiving automatic byes, the Bulldogs would fall to #5, while AAC champ Cincinnati would rise to #3, and Big 12 champ Baylor would move to #4. Notre Dame and Ohio State would also each drop a spot, but with Pac-12 champ Utah and ACC champ Pittsburgh rounding out the top 12, each of the committee's top 12 teams would make the playoff this year.
Of course, if we were using this format this year, I'd think that the round one matchups and seeding would look a little different. There's no reason for Ohio State and Michigan State to play again after the 56-7 butt-kicking that took place in Columbus last month. Nor do we need the winner of that game to rematch with Michigan. Opening matchups and seeding could be slightly altered, which I'm okay with. In fact, I may take some creative liberties myself as I put the rest of the JFP (Jack's Football Playoff) together.
12-team College Football Playoff featuring all ten FBS conference champions and two at-large bids
If the College Football Playoff is to be expanded to 12 teams or more, I would like to create a postseason that features every conference champion. Though I'd prefer the committee's 12-team playoff to its current 4-team model, realistically, we probably wouldn't see more than one group of five team in the playoff. UTSA came close to going a perfect 13-0 this year. Last year Coastal Carolina went 11-0 and didn't sniff a New Years 6 bowl. I would love for teams' seasons to end on the field — like in every other sport — and not in the court of public opinion. If you win a conference championship, you should get to compete for a championship. It works that way in every other major NCAA Division I sport (FCS football included), so why can't it work that way in FBS?
This 12-team playoff bracket would give an automatic bid to all ten conference champions and two at-large bids to remaining teams. In this case, the only non-conference champs admitted in would be Georgia and Notre Dame. We'll be referring to my most recent top 25 rankings for the remainder of this exercise. Like the CFP's proposal, the top four conference champions would each receive a round one bye.
The problem with this playoff format is evident: You can't have a postseason that includes 9-4 MAC champion (Northern Illinois) and excludes two-loss power-5 teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Oklahoma State. Entering bowl play, Ohio State is my #7 team. Northern Illinois isn't ranked. Perhaps a larger bracket would be better...
16-team College Football Playoff featuring all ten FBS conference champions and six at-large bids
In a 16-team field, all ten conference champions would receive automatic bids, while six at-large bids would be passed out to remaining teams. Welcome Ohio State, Oklahoma State, BYU and Ole Miss to the party. The top six conference champions would automatically host round one playoff games and be a top-8 seed. There would be no byes.
While 16 seems like the right amount of teams, there would be little reward for the top four to eight teams — each would still have to play a round one game, and some might be rather susceptible to losing. There should be a greater reward for winning a power-5 conference championship; byes in an expanded playoff make the most amount of sense. I've saved the best for last!
24-team College Football Playoff featuring all ten FBS conference champions and 14 at-large bids
Everybody loves March Madness. Everybody loves filling out a bracket and competing in an office pool bracket challenge. It's all fun and games until the unthinkable upset occurs, and you rip your bracket to shreds. Wouldn't it be fun to have a college football version of March Madness?
The Division I NCAA basketball tournament currently includes 68 teams, approximately 18.9% of the 360 Division I-qualified teams. Having a 24-team College Football Playoff would be the closest equivalent to March Madness, as 18.4% of the FBS' 130 teams would be included.
The top eight seeds would each receive a bye, and the six highest-ranked conference champs would automatically place in the top eight.
I took some creative liberties with this bracket, to avoid power-5 round one matchups and conference matchups in round two. While I may have tinkered a bit with seeding and matchups, I didn't mess with the playoff field. My top 12 teams from last week's rankings that didn't win their conference title all still made this playoff.
The 24-team playoff would be a challenge to execute, but there's a blueprint for it: the FCS holds a 24-team playoff each year of its own. FCS teams play 11 regular season games before beginning postseason play.
The 24-teamer is my favorite alternative bracket. It boasts the right mix of group of five and power five teams. There's room for a two-loss Oklahoma team and there's room for Mountain West winner Utah State. The sport's six highest-ranked conference winners are rewarded, as are the two teams with the best at-large resumes. Lower-tier conference champions and bubble teams would have a chance to slug it out and prove their worth, to the country. What if the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns upset Michigan in the Sweet 16 and over the years, they were able to build a Gonzaga basketball-like program in Lafayette? You might scoff at that last sentence, but Gonzaga wouldn't be Gonzaga today if college basketball used college football's playoff system.
Most likely, a 24-team playoff wouldn't change a national championship outcome. The two best teams would probably still face each other in the national championship, but there would be added intrigue to early rounds, and thrilling early round games that would count for more than consolation bowl games. Unfortunately, these days many high-profile players like Oregon Kayvon's Thibodeaux won't be participating this bowl season, as they choose not to risk injury in preparation for the NFL. But I highly doubt Kayvon Thibodeaux would sit out a College Football Playoff game.
Utah and Pittsburgh both came on strong at the end of the year, won power-5 conferences and would be a tough out in an expanded playoff. Wouldn't you love to see if Kenny Pickett could put the Panthers on his back and take down Alabama? What if the UTSA Roadrunners went on a Cinderella run to the Final Four? We'll never know. But at least we can dream.
Later this week on the Jack Vita Show, we'll be running a simulator on the 24-team bracket and providing color commentary and analysis along the way. Subscribe to the Jack Vita Show today wherever podcasts are found, so you don't miss it! You can also print a 24-team Playoff bracket to fill out on your own below.
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Which of these brackets is your favorite? How would you like to see the College Football Playoff expanded or improved upon? Or would do you keep it as is? Comment or tweet me @JackVitaShow and let me know, and subscribe to the Jack Vita Show on Apple Podcasts for more sports and entertainment analysis.
(Images via Pittsburgh Panthers and Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)