May 25, 2024

College Football Playoff expansion: 10 complications fans must prepare for, from seeding to NFL interference


The expanded College Football Playoff will debut following the 2024 season, radically transforming the future of the sport. When the four-team CFP debuted following the 2014 season, it fielded 3% of the Football Bowl Subdivision. This year, that number balloons to 9%. 

More teams inevitably means more complications. Some of the biggest questions are purely logistical. Others will center on teaching viewers about the system. Following the biggest controversy of the CFP era, getting fans to understand the process is an existential task. 

A quick refresher on the new system: 12 teams will make the expanded CFP — five conference champs and seven at-large teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions are guaranteed the top four seeds with byes, and the remaining eight teams are seeded in order. Seeds 5-8 will host seeds 9-12 in first-round games on campus, with the winners heading to quarterfinals against the top four seeds at New Year’s Six bowl sites. From there, it’s a tournament. 

“The four first-round games are arguably the biggest change in FBS football probably since the BCS came to be,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said in April. “Only four schools will host those games, but 40 or so have to plan to host, so there’s a lot of details there.” 

Some pieces of the process remain the same. The CFP field will still be decided by a 13-member committee using the same criteria. Despite the vitriol directed at the board after undefeated Florida State was left out in favor of Alabama this past season, CFP polling claims a 79% approval rating for the board. 

With a brand new system and dramatically increased access, plenty of fans will be shocked when the actual machinations of the playoff debut this winter. Here are 10 things fans need to prepare for heading into the new system. 

1. Differentiating ranking from seeding

Picture this: the College Football Playoff releases its final rankings. Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State easily round out the top four, just like they did during the 2022 season. The bracket appears on the broadcast and sitting in the third spot … is No. 7 Clemson? 

Welcome to the new world of seeding. 

The CFP management committee recently went through a bracketing exercise during their annual meetings in Dallas and modeled the 2022 field as a placeholder. Immediately, the confusion became clear. The four teams that would have earned byes (assuming adjusted 2024 conference affiliations) were No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Clemson and No. 8 Utah. No. 3 TCU moved to the No. 5 seed and No. 4 Ohio State to the No. 6 seed. No. 16 Tulane was the final auto-bid, nudging No. 12 Washington out of the field to capture the No. 12 seed. 

Hancock emphasized after the bracketing exercise: “Ranking, seeding – keep those words in mind. Ranking and seeding.” 

Unlike in college basketball, the presence of byes dependent on conference championships means the top four teams in the field could get weird. In 2021 (again, assuming 2024 conference affiliations), ACC champion Pittsburgh was No. 12 in the CFP Rankings. The Panthers would have jumped No. 3 Georgia to enter as the No. 4 seed. With every conference now featuring their top two teams in the title games, upsets could make the field look even weirder. — Shehan Jeyarajah 

2. More snubs and controversies

The CFP got off easy in its first nine years, but the biggest controversy erupted last season in Year 10. Florida State became the first undefeated Power Five champion in 20 years not to play for a national championship. Part of the reason the CFP expanded was to diffuse such issues. Who cares if the No. 13 team gets left out of a 12-team field? Except it may not be No. 13. It might be No. 7. 

That is one of the biggest issues with the current structure. The highest-ranked Group of Five champion is guaranteed a spot. That means a Group of Five team could get in over a deserving (and higher-ranked) team from a Power Four conference. Had the 12-team bracket been in place last year, No. 23 Liberty, 13-0 but without a win vs. a ranked team, would have been the Group of Five rep. Consequently, No. 12 Oklahoma (10-2) would have been left out, as would No. 13 LSU (9-3) and No. 14 Arizona (9-3). 

The first time this happens — and it will happen — there will be an outcry. Oh, and if there is no ranked Group of Five champion — that almost happened last season — the selection committee decides (in secret) who that team will be. Get your questions ready for the selection committee chair. — Dennis Dodd 

3. Load management/opt-outs

Teams safely in the field resting their players is unavoidable and likely. So are opt-outs from players with big-time NFL futures. We already told you

No, not in Ohio State-Michigan, but think of the conference championship game in which both teams are basically playing for seeding. It won’t be blatant, but think of the injured quarterback who starts the week as questionable. Are you going to risk a playoff run to win a conference championship? In the playoff, are you going to risk a lucrative NFL future if you’re, say, Bryce Young or Caleb Williams? If you can’t answer that question immediately, you’ve made my point for me. If collective bargaining emerges — and it will, eventually — expect language to be written into the deal guaranteeing players must play in games if healthy. 

“I think we send a bad message to young men [who opt out],” said Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek, a member of the CFP selection committee. “You’re turning your back on your teammates. You’re turning your back on your schools … As these NIL deals come to fruition, there ought to be some type of incentive [in contracts] for you to play in those games.”  — Dodd 

4. From on-campus to out-of-town

First-round games will be on campus beginning this year on Dec. 20-21. All good, except some campuses weren’t made to host football games in late December because of the whole darn academic thing. 

Schools like Penn State are already dealing with possible conflicts. There will be three CFP games played on Saturday, Dec. 21. Penn State’s fall commencement is the next day. If you’ve ever been to State College, Pennsylvania, you know hotel rooms are a premium. And it’s not like there are enough nearby hotels in neighboring towns to handle the overflow. You were warned here first. If Penn State is hosting a first-round game, the contest might be in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Not exactly Beaver Stadium, especially if it’s a rematch against the Big Ten team. 

Utah women’s basketball’s horrifying experience during the NCAA Tournament was the perfect example of the potential costs of the logistics quandary. With multiple events planned in Spokane, Washington, the Utes were forced to stay in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for the Gonzaga regional. Players and personnel said they were repeatedly bombarded with slurs while staying in the town. 

“For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA Tournament environment, it’s messed up,” Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts said after the incidents. — Dodd 

5. Bowl tie-ins will impact sites

The CFP technically had two years remaining on its initial contract when it decided to expand. The early expansion could ultimately have some odd consequences, but none will stick out more than grandfathering in the existing bowl contracts. In the past, semifinal matchups were decided by team geographical preference. With all of the New Year’s Six bowls folded into the CFP, the selection committee must take into account existing bowl contracts with conferences. 

Most of the time, this won’t lead to much consequence. The SEC champ would almost always choose the Sugar Bowl as is, while the Big Ten champ will rarely say no to a Rose Bowl berth. Expansion does throw a wrench in it, though. For example: in 2025, the Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl are all quarterfinal games. If, for example, SMU was to make the field, the Mustangs might prefer staying in town for the Cotton Bowl. Because of their bowl contract with the ACC, SMU will automatically prioritize the Orange Bowl instead – the bowl game farthest away. 

Starting in 2026, there are no contracts tying leagues or teams to bowl games. Only at that point, the CFP gets to start from scratch. — Jeyarajah 

6. Group of Five dilution

The Group of Five’s CFP pool has been watered down by realignment. The likes of Cincinnati, UCF and SMU have moved into Power Four conferences over the last couple of years. While the Group of Five champion is guaranteed a spot, the quality of that champion has gone down. (See: Liberty, above). ESPN saw that possibility when it bid on the expanded playoff. You better believe that impacted the worth of the playoff ($1.3 billion annually) that industry experts said was just OK. With the Mountain West now clearly the best Group of Five league, we may see Boise State finally get its championship shot. (The Broncos played all those BCS bowl games with no shot at a national title.) But if certain Conference USA teams get hot, we’re talking about Kennesaw State or Sam Houston in the CFP. — Dodd 

7. Problems with scheduling against the NFL

One giant elephant remains in the room of the CFP … the NFL. An antitrust exemption allows the league to start playing Saturday games in late December, which means that some of the quarterfinal games could directly go up against late-season NFL matchups. The NFL reportedly isn’t happy with the encroachment, but don’t expect any changes. 

Sources around the CFP were clear that rescheduling games, or trying to move them around the NFL, wasn’t realistic. Thursday and Friday games were among the options considered, but television partners were not interested. The CFP is scheduled to play three games – likely 12 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Eastern – on Dec. 21, 2024, and Dec. 20, 2025, both Saturdays. 

Without question, games going up against the NFL will suffer, but that’s simply reality. College football can’t afford to kowtow to every single NFL request. That said, don’t be surprised if some first-round games post relatively miserable ratings. It might not reflect low interest, just the ratings beast they’re fighting. — Jeyarajah 

8. The Notre Dame conundrum

This is an early reminder that if Notre Dame is ranked No. 1, it still has to play four games, including a first-rounder, to have a shot at a national championship. Former athletic director Jack Swarbrick decided that even if the Fighting Irish finish in the top four — an automatic bye for everyone else — they will play that extra game and be seeded most likely no better than No. 5. The rationale is that since Notre Dame doesn’t play a league championship game, it will get an extra week off to prepare. 

Yes, but I can hear the mewling now from South Bend when the Irish go 12-0 or 11-1 and still have to play four to win it all. Notably, Swarbrick served on the working group with former Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey that generated the 12-team playoff format. — Dodd 

9. Conference game rematches

College football has historically hated rematches. The 2011 BCS Championship Game between Alabama and LSU was a major driver of delivering the CFP. One of the biggest cases against divisionless conferences is the likelihood of a rematch between powers in conference title games. 

Well, the future is here. Rematches are a relative certainty now. In the CFP’s bracketing exercise, a rematch showed up in the first round as No. 6 seed Ohio State would have played No. 11 seed Penn State in 2022. The 2023 field would have featured two, with No. 6 seed Georgia facing No. 11 seed Ole Miss and No. 7 seed Ohio State playing No. 10 seed Penn State. The Game between Ohio State and Michigan could conceivably be played three times: in the regular season, Big Ten Championship Game and CFP. 

College basketball’s NCAA Tournamen has tried to get ahead of this issue with rules attempting to minimize the number of conference teams in a region. That’s easier to do with 68 teams in a field from 32 conferences. With 12 teams from primarily four conferences, the logistics prove far more difficult. Ultimately, conference commissioners are willing to deal with the weirdness. — Jeyarajah 

10. Bracket reveal changes

The ESPN broadcast on Selection Sunday often jokes that the graphics operator is the most powerful man in college football for a few minutes; he is the only one who knows the full reveal. With the field growing to 12 and a wildly more complicated system now in place, the graphical minds of the CFP become the stars of the show. 

ESPN has historically released a top six on Selection Sunday — the four CFP teams and first two out. The CFP chair, which will be Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel in 2024, then goes out for an interview, and the full rankings are not released until later. With a 12-team CFP field and a Group of Five team that is likely to be outside of the top 12, releasing a small snippet might not cut it anymore. 

Additionally, the broadcast has some flexibility to release teams in order for dramatic effect. In this field, the top four are the most predictable. Would the CFP prefer the bracket to be released in a different order? Will ESPN release the full rankings and then move over for seedings? How they handle the reveal could determine whether fans ultimately understand how the field works. 

Sources told CBS Sports that the CFP and ESPN are still mulling options on how to present the final bracket. Some of the delay for releasing the whole field historically also centers around contacting New Year’s Six bowls to let them know the logistics. All of that will have to move much faster when 12 teams are on the hook. — Jeyarajah 





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