All of a sudden, College Football Playoff expansion talk has exploded. There’s even some substance to it. This isn’t just fans chattering online about how the four-team format doesn’t work or is inherently unfair. This is actually coming from Bill Hancock and the CFP, who mentioned that expansion to the Playoff was discussed during spring meetings at the end of a press release.
There are two pretty impactful points to this. The first is that the powers that be are actually considering expansion, despite normally smiling and saying they’re very happy with how the system is currently set up. The second, and perhaps more interesting point, is that they are discussing different potential lengths, including 6, 8, 10, 12, and 16 team formats. Rumors are that the 12 team format is what is quickly becoming the most popular option.
A 12 team Playoff would be a pretty major leap. It has been assumed that the next step for the Playoff would to go to 8 teams. In that format, most people think that the odds are that all five Power Five conferences would get auto-bids into the Playoff, while the top-ranked Group of FIve team would get in, along with two at-large teams. This, superficially, seems like a good deal for the AAC who as the top of the G5 would normally get that bid.
That’s a pretty good deal for the American, but would a 12-team playoff be any better?
This begins by figuring out what a 12-team playoff actually looks like. First things first, in any 12-team playoff, the top-four teams are going to be getting a bye week, no matter what. That’s just how math works. A bracket would break down into a basic 5 vs 12, 6 vs 11, etc. in the first round before they go on to play the teams that were given a bye week.
What’s more interesting, however, is how qualifications are going to work the Playoff. There are a few possibilities, some of which are even realistic. The first, which will not happen, is every FBS conference getting a bid and there being two at-large spots. That won’t be happening, so don’t hold your breath.
More realistically, there are essentially two options. The first is having a system of 12 at-large bids. Essentially, that’s what we have now, but with extra teams involved. The other option would be to include the conference champion for every P5 conference and the best G5 team. In this scenario, there would be six at-large teams who make it to the Playoff. It’s hard to see a scenario where the G5 doesn’t get a bid of any kind in an expanded Playoff. After all, it seems like an anti-trust lawsuit waiting to happen.
So, what system would actually be better for the AAC?
At a superficial level, it seems like they’re just about the same for the conference. As long as the top G5 team gets an auto-bid, the AAC is the most likely conference to get that bid annually. So, whether they’re given an 8 seed or a 12 seed, what’s the difference?
The difference is the likelihood of winning a game in the Playoff. Generally speaking, the semifinal games have been blowouts during the College Football Playoff era. In the entire history of the CFP, there has been three semifinal games within 10 points. That’s horribly uncompetitive, and it probably won’t be changing, even if we really want the underdog to win in an 8 team format.
The gap between teams 5 and 12 is much smaller in most seasons, however. Realistically, for the AAC and every other G5 conference, this is a more winnable matchup. Winning that game once in a while is almost as important as making it, because it justifies being given a seat at the table.
In shorter terms, the most important thing for the AAC is that any expanded model includes a G5 auto-bid (or maybe even an AAC auto-bid, if you want to open that can of worms). This will let the National Championship be decided on the field and will negate the need for a school like UCF to claim a National Championship. Secondarily, however, pushing the Playoff to 12 games offers the best opportunity to advance to the second round.