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College Football Playoff Expansion — What does it mean for the previously excluded?

An inside look at proposed College Football Playoff expansion, and how it affects the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

Cincinnati v Central Florida Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

“Who’s In?”

It’s the slogan that has reverberated every August since 2014. As 130 teams prepare to kick off each college football season, there is manufactured perception that late August to early December is a three-and-a-half month grind for all 130 teams to end up in the 4-team College Football Playoff. Except, seven years of College Football Playoff evidence suggest that roughly half of teams in the sport are eliminated from contention before the season even kicks off.

When UCF won 25-straight games and couldn’t even sniff the top 6, or when a 1-loss Louisiana lagged nine spots in the rankings behind a 3-loss Iowa State team that they beat by 17, fans of teams in the American Conference and Sun Belt, among others, began to question the possibility of appearing in the College Football Playoff.

But the implied exclusion of five conferences from the playoff is not the only reason college football fans support expansion. Through seven years, the playoff has been monopolized by a triumvirate of titans. Of the 21 College Football Playoff games since the event’s inauguration, 18 of them have been won by Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. Only 11 programs achieved a berth in the 4-team field in seven years, and many fanbases have been fatigued of the same matchups dominating the annual showcase.

The College Football Playoff management committee broke news Friday that it proposed a structural change to the event. The committee, composed of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, is considering expansion from a 4-team format to a 12-team format.

“This proposal at its heart was created to provide more participation for more players and more schools,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said. “In a nutshell, that is the working group’s message: More participation.”

The proposal for expansion will be reviewed at a meeting next week in Chicago. If approved, a study period is set to take place over the summer, and the decision to implement the playoff will be finalized in September at the earliest. The current 4-team format will be utilized for the upcoming 2021 season.

“We probably underestimated — ‘we’ being the A5 commissioners — how difficult it was to be on the outside looking in on a four-team playoff,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “I think that was a factor. There was certainly lots of consternation around those of us that were left out at one time or the other, so I think that was an element of it.”

Under the 12-team format, the six highest-ranked conference champions are guaranteed automatic bids, and the other six slots are reserved for the next six highest ranked teams. The top four highest ranked conference champions will receive first-round byes. No conference is guaranteed an automatic bid and independent teams such as Notre Dame and BYU are ineligible for the bye. The bracket will not be reseeded, thus, the #1 seed will always match up against the winner of the #8 vs. #9 game, etc.

Six conference champions is groundbreaking news to teams of the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt. Four of these five conferences produced an undefeated regular season team in the prior seven years, yet none of these conferences sent a representative into the playoff. Thus, one of these five conferences is guaranteed a slot under the 12-team format, which significantly improves upon theory that all 130 teams control their own destiny for a national championship.

“From my perspective, it was an appropriate trade-off to get a model that I thought was the right one for college football,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “Even though we don’t play in a conference, I recognize the importance of strong conferences and providing opportunity to the G5. We wanted to do that.”

Below is a series of case studies for each conference, using seven years of committee rankings from the College Football Playoff era:

AAC Case Study

The AAC benefits from expansion more than any other conference in college football. In the seven years under the current format where one conference champion from the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, or Sun Belt receives an automatic New Year’s Six bowl bid, the AAC has nearly monopolized that bid. The AAC champion has participated in a New Year’s Six bowl in five of the seven seasons, including every year since 2017.

Under the proposed 12-team format, the AAC would have seen a litany of its teams qualify. Here is what their seeds and first-round playoff matchups would have looked like:

  • 2015 Houston Cougars: 12-seed vs. 5-seed Iowa
  • 2017 UCF Knights: 12-seed vs. 5-seed Alabama
  • 2018 UCF Knights: 8-seed vs. 9-seed Washington
  • 2019 Memphis Tigers: 12-seed vs. 5-seed Georgia
  • 2020 Cincinnati Bearcats: 8-seed vs. 9-seed Georgia

C-USA Case Study

Unfortunately for the C-USA, the 12-team playoff format would not have changed the conference’s playoff participation rate. The closest C-USA has been to sending a team to the New Year’s Six was 2014 Marshall, which was an overtime 2-point stop away from securing an undefeated regular season. Since 2016, the conference champion has finished with three losses each season.

MAC Case Study

The MAC thrived toward the end of the BCS era. In 2012, there was a MAC Championship Game between 1-loss Kent State and 1-loss Northern Illinois with an Orange Bowl bid on the line for the winner. But since the dawn of the CFP, only one MAC team has dominated the national spotlight — the 2016 Western Michigan Broncos. That P.J. Fleck-led program benefited massively from AAC and Mountain West struggles during the course of its undefeated regular season run and would have secured a rare bid for the conference under a 12-team format:

  • 2016 Western Michigan Broncos: 12-seed vs. 5-seed Ohio State

Mountain West Case Study

While Boise State is in the running for a New Year’s Six bid in any given year, the Mountain West shockingly has not secured one since the advent of the College Football Playoff era in 2014. The 2014 Broncos edged Marshall for the season’s sixth highest ranked conference champion and would have earned a shot at competing for a national championship in December and January:

  • 2014 Boise State Broncos: 12-seed vs. 5-seed Baylor

Sun Belt Case Study

The Sun Belt has never sent a conference champion to the New Year’s Six, yet the conference would have clinched a berth to a 12-team playoff last fall. No conference benefited more from the 2020 COVID-laden season than the Sun Belt, which finished with two teams ranked in the final AP Poll. The reigning Sun Belt co-champion Coastal Carolina landed higher than Pac-12 champion Oregon in the rankings, earning a playoff bid as the sixth highest ranked conference champion.

  • 2020 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: 12-seed vs. 5-seed Notre Dame

While there are still quirks to work out with the 12-team playoff, the current format is a promising sign to the five conferences in college football previously excluded from the dance. For nearly 130 teams, the chance to compete for a College Football Playoff national championship now feels like a possibility.