Imagine a college football playoff future: Rather than all the important final games being held at warm-weather neutral sites, an expanded tournament has early rounds in which the higher seeds host their opponents at home, on their own college campuses. We’ll see Floridian teams dealing with mid-December snow in Columbus, Ohio. The Midwest finally has an advantage! Probably not enough to make up for the South having better football players, but still! Snow! Look how much fun they have in lower-level college football playoffs, having important games outdoors in Montana and everything, and imagine that energy in 90,000 seat stadiums. Hooray, college campuses! Now let’s leave them and play the next round in Glendale, Arizona!
This bizarre vision may soon become reality.
For seven years now, we’ve all agreed to refer to a four-team competition as a “playoff.” College football’s two-round championship is technically a tournament, sure, in the way that Vatican City is technically a country.
The four-team invitational has been so tiny and exclusive, its name—the College Football Playoff—has always felt sarcastic. You know how, every March, sports websites compete to publish the most Google search–friendly “printable march madness bracket”? The College Football Playoff’s bracket fits on a Post-It note with room to spare.
But last week, the College Football Playoff announced its management committee will discuss expanding the tournament at meetings in July. So there’s a ways to go to iron out the details of an expansion plan—and before any of this is officially happening.
Still, it seems likely that soon—thanks to television revenue confirming that people enjoy watching good teams compete for real stakes—top-level college football will eventually start holding an annual 12-team championship that works something like a regular postseason tournament. This would change the sport in ways that go beyond just the size of the bracket.
Under the proposal, the 12-team tournament would include automatic bids for the six highest-ranked conference champions, and since there are only five power conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC—this would guarantee at least one playoff spot for a nonpower champ.
The tourney would still stage most of its biggest games at bowls like the Rose and Sugar, rather than reward higher-seeded teams with home games like a normal sport. The new exception: Under the reported proposal, the first round of games would be home games.
In the 12-team playoff’s opening round, we would get tantalizing peeks at what a college football playoff could really be. This sport has some of the biggest, loudest, and most depraved crowds in the world. No venue in American pro sports can come close to a full Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge at night.
College football is a series of 19th-century parts held together by spackle, replaced only piecemeal and only when absolutely necessary.
But the only teams who would get to host any games would be seeds 5 through 9, because the top four seeds would have first-round byes. Sometimes, it might be better to finish No. 5 than No. 4, because at least the No. 5 team would be favored to win one playoff game, and winning a playoff game looks nice on the recruiting mailers.
Quite a messy system. But this is actually tidier than anything top-level college football has ever had before. For 152 years, the sport has usually determined its champion based on the opinions of old guys with neckties, whether they’re AP Poll voters, sports historians, BCS computer programmers, or Playoff committee members.
This has often worked fine, somehow. As long as you ignore little stuff like teams from smaller conferences rarely having any viable paths to a title, most of those 152 seasons technically having multiple national champions, and the general weirdness of trying to cram a logical championship system into the mystery festival that is bowl season.
The micro-tournament’s expansion into an actual tournament should finally render some of that stuff obsolete.
For the first time ever, every team in the country would begin the season with the knowledge that an undefeated season means a chance to win it all. After decades of thinking about college football, it still feels bonkers that this wasn’t already the case. Even the New York Jets technically begin each season eligible to win the Super Bowl, but for well over a century, college football has told half of Division I’s top level to be content with fighting over, like, a trip to the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl for a semi-glorified exhibition.
In the 12-team playoff, sometimes, we’d even see more than one nonpower make the cut. In 2020, Pac-12 champ Oregon ranked way behind small-conference champs Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina. At least a couple times in the 2000s, the ACC would’ve missed this 12-team tournament.
This would all be shockingly meritocratic for such an oligarchic sport, even if the suits are just trying to avoid yet another antitrust lawsuit. And yeah, the embiggened tournament will likely still be won by Nick Saban, but at least the recruiting and branding exposure that comes from making the tournament would spread beyond the current mainstays like Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma.
The 12-team setup would also make it even harder for anyone besides the winner of the Playoff to declare itself a national champion.
2017’s UCF squad, for example, finished undefeated and had a No. 1 ranking in a former BCS computer that the NCAA still recognized as one of many title selectors, but the school hadn’t been chosen to play in the four-team Playoff. So UCF decided to spend the summer throwing itself parades, claiming a split championship with Playoff winner Alabama. And based on decades of college football precedent—including bullshit old titles claimed by Bama itself—this ridiculous stunt was perfectly fair. But under the expansion, the UCFs of the world would actually have to beat the Alabamas in order to have legit title claims (which yes, may be more like a curse than a gift).
Anyway, great, right? College football would no longer be weird! Nice try—it might become even weirder.
Chiefly, the sport’s reliance on a centuries-old amateurism model would be even more surreal and amoral than ever before. Unpaid student-athletes might have to play as many as 17 brutal games in order to win a championship. It was just 12 as recently as the 1990s. The extra games will also mean even more millions of dollars pocketed by everyone involved—except the athletes playing those games. Every time we think we’ve made college football as shameful as we possibly can, we discover whole new realms of shamelessness.
Also, because of that vestigial bowl system, the sport’s postseason would look even more like a half-abandoned Frankenstein. As soon as the games matter most, college football will keep trying to reroute all its local passion from the competing universities to places like Santa Clara, California, pretending that’s a cool and fun idea for anyone.
That means FBS college football’s new postseason would include glorified exhibitions, playoff games at home stadiums, and playoff games at neutral sites named after glorified exhibitions.
Why? Why not just get rid of bowls and have a playoff like every other sport’s? Or go the other way, get rid of the playoff, and pick the two title contenders from among bowl winners (this is the actual good idea)? Why not try anything other than having two postseasons at once?
Because college football is a series of 19th-century parts held together by spackle, replaced only piecemeal and only when absolutely necessary. One of those parts is the Rose Bowl, once the sport’s first-ever Big Deal and still its Valhalla. It took decades for the rest of the sport to convince the Rose Bowl and its partners to go along with even a proto-BCS, let alone a tournament. It was only then that other big bowls like the Sugar and Orange managed to wriggle onto the Rose’s special pedestal.
But finally getting a few playoff games on campus stadiums really clarifies how dumb the bowl-playoff hybrid has always been.
And of all the ways the 12-team tournament will make this oddball sport just a little bit weirder, one small wrinkle might be the funniest of all: The rest of college football decided that in the 12-team playoff, conference independents like Notre Dame won’t be eligible for any of the top-four byes, meaning the Irish could end up hosting playoff games quite regularly. At last, we’ve found a way for Notre Dame to actually win important postseason games.
Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.