The expanded 12-team College Football Playoff is here — and it already has problems

IRVING, Texas — Inside the College Football Playoff meeting room, at a resort hotel in the posh community of Las Colinas, the industry’s most powerful leaders played a game: a bracket game.

Gathered around a table, the FBS commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director projected a 12-team playoff bracket by applying the 2022 rankings. Eight months away from a historic 2024 CFP selection day — the inaugural expanded playoff — the bracketing exercise commenced as a way to show executives the matchups, trends and perhaps even issues (we’ll get to that later) produced with a new format.

A couple hours later, a handful of reporters were ushered into the room to do the same, sitting in the exact chairs in which commissioners previously resided as outgoing CFP director Bill Hancock guided the room through the process. In front of us, a projection screen flickered to life with a bracket: a 2022 12-team playoff based on the rankings that year and considering realignment moves.

First-round matchups — at on-campus sites of the better seed — included No. 8 seed Tennessee hosting No. 9 Kansas State, No. 12 seed Tulane at No. 5 TCU, No. 10 Southern Cal at No. 7 Alabama and … No. 11 Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State.

The latter is a rematch.

That’s Problem No. 1: As it stands now, there is no CFP protocol on avoiding first-round rematches.

But before we get into details of all of the problems with a 5+7 12-team playoff format, let’s go over some ground rules about a format that can be a bit confusing.

- Rule 1: The format. The five highest-ranked conference champions earn automatic qualifying spots into the field. This will normally include a Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC and a Group of Five representative (it’s unlikely a second G5 champion would leap a P4 champion in the rankings). The highest-ranked four champions — this is important — earn the top four seeds and first-round byes. At-large spots are designated for the next seven highest-ranked teams.

- Rule 2: The rankings. These are still made by the CFP selection committee, and they will NOT necessarily align with the seeding since seeds Nos. 1-4 are reserved only for conference champions. There are plenty of examples of a conference champion being ranked lower than another conference’s second-place finisher (we get to that later).

- Rule 3: The New Year’s Six bowls host the quarterfinals and semifinals after the four first-round, on-campus games. Teams are paired with bowls in two ways: (1) traditional relationships and (2) geography.

Enough rules, let’s get to the complaints — chief among them is that no protocol exists for selection members to avoid rematches in the first round. This is a simple, solvable problem. Like the NCAA basketball tournament selection, the CFP could implement a protocol requiring first-round games to feature two teams from separate conferences when possible. With such a small field (12) and conferences steadily expanding, there may be times where it is not possible.

But for the most part, it is. Such a protocol is necessary because modeling shows that this format, combined with realignment moves, produces a lot of rematches. An entire conference dissolved, the Big 12 and SEC swelled to 16 teams and the ACC and Big Ten grew to 18.

While considering realignment, there would have been seven first-round, conference-vs.-conference rematches over the 10 years of the CFP — far too many.

Even commissioners acknowledged as much after their bracketing exercise.

“A lot of rematches,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said.

Sankey evaded repeated questions about the CFP instituting a protocol to avoid rematches, citing the current policy. But this is an easy answer: Yes, avoid rematches.

Why are we replaying a game that happened a few months, if not weeks, before?

In 2014, the 8-versus-9 game would have been a rematch between Mississippi State and Ole Miss that happened three weeks prior in the Egg Bowl. In 2018, Georgia and Florida would have been paired in the first round. In 2021, it was Baylor and Oklahoma State in the first round.

Don’t give us a sequel in the first round. Save that for later. There are three more rounds in which rematches will undoubtedly happen. Avoid the easy one. This isn’t complicated.

There are plenty of other problems with a 5+7 model.

Teams in the top four of the final rankings that did not win their conference will be forced to play a first-round game while weaker conference champions earn a bye. Is this a problem? It depends on who you ask. One of the format’s goals was to keep value in the regular season by rewarding conference champions.

For instance, in 2022, fourth-ranked Ohio State — a non-champion — would have been seeded No. 6 while Big 12 champion Utah, ranked No. 8, would have gotten the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye. In 2021, No. 12 Pitt, the ACC champion, would have gotten a bye as the No. 4 seed while being ranked lower than eight at-large teams.

But perhaps the most pressing issue sure to arise with the new 12-team bracket is a lowly ranked G5 champion’s inclusion pushing out a power league team ranked in the top 12. Only three times in the last 10 years would the top 12 ranked teams have all made the field.

In 2022, Tulane, ranked No. 16, would have advanced into the playoff as the Group of Five’s highest-ranked champion. The 12-seeded Green Wave would have pushed out 12th-ranked Washington. In 2019, No. 15 Memphis, the G5’s highest-ranked champion, would have gotten a bid over Notre Dame, Penn State and Utah.

The expanded playoff brings with it a new set of problems for college football's leaders. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The expanded playoff brings with it a new set of problems for college football's leaders. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In 2015, Navy would have earned the G5 bid into the field as the No. 21st-ranked team in the country. Last year, No. 23-ranked Liberty would have gotten in (Oregon beat that team 45-6 in the Fiesta Bowl, by the way.)

The latest realignment wave has left the G5 as a weakened division. Its most high-resourced programs — Houston, UCF and Cincinnati — are now in the Big 12. SMU is in the ACC.

The selection committee will be faced with the real possibility that no G5 team — even its best champion — is ranked. The question emerged during the bracket exercise, and Hancock confirmed that the protocol is for the committee to choose the best G5 champion among the five league winners — a G5 ranking of sorts.

Imagine a G5 champion that is not ranked in the top 25 earning a bid over more than 10 power conference programs ranked higher than it? It could happen. Sankey reminded reporters after the bracket exercise that such a circumstance is the result of the format decision to award auto bids to the top five conference champions instead of the top four.

Want some more complaining? The top four seeds — all having first-round byes — don’t get to host a playoff game. Bowls begin hosting in the quarterfinal round, a gripe from some fan bases and athletic directors who want to extend the on-campus games to the quarters as well (that isn’t in the plans, at least not in the immediate future).

Gripes, complaints, criticisms, there are plenty to go around. The bottom line: A true multi-team, multi-round playoff is coming to college football. That is historic, unprecedented and exciting.

But, please, let’s avoid rematches!