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12-team CFP: Why can’t Notre Dame earn a bye and other questions

FILE National Championship Football
Posted at 11:34 PM, Jun 11, 2021

The College Football Playoff has a plan to expand to 12 teams.

The plan is neither final nor finalized, but there is a good chance what the CFP unveiled Thursday is going to be very close to what is implemented.

When? Good question and one of several that needs to be addressed after college football managed to make huge news in the middle of June.

Q: So, when is this happening?

A: There are still a couple steps left to get approval of the plan, which ultimately needs to be green lit by a committee of university presidents. If there are no snags, the plan can become officially official sometime this fall.

When the 12-team playoff would go into effect is probably the biggest unanswered question. Definitely not this season, and CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock has said 2022 is too soon. That leaves 2023 as the earliest possible season.

The latest? That would be 2026, after the current 12-year deal with ESPN runs out.

ESPN officials have made it clear in the past that they would be happy to accommodate any CFP format, but a bigger playoff is going to demand more than the $470 million per year the network is currently paying for two semifinals, a championship game and four other marquees bowl games.

The new format would have 11 games with national title implications per season instead of just three.

ESPN might jump at the opportunity to exclusively negotiate with the CFP and extend its deal well past the current 2025-26 season expiration date. But is it ready right now to pay triple?

Is the CFP better off waiting it out and bringing the new format to the open market, where competition can drive up the price? Or maybe take the NFL approach and have the multiple playoff network partners?

When there are answers to those questions, we’ll know when the 12-team playoff will be implemented.

Q: Why play the quarterfinals in bowls instead of on campus?

A: The proposal calls for first-round games involving teams seeded 5-12 to be played on the campus at the team with better ranking. Those games will be played in mid-December.

The highest ranked teams, Nos. 1-4 — which all have to be conference champions —- get byes to the quarterfinals to be played on or near New Year’s Day, but no home games. They’ll only be playing at neutral sites —- as many as three if they make it title game.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby mentioned concerns about playing playoff games in winter weather up north and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said hosting on short-notice in January could be difficult for some college towns.

“I think we’ve always honored the sanctity and the tradition of the bowl environment, and we have consistently either through the four-team playoff or the New Year’s Six games honored that and tried to do things that help everybody in the bowl and college football ecosystem,” Bowlsby said.

The 12-team playoff is the most aggressively forwarded-thinking move in the history of college football’s postseason. Designing it around bowl games has the feel of building a space ship from the parts of wood-paneled station wagon.

But it’s important to note, using the six bowl games to host the quarterfinals and semifinals could help expedite the transition from four to 12.

The CFP already uses a rotation of six bowls — Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Peach and Cotton —- to host the semifinals. In the new format, each of those games could be a playoff game every year.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said this format will allow college football to “reassert ownership” of New Year’s Day.

And sentiment and tradition aside, game management becomes a lot easier if the sites of the quarterfinals are predetermined.

Q: Did the Notre Dame athletic director just help create a system where the Fighting Irish can never be a top-four seed and earn a bye?

A: Yes, he did.

“I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game or don’t have a conference championship,” Swarbrick said.

Notre Dame wants to be an independent, which means it will not play on the first weekend of December when most playoff contenders are playing their 13th game for a conference championship.

Swarbrick said the tradeoff works for Notre Dame. Instead of getting a bye to the quarterfinals, the best the Irish can do is a home game as the No. 5 seed with a guaranteed extra week of rest.

“I do think it’s helpful to us to be able to say, look, Alabama put its position at risk in its title game, or Oklahoma put its position at risk in its conference title game. We’re doing the same thing in the first round,” Swarbrick said.

The Irish have not won a national title since 1988. To end that drought in a 12-team format it will have to win four playoff games. But with six at-large spots available, getting into the playoff shouldn’t be too tough for the Irish.

Q: Is this good for the teams outside the Power Five conferences that never had a realistic shot at the four-team playoff?

A: Definitely. With the six highest-ranked conference champions guaranteed a spot that means at least one team from the Group of Five will be in the field of 12 and the door is open to more.

Last season, for example, the Pac-12 champion was ranked behind both the American Athletic Conference champ Cincinnati and Sun Belt champ Coastal Carolina.

“This proposal, which treats all FBS conferences equally, has real merit,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said in a statement. “Under this plan, we would have made the Playoff in five of the seven years of the Playoff era. It affirms our P6 positioning.”

But don’t get too excited, G5 fans. Since the CFP was implemented in 2014, using the final selection committee rankings as a guide, 2020 was the only season more than one Group of Five team would have made the proposed 12-team format.

Q: A 12-team playoff could result in teams playing 16 or even 17 games. Is that a concern?

A: The commissioners who put the plan together were quick to point out that most of the teams involved would end up playing the same number of games — 13 or 14 — that top teams already play in a typical season.

But there is no denying that at a time when more attention than ever is on the health and well-being of unpaid athletes, asking even a few teams to play more games than ever will draw criticism.

“To add opportunities to the postseason playoff adds games,” Sankey said. “One can observe, this is too many, that’s not enough — whether that’s opportunities or games. That’s always going to be there.”