A four-man working group examining the College Football Playoff recommended Thursday an expansion of that playoff from four to 12 teams, a milestone amid years of speculation about how the seven-year-old playoff might grow.
“After reviewing numerous options, we believe this proposal is the best option to increase participation, enhance the regular season and grow the national excitement of college football,” the working group said in a statement. It stated that no conference could qualify automatically and that there would be no limit upon the entries from any one conference in any given season.
The recommendation came after considerable study the past two years and especially recent months by Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick and Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson. Their recommendation will go now to at least one committee and potentially to two in the balance of June: the 11-member College Football Playoff management committee, which includes conference commissioners plus Swarbrick, will meet June 17-18 in Chicago, and the 11-member College Football Playoff board of managers, made up of university presidents, which will meet June 22 in Dallas.
Any approved changes from those two gatherings would not affect the coming season but would only initiate a further period of research that would not beat the summer to conclusion. Any pinpointing of a season for any future reformatting remains distantly unclear.
The 12-team concept would seem to solve two of the national misgivings about the four-team concept by widening the possibilities for geographical variety for an event lately tilted heavily to the Southeast and by expanding the openings for members of the so-named Group of Five, the tier of the sport just beneath the 65-team Power Five.
Under this suggested format, playoff berths would have gone in recent years to Group of Five teams that won their conferences but did not rank higher than No. 8 because of inferior schedules, such as No. 8 Cincinnati (9-0) in 2020, No. 17 Memphis (12-1) in 2019, No. 8 Central Florida (12-0) in 2018, No. 12 UCF (12-0) in 2017 and even No. 15 Western Michigan (13-0) in 2016. In that 2016 season, for example, Western Michigan ranked among conference champions behind No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 4 Washington, No. 5 Penn State and No. 7 Oklahoma. The other nine teams ahead of Western Michigan did not win their conferences.
The original television contract with ESPN in 2014 called for 12 seasons of four-team playoffs, carrying into 2025. At that point, the sport had broken away from the controversial Bowl Championship Series method of choosing a national champion, involving two teams chosen for one title game based on human and computer tabulations.
As the four-team playoff has sprouted from nascent to familiar, it too has become the subject of national debate, owing to the repeated appearances by certain programs, with Alabama and Clemson appearing six times each. In April, the working group had examined myriad possibilities, including various scenarios involving various playoff sizes ranging from six teams to 16.
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