The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football’s latest idea is an overdue marriage of opportunity and greed

After the expanded playoff arrives, Florida’s win over Utah wouldn’t close any doors. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

In college football, change usually comes at the expense of charm. Not this time. For once, the gluttons of the game will gobble up money while creating the kind of accessible, national postseason tournament the sport has lacked.

No decisions are ever ideal in this decentralized mess of unchecked regional power and paternalistic attitudes intended to maintain profits, even as the amateur sports model decays. But on occasion, the leaders come up for air and make something better. That’s what happened with the announcement last week that the College Football Playoff will expand from four to 12 teams by 2026 at the latest.

It remains to be seen whether this resolution leads to conference stability and dissuades the SEC and Big Ten from poaching more programs. It should slow the movement, though. There’s still the matter of how all the playoff revenue will be split now that the postseason television inventory jumps from three games to 11. But what matters most to loyal followers of the sport is that there are more pathways to the big show. It means more teams will have hope — and more people will be glued to the drama.

In sports, parity is more layered than we usually acknowledge. There is both parity of results and parity of opportunity. College football doesn’t have a parity problem simply because 12 of the past 16 champions have come from the SEC. Dominant teams, conferences and divisions emerge and create temporary imbalance in every league, including the parity-driven NFL. The difference is that other sports are structured better to ensure these dynasties and powerful coalitions have their excellence challenged.

College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams as early as 2024

It’s likely that, no matter the setup, Nick Saban would have led Alabama to six national titles. However, the Crimson Tide has owned an era in which just eight programs have won a championship since 2006. Alabama’s greatness is clear because it’s the only one to capture more than two. But in the current structure — which, at least, has been better than the Bowl Championship Series or the long bygone days in which the consensus top teams didn’t even meet at the end — most of the nation is still so blocked from opportunity that you’re left to make some level of assumption when declaring a team the national champion.

That title demands a national competition. The four-team playoff has been a perfunctory nod to the need. It has been an elite invitational, not a true tournament, and it was always meant to be expanded. It made no sense to describe college football’s top division as consisting of five power conferences, yet tout a playoff that didn’t account for that. For the past eight years, it has been a decent substitute, an improvement from the way things were. But the SEC earned nearly one-third of the bids, and four conferences (the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12) combined for 28 of the 32 invitations.

The Pac-12, dubbed one of the Power Five, has had two teams make it. Notre Dame, the tradition-rich independent, has made one appearance. Cincinnati, representing the American Athletic Conference, crashed the party last season.

Has it been indicative of the very best teams? Sure, that’s safe to assume. But a tournament that is supposed to represent the entire country should be broad enough to do so.

The new 12-team format will give automatic bids to the top six conference champions. So, if the strength of the Power Five remains the same, it ensures one champion from these other five conferences will get in: the AAC, Conference USA, the Mid-American, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt. Then there will be six at-large teams, which figure to be dominated by the SEC and Big Ten after their new additions turn them into super conferences.

There are plenty of issues. In particular, it’s both laughable and typical that schools spent decades trying to cast their postseason expansion rigidity as concern about the health and class load of their players, only to create a season that now could last as long as 17 games for programs that go all the way. What won’t be a problem is the popular and breathless worry that a longer postseason would diminish the value of the regular season.

The importance of every game remains because the four first-round byes will be precious. You will see plenty of two-loss teams make the field, and three-loss participants could be possible at times. But if you’re thinking the rare 9-3 qualifier invalidates the regular season, you really ought to avoid the beer pong table. It’s more important to consider how a little more margin for error enriches the whole journey, possibly encourages teams to be more ambitious with their nonconference scheduling and reduces our reliance on reputation and preseason poll momentum to determine the best teams by December.

John Feinstein: College Football Playoff expansion is both good and all about the money

Last weekend, Utah went to Gainesville, Fla., to open the season against Florida. The Utes were coming off a 10-4 Rose Bowl season and ranked No. 7, their highest preseason ranking in program history. They lost, 29-26, at the Swamp. For losing a close opener at one of the toughest venues in college football, they faced questions about their playoff aspirations. Oregon, another well-regarded Pac-12 team entering the year, took a 49-3 pounding against Georgia in Atlanta. As the 2022 curtains were raised, the SEC owned the Pac-12 in two critical games of perception. And now, it doesn’t feel like the next three months really matter for West Coast football.

In the near future, there will be a better opportunity to evolve gradually, learn hard lessons during the regular season and still have a chance to play for the ultimate prize. And urgency won’t suffer much. There are 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Twelve will make the tournament. Accessibility won’t alter the difficulty of getting in. There will always be an emotionless bouncer at the door.

Accessibility will alter the difficulty of winning it all. It will take another victory — two if the team doesn’t get a bye — to hoist the trophy. That’s more room for upsets and surprises. That’s more opportunity to verify greatness in a sport that produces too many unbeaten champions to fully appreciate how special it is to go undefeated.

College football actually did something that makes itself more exciting and less exclusionary. The sport is headed toward better, for now. I would tell you to bask in it, but it’s best to stay alert.