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What’s the ideal number of college football playoff teams?

In Sports
January 04, 2024

This calendar year, we’ll see the advent of the 12-team college football playoff, kicking off at four campuses a few days before Christmas. It’s a massive expansion from the current four-team model, which wraps up Monday night when Michigan faces Washington. But the 12-team playoff is only set for the next two years. After that, who knows? Let’s run down the options.

Four teams

The deal: As it turns out, four is a really good number for ensuring some absolute playoff heaters. Both semifinal games were thrillers, and the championship looks like it will be more of the same.

The likelihood of it happening: Again, you mean? None. Power 5 schools feeding into a four-team playoff always had the possibility for chaos; it’s just the CFP’s luck that it didn’t show up for 10 years. But after this year’s CFP left out undefeated Florida State and world-beating Georgia, no way anyone goes back to the four-team model.

Teams in this year: You already know this. Michigan, Washington, Texas, Alabama.

Eight teams

The deal: This is probably the optimal limit to ensure reasonably competitive games in the first round. The transfer portal and NIL incentives will distribute talent enough to make upsets possible, even likely in some cases. Beyond eight teams, the talent distribution will get thinner and thinner.

The likelihood: Nonexistent now that the 12-team playoff is in place. Nobody’s leaving the revenue from those extra four games on the table now. Plus, an eight-team framework doesn’t leave room for a Group of 5 conference champion to make the field.

Teams in this year: All of the above, plus Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State and Oregon

Starting next season, it's going to be a lot harder to earn one of these. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Starting next season, it’s going to be a lot harder to earn one of these. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

12 teams

The deal: The system that will debut later this year. Top four teams get a bye; top six conference champions are automatically admitted. First round will be at the home field of the higher seed, starting just before Christmas. Plus, there won’t be an exclusion debate on the level of FSU this season, since no one’s going to get as worked up over a 12-vs.-13 question.

The likelihood: Well, it’s here, so the likelihood of it happening is 100 percent, at least for the next two years. These playoff games will make gobs of money, and then you know exactly what will happen next.

Teams in this year: All of the above, plus Missouri, Penn State, Ole Miss and either Oklahoma or Liberty, depending on how many conference champions are admitted.

16 teams

The deal: The 12-team solution rewards the top four teams with an opening-round bye. It’s only a matter of time before the powers-that-be in college football decide they’d rather reward themselves with an extra four games’ worth of sweet, sweet broadcast revenue.

The likelihood: It’ll happen eventually. The financial incentive, plus the fact that expansion won’t require an extra week of the calendar, will become just too much to deny. Look to the NFL, which in recent years has added an entire extra week to the season, plus an extra playoff team, with no discernible blowback.

Teams in this year: All of the above, plus LSU, Arizona, Louisville and also Notre Dame, which by itself is reason to expect a 16-team playoff sooner than later.

64 teams

The deal: The late, great Mike Leach spent decades advocating for a 64-team playoff. All it would require is college football to either totally revamp its schedule or add an extra month to the calendar. Seems doable.

The likelihood: Six weeks of playoff football! Who says no? Plus, this would be a way to get Colorado into the playoff, so you never know.

Teams in this year: All of the above, plus a bunch of 5- and 6-loss chum.

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