Marc Daniels: The Future Of The College Football Playoff


It will be a routine meeting and done virtually. Little, if any, news will come from the meeting. It will be covered and it will be business as usual for the College Football Playoff.

On Tuesday, the committee will connect and do a routine roundup of business. There are no items on the agenda regarding expansion, change in format or selection process. Those on the committee and its leader Bill Hancock will tell you the current system works and they believe the format is just fine. And so on to the 2021 season we go with the same process where the committee will pick four teams for the playoff.

But change is coming. It is not a question of if, but when. But the when may not be until 2026. That is when the new media deal will kick in. The current contract with ESPN runs through the 2025 season. Despite many believing change has to happen sooner, don't bank on that. I mean bank literally- as in money....millions...or billions. 

It doesn't mean that ESPN will not have competition for the next deal but coming out of a pandemic and learning the new media world and viewing habits means networks want a little more time to figure out what they are bidding for and how they will distribute the content. But the power of the almighty dollar will play a huge role in the change of format from what we currently have.

ESPN, FOX and anyone else that bids on the new contract will have a say in whether the playoff expands and by how many. They will be the ones paying for it. And look around, you will see where all sports are trying to keep their fans and find new ones. All sports are looking at ways to make their game more appealing. MLB added more wild card teams. The NBA has given us the play-in round for the playoffs and the NFL added two more wild card teams. Those decisions were based on money and the notion that more markets will be engaged deeper into the season.

The season-long debate in college football of which four teams are playoff worthy does generate discussion all season. But by the time we reach November, we are down to six, maybe eight teams that truly have a chance. What if that debate doubled? And what if that debate tripled? That doesn't mean I think the playoff will become a 16-24 team event. But I do think a new formula will give more teams a chance.

We will not want to see 9-4 or 8-5 teams make the playoff? Not likely, but the possibility of such a scenario happening won't make us watch less because it would be a rare event- just like a team making the NFL Playoffs with a losing record.

So let's thrown an idea at you of what the 2026 college football season and post-season may look like:

--ESPN retains the rights to the playoff and will pay more than double the current price because the event will have significantly more teams.

--Assuming there is no breakaway from the Power 5 leagues(and I believe they are not going anywhere), the new format guarantees each conference champion a spot in the playoff. It would still be up to each league to decide how they want to choose a champion. Some may stick with their divisional model while others prefer to have their top two teams play in a title game. If a conference with a divisional setup has a 8-4 team win their side and win the title, then at 9-4, they make the playoff.

--The playoff expands to 11 teams. We have the P5 champs and six other spots to fill.

--In the next five years a G5 team is likely to run the table and finish 13-0. And that team is likely to still be left out of the four-team playoff. It's possible UCF, Cincinnati or Louisiana win 26 games in a row and the committee feels pressure to place them in the four-team field. But a new model guarantees not one, but two playoff spots. The committee will choose the top two G5 conference champions who will play in a wild card game. The winner advances to the quarterfinals of the playoff. 

--Five P5 champs and two G5 champs gives us seven teams. Where do the other four teams come from? The committee will pick the four best at-large teams from any conference. If the SEC has a 12-1 loser of its title game and another 11-1 team that are the four best non-automatic qualifiers, then the committee could pick them.

So now that we have 11 teams, how do we playout this new format:

--The week after conference title games becomes the College Football Playoff Wild Card weekend- it features three games that pit the top two G5 champions against each other and the other two games are the four at-large teams ranked by the committee. This format guarantees a G5 team a spot in the quarterfinals and if the payout of this new model is like the NCAA Basketball Tournament- each game means more money and therefore the G5 would be guaranteed at least two playoff games a year. Where do we play these games? I don't care. If you want to play them on campus after you seed the teams, fine. If you want a neutral site, that's fine. Let your media partner decide what is best for ratings and sponsors

--The quarterfinals are played the third weekend in December. Let the committee pre-seed teams before wild card weekend, or reseed teams after wild card weekend. But the committee should determine the top 4 teams before the playoff begins and those four are rewarded with a home game. I know that weekend is usually a weekend for graduations all across the country. Cool. Money talks as students talk. Let media execs and conference commissioners and school presidents worry about conflicts. 

--The two semifinal games are played on New Year's Day, just like it currently is and the title game is that second Monday in January.

If you are thinking that a team that plays on wild card weekend, would end up playing 17 games if it made it to the title game and that is just too much. You might be right. Currently a team that wins the national title plays 15 games. To the best of my knowledge and research, no team in the playoff lost a high number of players in games 13 or 14 to injuries before playing in the championship game. Any expansion of the current playoff format, to an eight team tournament, means teams would be playing 16 games and if we all believe an expansion is coming, what are we really arguing about?

What happens to bowls if an idea like this actually happened? Great question. I love bowls and if you don't you don't have to watch. I know people in the bowl business and they do great work and give back to their communities. And maybe a few bowls remain that are played over the holiday season. ESPN loves bowls so much they own and operate most of the second and third level bowls. It provides programming content for them during the holiday and if they would like to keep a few bowls so the 9-3, 8-4 and 7-5 teams could still play a bowl game then do it.

But I also see the future of bowls moving to the beginning of the season. The NFL has made it clear they want no part of Labor Day Weekend. The new NFL media contract shows the NFL season starting the week after Labor Day. So I see major bowl games moving to that weekend. We have a number of great cities that already host neutral site games and try and pit the best possible matchups. If the committee does it part and rewards teams that play a tough schedule, schools will not shy away from September bowl games.

The Rose Bowl should always be played at 4:30p on January 1st. But times are changing and traditions are in jeopardy. So how about the Big Ten and Pac 12 champs from the previous year get rewarded by playing in the Rose Bowl the following year to start the season? The same thing can be done with current contractual partnerships in the Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Fiesta. And yes, the Group of 5 team that won that wild card would be guaranteed a spot in one of the major bowl games the following season.

In Orlando, the Citrus Bowl could still pit one of the top teams from the SEC against a Big Ten team and have fans travel to central Florida for a holiday weekend. Some bowls may not survive such a change, but there may be too many bowls trying to survive now. 

The idea of this type of change is big and yet bold. If we all believe the playoff will expand, why not expand for all and not just to go to eight at-large teams. Make a conference championship have value. Four at-large teams gives many programs a chance late in the season and keeps their fans engaged. And this model not only gives a G5 team a chance but two teams and one of the two will play a second playoff game.

Is this format perfect? No. But it's pretty darn good. Are there flaws to this model? Of course. But I think change is coming and it won't be a simple "add a few more teams." It's an opportunity to change the model of college football. This plan gives more teams a chance and more fanbases a reason to care. Each year that passes in the current playoff era, we have focused on who the four teams might be. By early November, we are talking about 6-8 teams. In this suggested model, 24-30 teams would be talking about a playoff spot. Like all the other sports I mentioned earlier, changing your post-season to get more markets to care deeper into the season is good for business. This idea would be good for business.

In the end, it is always about money and there will be plenty of money in the new contract. In the new Name, Image and Likeness era we will adapt to the many changes coming to the game. It's the perfect time to go radical.

Go big! Go bold! The future of the College Football Playoff is a few years off, but it's the perfect time to make bigger better.

Final thought: The first ever bowl game was the 1902 Rose Bowl, then called the "Tournament East-West Football Game". The game was played to help fund the Rose Parade.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


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