- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
To see how a new development might affect the future, take a look at how it would have affected the past. That’s a go-to of mine — see: how larger playoffs would have worked in 2020 or how a much bigger, earlier playoff would have affected things — and with the long-awaited news that we will be moving toward a 12-team playoff in 2026, we have a reason to dip into that well once more.
I had never really paid much attention to a 12-team format until it arose as an option last summer. An eight-teamer — six conference champions with two at-large bids — had long seemed like an inclusive, interesting and logical next step. But as it turns out, a 12-teamer works quite well in terms of political calibration.
A 12-team playoff, with six spots guaranteed for conference champions, not only offers playoff paths to at least one team from the Group of Five conferences; it also assures that as the balance of power shifts within the Power Five — with the Big Ten and SEC acquiring more and more money and influence at the expense of the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC — the winners of each of those conferences will have a place at the table in most seasons. It assures that college football’s national title race is actually inclusive for just about the first time ever.
But it also assures that the most powerful conferences and teams benefit massively from extra at-large bids. And the news that quarterfinal games would take place in bowl games (presumably the four New Year’s Six bowls that don’t host semifinals in a given year) instead of home fields conveniently allows the most influential bowls to remain relevant. We lose home-field atmospheres, but a game like the Rose Bowl, with its influence weakened and wobbly after the Big Ten kneecapped the Pac-12, is still assured a marquee spot in the lineup long-term. (Who knows, maybe it begins to host the Big Ten Championship in the future, too.)
To best learn about what a 12-teamer changes, however, let’s hop in the simulation machine.
Below are how each of the past eight College Football Playoffs would have taken shape with 12 teams instead of four. I used the playoff committee’s rankings as they existed — there’s a distinct possibility that the committee considers teams differently with a 12-team cutoff instead of four, but we won’t know what the changes are for a while. I also worked under the aforementioned assumption that the quarterfinals will take place in four New Year’s Six bowls, with the semifinals taking place in the same bowls that hosted the four-team semis. I simulated each playoff using my SP+ rankings, and I’m including each playoff team’s odds of reaching the semifinals below, as well as the most likely champions each season. (Why semifinal odds? Because I want to see what might have changed compared to the four-team playoff that we actually got.)
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