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12-team College Football Playoff: Time to retrain our brains for a new CFP

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples06/11/24


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When I visited EA Sports last month to learn more about the return of the college football video game, principal designer Ben Haumiller pointed out something I hadn’t considered. Those playing Dynasty Mode in the video game will experience the 12-team College Football Playoff before the teams involved actually experience the 12-team College Football Playoff.

Haumiller suggested the exercise might be helpful for the retraining of our brains to think in terms of a 12-team tournament rather than a simple final four. Plus, the deliberate mis-seeding of this tournament — done to prioritize and reward conference championships — is going to take some getting used to. So we should practice so we can avoid getting shocked in December when a ninth- or 10th-ranked team gets a first-round bye because it won a power conference title.

But since none of us can play Dynasty Mode in the video game until next month, we’ll have to start retraining our brains here. So let’s examine how the first 12-team CFP might actually look from a practical standpoint in terms of locations, kickoff times and TV channel assignments.

For this exercise, I used my post-spring top 25 rankings. If I didn’t include your favorite team, I’m sorry. Just remember that there is a reason I don’t live on my own private island purchased with the winnings from a series of incredibly accurate futures bets. Your team certainly still has a chance. In fact, when I made that post-spring top 25, it felt as if at least 30 power conference teams could enter the season with legitimate CFP aspirations. And that’s not counting the Group of 5 teams — one of which is guaranteed to get in — and any 2022 TCU-type surprises.

My top 12 in the post-spring ranking

1. Ohio State
2. Georgia
3. Alabama
4. Oregon
5. Texas
6. Michigan
7. Florida State
8. Notre Dame
9. Ole Miss
10. Kansas State
11. Tennessee 
12. Penn State

The No. 12 spot is going to be the killer most years for a power-conference team. If the highest ranked Group of 5 champ isn’t ranked No. 12 or better, it means the No. 12 team is getting dropped into a consolation bowl in favor of that Group of 5 champ. If Penn State actually wound up in this position at season’s end, the reaction could be volcanic. The Nittany Lions would have made a 12-team playoff six times since 2016 had the current system been in place, and the level of frustration — with the system and with the on-field results — would be off the charts if this came to pass.  It’s also entirely possible a power conference champ finishes outside the top 12 and two conference champs bump potential at-large teams.

In this exercise, only one power conference team gets bumped. The top-ranked Group of 5 champ would take that No. 12 spot. If the 12-team CFP had started last year, that would have been undefeated Conference USA champ Liberty, which finished ranked No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

With reigning American Athletic Conference champ SMU headed to the ACC, it’s tough to handicap the Group of 5 leagues this year. Liberty is the runaway favorite in C-USA, but the Flames’ strength of schedule will be a hot topic. The Sun Belt probably is the deepest of the leagues, but that depth may eliminate the possibility of an undefeated (or even one-loss) champ. In the American, Tulane is under new management (Jon Sumrall), Memphis is now the establishment and USF is ascendent under Alex Golesh. Meanwhile, Spencer Danielson takes over for his first full season at Boise State after leading the Broncos to the 2023 Mountain West title as the interim coach.

Because they may repeat in 2024 and because they would have been in this spot multiple times had this format existed earlier, let’s place Boise State as the No. 12 seed for the purposes of this exercise.

Also, remember that the top four seeds — which all get byes — MUST be conference champions.

How the tournament would be seeded

1. Ohio State (Big Ten champ)
2. Georgia (SEC champ)
3. Florida State (ACC champ)
4. Kansas State (Big 12 champ)
5. Alabama (At-large)
6. Oregon (At-large)
7. Texas (At-large)
8. Michigan (At-large)
9. Notre Dame (At-large)
10. Ole Miss (At-large)
11. Tennessee (At-large)
12. Boise State (Mountain West champ)

First-round (on-campus) games

No. 12. Boise State at No. 5. Alabama
No. 11 Tennessee at No. 6 Oregon
No. 10 Ole Miss at No. 7 Texas
No. 9. Notre Dame at No. 8 Michigan

As you can see, No. 5 might be the catbird seat because of the deliberate mis-seeding of the tournament. The fifth-seeded team doesn’t get a bye, but it might actually have the smoothest path into the semifinals. In our exercise, Alabama — the third-ranked but fifth-seeded team —gets Boise State in Tuscaloosa. The winner would go to the Fiesta Bowl to play Kansas State, which is the fourth-seeded but 10th-ranked team. Meanwhile, you’ll see below that top-seeded Ohio State would have to play a  quarterfinal against a team that finished higher than the Wildcats in the final CFP rankings.

This exercise didn’t produce a rematch in the first round, but don’t be shocked if the actual CFP does. Ole Miss and Texas don’t play one another in the regular season in the Longhorns’ first year in the SEC, but Georgia does play Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas. It’s entirely possible a Bulldogs team that makes the CFP in a less dominant fashion than the one predicted here winds up playing one of those teams again in round one. 

The first Notre Dame-Michigan game at the Big House since 2019 might be the hottest ticket in the entire tournament. The question is when the game would kick off.

Remember, ESPN owns the rights to the CFP but sublicensed two first-round games to TNT for this season and next season. (TNT adds two quarterfinal games in 2025 and 2026.) ESPN will staff and produce the games, but they will air on TNT and the Max streaming app. This means that TNT parent company Warner Bros. Discovery is probably buying these games only to use as leverage to keep cable subscription fees from falling assuming WBD loses the rights to NBA games beginning next season.

In the first round, ESPN (and fellow Disney-owned network ABC) will televise a game kicking off at 8 p.m. ET on Friday Dec. 20 and a game kicking off at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday Dec. 21. TNT will broadcast two games Dec. 21 —  at noon ET and 4 p.m.. 

Presumably, ESPN will keep the best two games for itself. The two TNT games will air opposite NFL games. The Texans and Chiefs kick off on NBC at 1 p.m. ET. The Ravens and Steelers will kick off on Fox at 4:30 p.m. ET. This is a case of the NFL — which warned the CFP not to put games on Dec. 21 — marking its territory. NFL games on that Saturday previously aired on NFL Network. Matching C.J. Stroud against Patrick Mahomes on a broadcast network opposite the CFP’s worst first-round game seems like a deliberate attempt to scare the CFP off that date in the future.

The best TV matchup of the bunch is Notre Dame-Michigan, so that likely would air at 8 p.m. on ABC and ESPN. The second-best would be a judgement call between Tennessee-Oregon and Ole Miss-Texas, but the Volunteers’ visit to Eugene likely would get the Friday primetime slot to avoid an early-afternoon local time kickoff on Saturday. Boise State-Alabama would almost certainly kick off Dec. 21 at noon ET on TNT.

The next round

Boise State/Alabama winner vs. No. 4 Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl
Tennessee/Oregon winner vs. No. 3 Florida State in the Peach Bowl
Ole Miss/Texas winner vs. No. 2 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl
Notre Dame/Michigan winner vs. No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl

Why is Georgia in the Sugar Bowl when the Peach Bowl is much closer to Athens? Because in the 2024 and 2025 seasons, the top four seeds will be slotted into the bowls affiliated with their conference when applicable. As the SEC champ, Georgia would go to New Orleans. Big Ten champ Ohio State would play in the Rose Bowl. ACC champ Florida State could not play a quarterfinal in the Orange Bowl this season because the Orange Bowl is a semifinal game, so the Seminoles would get pushed to the Peach and Kansas State would be slotted in the Fiesta Bowl. 

Unlike in the first round, ESPN would not be choosing time slots based on matchups. The Fiesta Bowl will air on Tuesday Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Peach will air at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 1. The Rose will air at 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 1, and the Sugar Bowl will follow it at 8:45 p.m. ET.

Who would play in the next round? 

That’ll be determined entirely by the winners of the quarterfinals…