Five questions that will shape College Football Playoff’s eight-team expansion

A survey conducted by Stadium shows that most FBS athletic directors want at least an eight-team College Football Playoff after the 2025 season.

Eighty-eight percent of ADs polled by Brett McMurphy favor expanding the field from four teams to eight or more when the current agreement expires. Of those ADs who support expansion, 72 percent want to cap it at eight schools.

The debate over the size of the field has been commonplace since the first CFP in 2014, but the perception now is that an eight-team Playoff is in the sport’s future. That goes against what College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told Sporting News in January when he said, “You cannot ask for more,” referring to how the title game was set.

The athletic directors could lead that push for more, but logistical hurdles must be cleared to get to an eight-team format. Otherwise, there will be calls for 12 or even 16 schools.

Here are the biggest questions about Playoff expansion:

Would the Group of 5 receive an automatic bid?

This will be a point of contention among the Power 5 and Group of 5 athletic directors. Most eight-team formats feature each of the Power 5 champions, an at-large bid to the highest-ranked Group of 5 team and two other at-large bids.

The highest finish for a Group of 5 team in the final Playoff rankings is eighth, by UCF in 2018. The Knights claimed the national championship the year prior after finishing undefeated the 2017 campaign undefeated.

Knowing that, some Power 5 athletic directors might not favor allowing a perceived undeserving Group of 5 school to crack the field. The highest-ranked Group of 5 team in 2019 was Memphis, at No. 17.

Would conference scheduling change?

One of the existing points of contention among Power 5 conferences is that the ACC and SEC play eight conference games while the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all play nine. The former two conferences have been represented in every Playoff, while the Big Ten and Big 12 have been left out of the Playoff twice in six years. The Pac-12 has been left out four times.

There must be some uniformity in scheduling, especially when selecting at-large teams. Consider the conference breakdown of the top eight teams in the final Playoff rankings every season since 2014 (48 schools total):

Based on those numbers, the Big Ten and SEC would be favored to snag most of those at-large bids. The Pac-12 champion did not finish in the top eight in 2018. And there is always the question about Notre Dame, which made the Playoff in 2018 despite not playing in a conference. Would the calls for the Irish to join a conference grow even stronger?

The answer might hinge on the next question.

How much weight do conference championships carry?

The current plan calls for winners of Power 5 conference championship games to make the four-team Playoff. Should four- or five-loss teams make it in if they manage to pull a big upset?

An eight-team Playoff might force conferences to scrap the division format and do what the Big 12 does: put the top two teams in the conference championship game. That’s made easier for the Big 12, however, considering its 10-team field — would that necessitate a pod scheduling system for the 14-team SEC, ACC and Big Ten conferences? What about the Pac-12, whose teams already play nine of a possible 11 conference opponents in the regular seaso?

There also is the unlikely option of scrapping conference championship games and just putting the top eight teams from the regular season in the Playoff. Given the lack of upsets and true play-in games the past few seasons, that’s not the worst idea.

If the conference championships remain a go, however, then how would the at-large selection process work? Next question.

How would at-large teams be selected?

Would the Playoff committee still play some role through choosing the teams to fill the field? Would a BCS-style computer be brought back to life?

The problem with at-large teams is that there will still be snubbed teams that feel they are deserving. For example, Florida (10-2) finished ninth in last year’s ranking — its only losses were to No. 1 LSU and No 5 Georgia. Would the Gators have a better case than No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3), which lost to Illinois?

The new argument in the eight-team era would focus more on those last two spots — kind of like the bubble watch for the NCAA Tournament.

How are sites, bowl structures effected?

This is a major factor, given the 44-game bowl schedule and the New Year’s Day 6 rotation. The latter determines when the CFP semifinals are played. Playoff expansion would impact the Rose and Sugar bowls, which have not moved off their traditional Jan. 1 game dates.

Given the declining attendance at bowl games the past few seasons, an eight-team Playoff might take even more attention off the other bowls.

Would the Playoff committee explore the idea of moving first-round games in an eight-team format to campus sites? The novelty of that would increase the format’s popularity. Imagine LSU at Ohio State, or Oklahoma at USC in the first round. Weather would be a factor, though — that, in turn, could influence whether the start of the regular season is bumped up to earlier in the calendar.

The New Year’s Day 6 bowls (Rose, Sugar, Peach, Fiesta, Orange and Cotton) would want to protect their value as semifinal sites, too. Would other bowls want to join the rotation?

Those are some of the questions that would need to be answered before the sport can move to an eight-team CFP model.

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