Will 14-team College Football Playoff happen? The questions from the 12-team format need answers first

We’re already talking about 14 – and we haven’t tried 12 yet. 

This is the more-more–more-logic that will dictate the future of the College Football Playoff. ESPN reported Wednesday that CFP officials discussed the possibility of a 14-team CFP in 2026, though CFP director Bill Hancock declined to give specifics and said there is “work to be done.” And that work will likely be done in the next month.

The fact the 14-team idea is being floated out there publicly, however, confirms that the long-awaited 12-team playoff may only last two years.

Why would you consider expansion before we even tried a dozen teams? 

Here are a few questions that need to be addressed as the future of the CFP beyond 2025 gets hammered out.

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Will 12 or 14 College Football Playoff teams be too much?

On the surface, the answer is no. This is a more inclusive format that will allow more teams to participate in the CFP, and more football is a good thing. Expanding to 14 teams certainly hasn’t hurt the NFL. 

There were 20 College Football Playoff semifinals in the last 10 years. The margin of victory in those games was an average of 17.8 points per game. Take out the last two years – where all CFP four semifinals were decided by six points or fewer – and that margin hops up to 21 points per game. 

What does that compare to? The average margin of victory in NCAA men’s basketball tournament first-round games involving No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in 2023 was 17.2 points per game. That included upsets by Fairleigh Dickinson over Purdue and Princeton over Arizona. 

What is more likely to happen: a 5-12 upset in the CFP or a 2-15 upset in the men’s basketball tournament? That’s not a trick question.

Will 14 teams solve this potential issue? Probably not. This isn’t the NCAA tournament. If there are no upsets and the games are not close, then you are stuck with that game for four hours. It’s a lot easier to flip the channel when Kansas is beating Howard in basketball. 

The on-campus wrinkle in the first round is a major victory for college football, but why not extend that to that home-field advantage to the semifinal round and the top four seeds? That leads to the next question. 

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(Getty Images)

What is the value of conference championship games?

We know there is value in television and money, but what is the value of those games now in terms of the CFP playoff? 

The answer – as of now – is a first-round bye. In this setup, in most seasons the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and ACC champions will get an automatic berth along with one of the Group of 5 champions. The Power 4 schools likely will get the first-round byes, but at a certain point the Big Ten and SEC are not going to like that. 

Take Georgia last year, for example. The Bulldogs missed the four-team playoff after losing 27-24 to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Yet given truth serum – most people would agree the Bulldogs were still one of the four best teams in the FBS at that point. Would Georgia be more deserving of a bye than Florida State in the new setup? 

Yes, the conference championship games have value, but that value without question is diminished. For the last 10 years, we’ve been begging for games where both power conference teams have an equal shot at being in the CFP with a victory. Last year, the Alabama-Georgia game was the only one that met that qualification, though the final Pac-12 championship game between Washington and Oregon was close. The Ducks would have still needed some help. 

Every year moving forward, it is a safe bet that both teams in the SEC and Big Ten championship games will be in the CFP. The Big 12 and ACC will be able to say the same thing. The Group of 5 championship games – or at least one of them – will have more value for now. 

Will the Group of 5 have success? 

This will be college football’s version of Cinderella – and there is a dirty secret here. The Power 4 will ditch Cinderella the first chance they get. 

Group of 5 schools were 4-6 in New Year’s Day Six Bowls the last 10 years, and there were wonderful success stories. Houston, UCF and Cincinnati all pushed into the CFP conversations, and the Bearcats broke through in 2021-22. 

What did those schools do? They leveled up to the Big 12. Oregon beat Liberty 45-6 in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, and in the new setup the Flames would be taking a bid from a Power 4 conference team. 

In the first two years of the CFP, Boise State beat Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl and Houston beat Florida State 38-24 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. How many college football fans remember those games now? The next two years are much more important for the Group of 5 now. If the G5 automatic qualifier gets blown out, then the argument about splitting the P4 and G5 is going to pick up.

MORE: Format change approved for 2024, 2025 CFP

How will players be incentivized to play more games? 

Adding games is only going to intensify the revenue sharing discussion in college football. Remember the narratives about Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette when they decided to skip their bowl games in 2016

Think about how far that pendulum has swung. Opt-outs are implicit in games outside of the College Football Playoff, and they might be part of the CFP when we go to 12 teams. What if a projected first-round pick doesn’t want to play in a 4-13 game where their team is a 24.5-point underdog?

That doesn’t take into account the need to revise the recruiting calendar and transfer portal timeline. 

Here is one example: Texas backup quarterback Maalik Murphy transferred to Duke before the Longhorns played in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Washington this season. That’s not signaling out Murphy – he made a decision that was best for him given the rules and other players on playoff teams hit the portal, too. Had starter Quinn Ewers been injured, that would have had a significant impact on the game. That will be a more frequent occurrence in the future, and eventually it will impact a playoff game if there are more teams. 

Even for those of us who were on the wrong side of the McCaffrey-Fournette debate, this will be a concern if the playoff continues to expand. If players are under a contract of sorts to play in the CFP instead of loose NIL deals, then the 14-team playoff will have more stability. 

Unless, of course, it becomes what we think it will be in the future. 

Will the SEC and Big Ten use this to do their own thing? 

Using the 5/7 model looking back at the last 10 years, a total of 38 of the 70 available at-large bids would have gone to Big Ten or SEC teams had there been a 12-team playoff. That’s 54.2% of the at-large bids. 

That number increases to 61.4% (43 of 70) when you include future Big Ten teams in Washington, USC and Oregon – who would have combined for five more appearances. 

That is not even factoring in Notre Dame, which would have been an at-large in this setup four times. The Irish do not play in a conference championship game, so they cannot get a first-round bye. Now, the number goes up to 67.1%. 

It feels like that number will be 70% given the addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. To get to the point, five of seven at-large bids is 71.4%. 

A total of 23 at-large bids came from the ACC, Big 12 or Group of 5 – which gets an automatic bid now. The SEC and Big Ten are going to want at least 70% of those automatic bids, and that might not be enough. Within two years, those conferences might want all of the automatic bids, and the 14-team setup is a polite way of saying, “We want the SEC and Big Ten champion to have a first-round bye.”

That – with the possibility of more realignment – is going to fuel the super-conference talk all over again. 

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Would a 14-team College Football Playoff work? 

Impossible to answer until we see the 12-teamer. All of the above factors, combined with the need for a better college football calendar and NIL safeguards comes first. That would help decrease the number of players that enter the transfer portal each season.

There have been massive rounds of realignment the last two summers, and that is part of the reason why the CFP committee must evolve with those changes. There will be no retracting the playoff field – no major sport has ever done that – but some lessons can be learned along the way. 

College football skipped a step from going straight from four to 12 – instead of trying the multiplier of eight teams first. Why would be there a rush to go to 14 when the discussion about 16 teams would come about five minutes later? 

Can we just see if 12 works first? All we can do is hope.

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