College football Saturday review: Expanding playoff to 12 would make upsets sweeter

College football Saturday review: Expanding playoff to 12 would make upsets sweeter

In the span of about a half hour Saturday afternoon, North Carolina State took down No. 9 Clemson in double overtime, Baylor stopped No. 14 Iowa State on a last-second two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game and Rutgers nearly erased a 17-point halftime deficit at No. 19 Michigan.

It seems like every time a college football Saturday slate is described as relatively unexciting (this weekend did not feature a top-10 matchup or fascinating intersectional showdown), we are rewarded with extra entertainment and a reminder to never doubt the spectacle of the greatest regular season in sports.

I, for one, would never make that mistake. I live for my 13 Christmas mornings in a way that my wife will never understand, and I have always been a proponent of a four-team playoff because it maintains the survive-and-advance terror of each week that makes college football uniquely, well, terrifying.

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But as I watched those finishes one after the other, all I could think about was how much better the experience would be in Raleigh, Waco and Ann Arbor — and for fans across America who are on the edge of their sofas — if we had something resembling the 12-team College Football Playoff that is being considered.

This is a message to the conference commissioners who earlier this week decided to delay the process that had been laid out for a late September vote on the 12-team proposal:

Delay if you must, but please do what’s right for the sport and expand the playoff to 12 — not eight.

It makes sense that the three Power Five commissioners who were not included in the working group that came up with the 12-team model — the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff, the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren and the Atlantic Coast’s Jim Phillips, who formed “The Alliance” in late August partly with this in mind — want to hit the brakes and make sure it’s right for their leagues.

It also makes sense that they don’t want a change to the format to happen before the current contract ends after the 2025 season so Fox (a partner of the Big Ten and Pac-12) and other networks or platforms have a chance to bid against ESPN, which will just bring in more money for everyone involved.

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But it won’t be acceptable to move away from 12 teams, regardless of the many details beyond that all-important number.

This sport needs more playoff access, and the trickle-down effect is that most regular season games will assume more meaning. I say most because the rare “Game of the Century” type matchups will mean less due to the fact the loser will have margin for error to recover and make an expanded playoff field — and because mid-to-late season games between mediocre to bad teams will be what they’ve always been, a chance to drink beer in the morning and rep your school colors.

Look at N.C. State’s 27-21 upset of Clemson Saturday. Sure, Wolfpack fans were celebrating deliriously after rushing the field. But they’re going to wake up Sunday morning with a headache and pretty much no shot to make the playoff despite N.C. State having a 3-1 record and controlling its destiny in the ACC the rest of the way. If there was a 12-team field that included the six top-ranked conference champions, N.C. State could dream of winning the conference and having a shot to play for a national championship.

One downside of 12 teams is that a power like Clemson, having drastically underperformed at 2-2, could still sneak into the playoff. Do we get more 10-3 Clemsons in the bracket? Sure. But we also get more 10-3 N.NC. States, and that is a tradeoff the sport should welcome.

At first, this will not lead to a change in competitive balance — the top two teams will still be on another level than seeds 11 and 12. But the hope is that over time, as recruits see that lots of different schools can play on the sport’s biggest stage, they won’t feel like they have to go to Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma to sniff the playoff.

Texas A&M defensive back Leon O'Neal Jr. attempts to stop Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby

Texas A&M defensive back Leon O’Neal Jr. (9) attempts to stop Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby (4) Saturday in Arlington, Texas.

(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

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