What if the 12-team College Football Playoff format began in 2014?

By Amy Daughters -

It’s been seven years since the four-team College Football Playoff scheme replaced the BCS in 2014. Since then, the CFP committee has filled 28 precious bracket spots with a mere 11 programs, five of which have filled 22 (or all but 6) of the slots. While it’s exciting to consider what the proposed 12-team expansion would do to unlock opportunity for the rest of the field, the best way to gauge its potential impact might be to look backwards.

If the 12-team scheme would have been employed over the last seven seasons, 84 bracket spots would have been available. That’s 56 additional selections than in the four-team format. As for the number of individual programs chosen, if we utilize the CFP committee’s rankings as they stood each year (there’s no way to predict what the committee would have done in terms of rankings with a 12-team limit) the number would have risen from just 11 to a whopping 39. That’s 28 more teams with a clear path to a national title.

To put a finer point on it, where 8 percent of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) field was represented in the four-team format, 30 percent would have participated in the 12-team scheme.

Here’s a look at which 39 teams would have been in:

ALABAMA

4-team format: Six selections (2014-2018 and 2020)

12-team format: Six selections (2014-2018 and 2020)

Net gain: Zero

ARIZONA

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2014)

Net gain: One

AUBURN

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2017)

Net gain: One

BAYLOR

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Two selections (2014 and 2019)

Net gain: Two

BOISE STATE

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2014)

Net gain: One

COASTAL CAROLINA

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2020)

Net gain: One

CINCINNATI

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2020)

Net gain: One

CLEMSON

4-team format: Six selections (2015-20)

12-team format: Six selections (2015-20)

Net gain: Zero

COLORADO

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2016)

Net gain: One

FLORIDA

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Three selections (2018-20)

Net gain: Three

FLORIDA STATE

4-team format: One selection (2014)

12-team format: Three selections (2014-16)

Net gain: Two

GEORGIA

4-team format: One selection (2017)

12-team format: Four selections (2017-20)

Net gain: Three

HOUSTON

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2015)

Net gain: One

INDIANA

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2020)

Net gain: One

IOWA

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2015)

Net gain: One

IOWA STATE

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2020)

Net gain: One

KANSAS STATE

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2014)

Net gain: One

LSU

4-team format: One selection (2019)

12-team format: Two selections (2018-19)

Net gain: One

MEMPHIS

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2019)

Net gain: One

MIAMI FLA.

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2017)

Net gain: One

MICHIGAN

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Two selections (2016 and 2018)

Net gain: Two

MICHIGAN STATE

4-team format: One selection (2015)

12-team format: Two selections (2014-15)

Net gain: One

MISSISSIPPI STATE

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2014)

Net gain: One

NORTH CAROLINA

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2015)v

Net gain: One

NOTRE DAME

4-team format: Two selections (2018 and 2020)

12-team format: Three selections (2015, 2018 and 2020)

Net gain: One

OHIO STATE

4-team format: Four selections (2014, 2016 and 2019-20)

12-team format: Seven selections (2014-20)

Net gain: Three

OKLAHOMA

4-team format: Four selections (2015, 2017-19)

12-team format: Six selections (2015-20)

Net gain: Two

OLE MISS

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2014)

Net gain: One

OREGON

4-team format: One selection (2014)

12-team format: Two selections (2014 and 2019)

Net gain: One

PENN STATE

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Four selections (2016-19)

Net gain: Four

STANFORD

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2015)

Net gain: One

TCU

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Two selections (2014-15)

Net gain: Two

TEXAS A&M

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2020)

Net gain: One

UCF

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Two selections (2017-18)

Net gain: Two

USC

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Two selections (2016-17)

Net gain: Two

UTAH

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2019)

Net gain: One

WASHINGTON

4-team format: One selection (2016)

12-team format: Three selections (2016-18)

Net gain: Two

WISCONSIN

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: Three selections (2016-17 and 2019)

Net gain: Three

WESTERN MICHIGAN

4-team format: Zero selections

12-team format: One selection (2016)

Net gain: One

The most exciting takeaway are the names of the 28 teams who didn’t have a clear path to play for a national championship in the four-team format, but which would have had an opportunity to compete for a title in the 12-team scheme. Instead of appearing in a prestigious but meaningless bowl game, each would have had an on-field chance to rewrite history.

The biggest single benefactor of expansion would have been Penn State, which went from zero bracket appearances to four. Next up, with plus-three selections each are Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are also the only program that would have participated in all seven of the CFP brackets.

Apart from Alabama and Clemson (with a record six appearances apiece in the current format which would have stayed static), nine of the eleven teams selected in the four-team model would have picked up additional selections in the proposed expansion.

As far as conferences, in the 12-team format all five Power leagues would have been represented in each of the past seven seasons. That as opposed to the ten instances that a league was left out in the four-team scheme: Big Ten (2017, 2018), Big 12 (2014, 2016, 2020) and Pac-12 (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020).

The conference that would have benefited the most from expansion is the Pac-12, which in the current model has only sent two teams to the Playoff and hasn’t done so since 2016. It would have picked up a whopping nine additional appearances and welcomed five new members to the championship mix.

Though nowhere near a complete opening of the flood gates for the non-Power leagues, it’s exciting that in a 12-team scenario seven Group of 5 programs representing four conferences would have had an actual shot at a national title: American Athletic – Cincinnati (2020), Houston (2015), Memphis (2019), UCF (2017-18), MAC – Western Michigan (2016), Mountain West – Boise State (2014), and Sun Belt – Coastal Carolina (2020).

The only league that wouldn’t have gone dancing thus far is Conference USA.

The seven-year simulation produces a clear blueprint: seven of the eight additional teams in a 12-team format would hail from Power 5 leagues (or Notre Dame) with the final slot going to a Group of 5 school (the only exception was 2020 when two such programs would have made it). That is, of course, if the committee’s rankings – which again might have changed with a 12-team limit – would have allowed it.

While a substantial gain in opportunity, especially in terms of all five Power 5 champions represented and worthy inclusions by teams competing in the toughest divisions, the power, and money, would remain firmly in the hands of the SEC and Big Ten.

Consider this – of the 84 simulated selections since 2014 in the 12-team format, 20 (or 24%) are Big Ten programs, 19 (23%) are from the SEC, 12 (14%) are from the Big 12, 11 apiece (13% respectively) are from the ACC and Pac-12, five (6%) are from the American, three (3%) are from the independents and one each are from the MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

If you break that down over seven seasons the yearly 12-team field would have consisted of between two and three teams each from the Big Ten (2.85) and SEC (2.71), between one and two each from the Big 12 (1.71), ACC (1.57) and Pac-12 (1.57), with the remaining one to two going to Notre Dame or Group of 5 teams (1.59).

In other words, nearly half of the 12 selections on a yearly basis would have gone to the Big Ten and SEC with the other half divided out over the rest of the field.

The other interesting takeaway is the plight of the current independents. The only conference-less team to make the bracket even in the expanded 12-team format was Notre Dame. What this says to programs like BYU, UConn and even Army is that conference affiliation – even with a Group of 5 league – might be the only way to compete for a national title.

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Comments (2)

Using a North VS. South format:

First-round byes:
2014: Oregon, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State
2015: Michigan State, Iowa, Clemson, Alabama
2016: Ohio State, Washington, Alabama, Clemson
2017: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Clemson, Oklahoma
2018: Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson
2019: Ohio State, Oregon, LSU, Clemson
2020: Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Clemson

First-round games:
2014: Kansas State at Arizona, UCLA at Michigan State, Mississippi State at TCU, Ole Miss at Baylor
2015: Notre Dame at Ohio State, Northwestern at Stanford, North Carolina at Florida State, TCU at Oklahoma
2016: Wisconsin at Michigan, USC at Penn State, Oklahoma State at Florida State, Louisville at Oklahoma
2017: Washington at Penn State, Stanford at USC, Auburn at Alabama, Miami (Florida) at Georgia
2018: Penn State at Washington, Washington State at Michigan, UCF at Georgia, Florida at Oklahoma
2019: Utah at Penn State, Michigan at Wisconsin, Baylor at Georgia, Florida at Oklahoma
2020: Indiana at Iowa State, Northwestern at Cincinnati, Florida at Oklahoma, Georgia at Texas A&M

The Pac-12 would not have been represented last year. That would’ve been the only time a power 5 league failed to make the playoffs under this format.