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College Football Playoff’s move to 5+7 model improves regular season, adds intrigue to first-round matchups

The College Football Playoff Board of Managers met Tuesday and unanimously approved a change to the 12-team format, flipping one spot previously reserved for a conference champion into an at-large bid. The new model, which will feature five automatic qualifiers for the highest-ranked conference champions plus seven at-large bids (5+7), was the right move by the CFP in the wake of the Pac-12’s implosion back in August 2023. 

When the 6+6 model was approved in December 2022, the Pac-12 figured prominently in the forecast for future playoffs. Programs like Washington and Oregon made playoff appearances in the four-team field and teams like Utah and USC qualified for New Year’s Six bowls in recent years. But now that 10 of the conference’s 12 schools are moving to the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC later this summer, the landscape has changed. 

The move from 6+6 to 5+7 was critical to maintaining the intended balance of the 12-team field while adding intrigue to both the regular season and the CFP’s first on-campus first round. Yes, it comes at the expense of opportunities being taken from a conference champion, but the 5+7 format promises higher-ranked teams and better matchups while also providing every FBS team in a conference a shot at the national title. 

Keeping 6+6 changes original intention of CFP

There was a period of time when the Pac-12’s demise appeared to be a win for the Group of Five conferences. The American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and the MAC agreed to the 6+6 format knowing they would likely be competing for one playoff spot among them, similar to how things previously worked for the New Year’s Six bowls. But heading into 2024, there are only four power conferences in college football, and a 6+6 format would have increased the access for the conference champions from those leagues. 

But staying at 6+6 would have been a breakaway from the intended balance in the field. Six automatic bids between 10 FBS conferences allowed for automatic playoff access to a majority of leagues. It also more or less fell in line with how the selection committee has ranked teams throughout the 10-year history of the four-team playoff. 

But with nine FBS conferences, six automatic bids would have changed the balance of the bracket and put another conference champion into the field. Finding the next-best conference champion after the New Year’s Six representative is much more difficult. In several previous seasons, that would have meant a playoff representative from outside the top 25. 

Adding importance to the regular season

The 6+6 model guaranteed at least two Group of Five conference champions. While it’s possible those two teams would be in the top 10 on Selection Sunday, that scenario doesn’t seem likely based on rankings from previous years. So those teams would probably go into the CFP as the No. 11 and No. 12 seed in most seasons. That gives the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds a home game against a Group of Five team in the first round.

Meanwhile, a 5+7 model probably only puts one Group of Five team in the field (likely a No. 12 seed based on rankings from past seasons). In that scenario, the only way to avoid a first-round matchup against one of the top at-large teams is to win your conference or be the highest-ranking non-champion. That feels like a more exclusive club and an honor that’s worth fighting for in the final weeks of the season. Win your conference or be the next-best team, or face a likely top-10 team in a one-off, on-campus setting with your season on the line.

Odds suggest a No. 12 seed will beat a No. 5 seed at some point, but many of the most disruptive programs in New Years Six history have moved to the Big 12. Cincinnati, UCF and Houston have combined for five of the 10 Group of Five spots and two of its four wins in New Years Six bowls. 

Liberty, the team that would have been the 12-seed this year had the playoff already expanded, would have entered its Fiesta Bowl matchup against Oregon as a 17-point underdog. In moving from six automatic qualifiers to five and creating more competitive first-round matchups, you have also put more value on being a conference champion or, at worst, the No. 5 seed.

5+7 will feature better first-round matchups 

Cinderella stories are great for basketball’s NCAA Tournament, and as mentioned earlier there will likely be a 12-over-5 stunner at some point to give a “December Madness” feel to college football’s version of bracket busing. But for on-campus games in a win-or-go-home scenario, fans are going to want to see teams of comparable caliber. 

While it’s not exactly apples-to-apples, you can take this past year for example. Georgia finished at No. 6 in this year’s final CFP rankings. A 5+7 format would have meant a first-round rematch with No. 11 Ole Miss for the Dawgs. A 6+6 format would have given viewers No. 24 SMU (which lost the Fenway Bowl to Boston College) heading to Sanford Stadium. It’s not hard to decide which game most fans would rather watch. 

More potential opportunities for ACC and Big 12 

On paper, adding an at-large seems to play into the hands of the third- or fourth-best team from the Big Ten or the SEC. But don’t overlook the value that it could have to the ACC and the Big 12. Those two leagues will be looking to get as many shots as possible to prove on the field that the gap between their leagues and the Big Ten/SEC is not as large as the narratives might suggest.

The Big 12 would have put a champion and an at-large team into an expanded field in 2021 (Baylor, Oklahoma State) and 2022 (Kansas State, TCU), and that’s not even counting the would-be appearances by new members Utah and Cincinnati during those seasons. The ACC would have been in a similar position in 2015, 2016 and 2017 with both a conference champion (Clemson) and an at-large team in the 12-team field in either the 6+6 or 5+7 formats.

A two-year test kitchen for the CFP

As we move forward with the 5+7 format in place, it is important to acknowledge future CFP negotiations are still fluid. We will have a 12-team playoff with a 5+7 format for the 2024 and 2025 seasons, but after that, there is a clean slate for the future of the college football postseason. There are ongoing discussions about every aspect of how the playoff will look in 2026 and beyond, with the most contentious issues tied to revenue and how it is divided among the FBS conferences. College sports have changed dramatically in recent years and face a future that includes seismic changes to the amateurism model. Those are top-of-mind concerns for the conference commissioners and university presidents charged with leading the CFP into the future and thus play a big role in all financial discussions. 

But for fans, the next two years will be a “test kitchen” opportunity. How things go will give us a taste of what the future might look like. Like a test kitchen, there will be some aspects that are likely to carry over, but there is also no guarantee that the changes we are celebrating this week are going to be in place in 2026 and beyond. We will all see a soft launch of the expanded playoff era soon, and switching from 6+6 to 5+7 gives us a much better chance for positive reviews in Year 1. 

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