Last week, ESPN’s college football reporters made their cases for the players, teams and games that they are most excited to see in the fall. This week, they’re talking about the 12-team playoff — what the issues with the format might be and which teams will be able to make the most of the new system. They’ll also give their way-too-early predictions for the 12 teams that will compete for the national title.
What are you most looking forward to — or what is your biggest concern — about the new format?
David Hale: The argument against a playoff — any playoff — was always about watering down the regular season. For the most part, that wasn’t a concern during the four-team era, though there were certainly signs of problems. In a 12-team playoff with just four power conferences now — and some might argue just two — there’s a real concern games that meant a ton in the regular season before are now more about spectacle than stakes. With seven “at large” bids, teams that finish third or even fourth in the SEC and Big Ten will still have a real shot at the playoff. That may be a good thing to a degree, but it will also water down the impact of the three months of games that lead up to the playoff.
Take last year’s Penn State — a team that finished the regular season ranked in the top 10, which would’ve guaranteed a playoff bid under this new system. The Nittany Lions beat Iowa (meh) and lost badly to both Michigan and Ohio State. No other games on the schedule really moved the needle. So, under the 12-team model, you’d have a playoff team that basically only needed to win one marginally impactful game all year to earn its spot. Is that really what we want? And what, exactly, is the point of a conference title game when both teams that play in the SEC or Big Ten championship will head to the playoff? The big Georgia-Clemson game to open the 2024 season? The outcome means virtually nothing in the playoff discussion. In a time when other sports are desperately trying to find ways to add intrigue to the regular season — baseball’s “Field of Dreams” game, the NBA’s in-season tournament, the NHL’s outdoor classic — college football has effectively sold off its most valuable asset (the stakes of every Saturday’s games) in favor of a larger playoff field.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Hale’s concern about a watered-down regular season is also mine. As somebody who was in the Big House on Nov. 25 this year, lessening stakes of rivalry games at the end of the season like Ohio State-Michigan feels like the wrong decision. With that said, I fully plan on embracing the new format and will still enjoy it, especially once we get into on-campus games at schools who historically haven’t been in championship or playoff contention. Those electric environments are going to be great, and are one of the many reasons why I love college football. And hey, the one year we get a true Cinderella will validate all of this, right?
Chris Low: This is an easy one; the on-campus games in the first round. College football was made to be played on college campuses with students walking from their dorms to the stadium, three generations of a family tailgating in the same spot they have for decades and music blaring from fraternity houses. Then there’s the ambiance that goes along with playing at campus venues — Clemson running down the hill at Death Valley, the giant “T” opening at Neyland Stadium as the Tennessee players charge onto the field, Washington fans arriving to Husky Stadium by boat and sailgating, Penn State white outs in Happy Valley and the Notre Dame fight song being played with Touchdown Jesus looking down on a cold winter day in South Bend. Granted, it’s just one round of on-campus sites. But at least we get one round of real, live college football pageantry.
Bill Connelly: Honestly, I’m looking forward to not being nearly as angry about the selection process and the top of the rankings. The CFP committee has proven that when picking the top four teams is particularly tough — as it was in 2014 and 2023 — it can make some super-strange (and, in the case of 2023, infuriating and misguided) decisions. But now it obviously has quite a bit of margin for error. Plus, with the autobids in place for a set number of conference champions, there’s a path for more than half of FBS to reach the CFP no matter what the committee thinks of them. Obviously there will still be some ways for the committee to anger people. We’ll figure out a way to get fired up over whoever ranks 13th, for one, and it could still screw up who gets access to the playoff from the Group of 5 level. But it’s pretty clear at this point that if we want the right four teams in the semifinals, we need to invite a lot more than four teams to the party, and this margin for error will be a welcome thing for my blood pressure.
David’s right in that the trade-off for this margin for error is that certain games become spectacles only and the stakes for specific, big rivalry games are lowered. But man, oh man, are the conference title races going to be fun. The Big 12 is going to have about 10 teams that are exactly the same from a quality standpoint. The ACC could have about four to six. And considering how much of an advantage byes could give for the top four teams (a.k.a. conference champions), there should still be plenty of stakes for Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas, et cetera. I always enjoy the regular season, and I’ll be shocked if I don’t enjoy it even more this fall.
Andrea Adelson: While I have been in favor of an expanded playoff since the BCS, I have concerns about a playoff with this many teams. Hopefully this does not sound like a “get off my lawn” argument, but the season is now going to stretch into late January, players will be playing more games than ever and ultimately, I think we are going to arrive to the semis and championship game with essentially the same group of schools that would have been there in a four-team CFP. What happened to Florida State last season (and UCF, Baylor, Ohio State et al previously) reinforced the need to expand. The four-team CFP was obviously, and very seriously, flawed. But 12 teams feels like too many, and it will only further diminish everything outside the playoff.
Heather Dinich: The larger field of contenders is going to be fan-freaking-tastic. While the sport will ultimately wind up with familiar faces in the national title game, the appearance of fairness will make for a far more interesting and inclusive path to it. Notre Dame should be in more often than not. Big Ten teams other than Ohio State and Michigan have a chance. It’s not just Alabama and Georgia in the SEC. And the best Group of 5 team no longer faces unrealistic requirements to get into the exclusive club.
Which team will make its first playoff appearance in 2024?
Hale: Odds are, we’ll have a handful of first-timers. Unless TCU or Cincinnati wins the Big 12, that league will definitely send a first-timer to the playoff. Utah, Kansas and Texas Tech should all be in that conversation. The Group of 5 will have an auto bid, too, which will put Memphis, Tulane, Boise State and others in the mix. Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa each had among the best overall records of the four-team era, but never made a playoff. That could change in 2024. But here’s the most fun guess: USC. The Trojans move to the Big Ten, which could either be a difficult transition or the key to improving its defense (by avoiding all those Pac-12 offenses). I’m leaning toward the latter.
Low: Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin have knocked on the playoff door in two of the last three seasons. The Rebels are poised to knock that door down in 2024. They have an elite (and experienced) quarterback in Jaxson Dart. Tre Harris returns as one of the more dynamic receivers in college football, and Ole Miss beefed up its offensive line and front-seven on defense thanks to a transfer portal haul ranked as one of the best in the country. Kiffin has pumped life into an Ole Miss program that has improved in all facets, and as schedules go in 2024, the Rebels appear to have one of the more manageable ones in the SEC.
Connelly: Expansion should indeed make for a fun batch of first-timers, but there’s no question it helps the Penn States of the world over all others. In the last two regular seasons, Penn State went 0-2 against Michigan and Ohio State and 20-0 against everyone else — that pretty much screams “annual No. 8ish seed” — and if new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki can provide a boost of creativity and explosiveness on that side of the ball, the Nittany Lions should be well on their way to hitting just about the same mark this year.
Missouri (and Arizona)
Adelson: Ole Miss feels like an easy choice, but how about Missouri from the SEC? An expanded playoff surely means the potential for at least three (or likely more?) SEC teams to make it in. Mizzou would have made a 12-team playoff last year and is returning quarterback Brady Cook and top receiver Luther Burden III. One more team to keep an eye on in the newly reconfigured Big 12: Arizona. Jedd Fisch might be gone, but Brent Brennan has proven himself at San Jose State and gets to work with one of the best QB-WR duos returning to college football in Noah Fifita and Tetairoa McMillan
Lyles Jr.: I’ll pick the Group of 5 representative and go with Ryan Silverfield’s Memphis Tigers. With SMU going to the ACC, Tulane having another year of departures after 2022’s run to the Cotton Bowl, and UTSA welcoming in a new quarterback, I think the Tigers are in a great position in the AAC to make a run. Quarterback Seth Henigan will be going into his fourth season as a starter on a Memphis team that’s got some weapons returning around him, like wideout Roc Taylor and running back Sutton Smith. Linebacker Chandler Martin is also coming back and was a leader both emotionally and statistically on their defense. That type of continuity could be enough to help them continue to break through just as they did this past season.
What is your way-too-early prediction for the 12-team playoff field?
Note: The four highest-ranked conference champions will receive the top four seeds AND a first-round bye. This means each writer’s top four teams below are also predictions of conference champions — but that might not necessarily reflect where the writer would rank those teams in his or her top 25. For example, Dinich has Utah as the No. 3 seed and projected Big 12 champion, but would rank the Utes No. 7 overall.
Hale: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Clemson 4. Kansas 5. Oregon 6. Texas 7. Notre Dame 8. Alabama 9. Ole Miss 10. FSU 11. USC 12. Memphis
Low: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. Utah, 4. Clemson, 5. Texas, 6. Oregon, 7. Alabama, 8. Ole Miss, 9. Notre Dame, 10. Penn State, 11. Michigan, 12. Liberty
Connelly: 1. Georgia 2. Oregon 3. Florida State 4. Kansas State 5. Texas 6. Ohio State 7. Penn State 8. Ole Miss 9. Michigan 10. Alabama 11. Utah 12. Memphis
Adelson: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Clemson 4. Arizona 5. Oregon 6. Ole Miss 7. Texas 8. Notre Dame 9. Missouri 10. Kansas State 11. Florida State 12. Boise State
Lyles: 1. Georgia 2. Oregon 3. Florida State 4. Utah 5. Texas 6. Ohio State 7. Ole Miss 8. Notre Dame 9. Michigan 10. Alabama 11. Penn State 12. Memphis
Dinich: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Utah 4. Louisville 5. Texas 6. Ole Miss 7. Oregon 8. Notre Dame 9. Alabama 10. Missouri 11. USC 12. Boise State