The College Football Playoff is pointing toward expansion and the proposal on the table features a significant concession from Notre Dame.
This afternoon, a four-member working group that has been studying the issue of CFP expansion for the last two years released its proposal for growing the end-of-season tournament, beginning a process for finalization that will likely continue into the fall. The proposal is far from final and there are significant details to be worked out (including when expansion would happen; it could be in 2023 or as late as 2026, depending on television negotiations), but it has been met with general acclaim across the college football world and the ending framework will likely incorporate a large number of the recommendations made by the working group. Here are the highlights of the proposal:
- The Playoff would expand from four teams to 12.
- The tournament participants would be the six highest-ranked conference champions in the final CFP rankings and six at-large bids.
- The four highest-ranked conference champions would get byes in the first round.
- Teams seeded 5 to 12 would play first-round games on the campus of the higher-ranked team during the two-week span after conference championship games (5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, etc.).
- Quarterfinals would take place at neutral sites Jan. 1 and either Dec. 31 or Jan. 2.
- Semifinals and championship game dates are still to be determined, but will be at neutral sites. The semifinals would not be on the same day.
- Some or all quarterfinal and semifinal games would be bowl games. The working group did not study which bowls might be involved, but did recommend conferences be assigned to their traditional bowls as often as possible.
The third bullet point is where the rubber meets the road for Notre Dame. The working group confirmed this afternoon that, because the independent Irish cannot win a conference championship, they would be ineligible for one of the byes into the quarterfinals, even they finished in the top four in the final CFP rankings. The highest seed Notre Dame could get under the proposal would be No. 5.
So, is the working group out to curtail Notre Dame's power as an independent and give conference teams an easier path? Well, not exactly. Among the members of the working group that came up with this plan is Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and he proclaimed his strong support for the plan this afternoon. On the question of whether the inability to get a bye puts Notre Dame at a disadvantage, he pointed out that teams in most of the conferences would put their CFP spots on the line in conference championship games, while Notre Dame will not have to do so. The Irish would also be coming off a bye in their first-round games, while most of their potential opponents would have played in conference championship games the week before.
"I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game and don't have a conference championship," Swarbrick said this afternoon, referring to the ubiquitous "13th data point" discussions that always popped up when Notre Dame was in contention for a College Football Playoff spot in recent years.
The other advantage for the Irish is that, under the proposal released today, they would host a first-round game at Notre Dame Stadium if they received any rank from 1 to 8 in the final CFP poll, while teams with byes do not get that opportunity. If the new format had been in effect during the 2020 season, No. 5 seed Notre Dame would have hosted No. 12 Coastal Carolina in South Bend in mid-December.
Still, there is a significant disadvantage to the Irish not being eligible for a bye: under the current proposal, it's possible that Notre Dame would have to beat three of the top four teams to win a national championship. The top four seeds only have to win a maximum of twice against the other three top seeds. In a sport that has seen Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State dominate the sport in recent years with other teams seemingly well behind, needing to beat an extra member of the top four would likely make Notre Dame's road to a national title significantly more difficult.
Swarbrick is taking the position, at least publicly, that the pluses of the proposal outweigh the minuses for Notre Dame. Of course, it's possible that there are also talks happening behind the scenes that would finally land the Irish in a conference and make them eligible for a top-four seed. Swarbrick has repeatedly emphasized in recent years that Notre Dame continues to place a significant value on its independence, but the one-year experiment in the ACC in 2020 went as well as could possibly have been expected for the Irish and it's possible the "maintain independence at all cost" mindset could be changing in South Bend. That's not at all clear yet, but there is now a significant incentive to get Notre Dame to consider the possibility.