Would the Tigers benefit from a 16 team playoff?


In a chaotic offseason that has been focused mostly on conference realignment and NIL, one subject that has taken a backseat is the possible expansion of the College Football Playoff and how that could affect Clemson football.

This possibility dominated the headlines last summer following a recommendation by a committee that suggested the CFP should consider expanding to 12 teams.

The 12-team plan generated a lot of discussion, and there were plenty of positive and negative opinions. I personally loved the 12-team concept, for a handful of reasons. I like the idea of ​​giving the top four teams byes because I think it will keep teams at the top hungry. Teams ranked 1-5 would be near locks to be in a 12-team field going into the last week of the season. Inclusion in the playoff wouldn’t motivate them, but the chance to get a bye into the quarterfinals would give them something to play for.

Others pointed out that there isn’t a need for more teams because in most years we can be confident that the best team is covered in a 4-team playoff. Some pointed at the length of a season for teams that make the championship game, concerned about player welfare and exposing them to more potential injuries. All points were fair.

All this discussion appeared to become moot after it became public that Texas & Oklahoma were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Suddenly, the other conferences became acutely aware that the soon-to-be 16-team SEC could potentially dominate a 12-team field with no automatic bids or conference limits. This led to the short-lived Alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and PAC-12, which effectively blocked the expansion of the CFP in 2021.

Now, after USC & UCLA have announced their intention to leave the PAC-12 for the Big Ten – effectively ending the Alliance – the discussion of and expanded playoff has resumed. The current plan that is generating the most debate is now a 16-team model. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren endorsed the idea:

“I do want to look at 16. I want to look at all of them. I want to look at everything but four.”

Given that the Big Ten and SEC have consolidated a decent amount of power, I expect this expansion will move forward this time. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has already indicated he will support an expansion of the playoff but has generally been less supportive of automatic bids for conferences.

I also believe that expansion will happen at this point because the ACC, PAC-12, Big 12 and Group of Five will start supporting it. Most of the programs & fanbases outside of the SEC & Big Ten are concerned about the amount of financial clout those two conferences will wield in a few seasons when the realignment has happened in 2024-25. Both conferences are expected to see a huge increase in TV revenue compared to the balance of the FBS. While expanding does create more spots for the Power Two, it also creates more spots for the other conferences.

Another considerable concern is how much the Power Two might eventually dominate a four-team playoff with no guarantees for conference champions. In the long run, even a six or eight team plan could be occupied 50-75% by the “Power Two”, leaving the others fighting for scraps.

Much of this is ironic. Just last year, most leaders in college football didn’t want a 12-team model that simply guaranteed at least six conference champions because they were concerned the SEC would dominate the six at-large bids. Now, most leaders in college football seem willing to endorse an even larger 16-team model simply because it increases the odds their conference can gain any representation in the playoff. It is unknown if the 16-team model being discussed includes any clauses for conference champions.

Is this 16-team model good for Clemson? I know that many coaches, including Coach Swinney, have spoken out against expansion, for a few reasons. One of the reasons that a lot of talking heads have noted is that Clemson has been dominant enough over the past seven seasons that they usually stand a good chance of making a four-team playoff. Why endorse a 12 or 16-team model when all Clemson needs is four?

The answer is that I think being Top 4 will become harder and harder to come by. Do I want Clemson to stay at the top of college football? Yes, of course I do. Do I trust Coach Swinney to keep the program at a high level? Yes, you do.

Am I realistic about the ebb and flow of college football? Absolutely, yes, I am. I think the consolidation of power by the Power Two, coupled with the ACC’s grant of rights locking teams into the conference through 2036, will create more challenges for Clemson over the next decade.

This isn’t completely about Clemson and what they do. I expect the Tigers to continue to invest the kind of money necessary in infrastructure, recruiting and staff budgets to stay on top of the conference and be the best the program possible. The truth is that there aren’t many other programs in the conference that are able and/or willing to make that same investment.

Being the best team in the ACC annually won’t carry the same clout as it used to carry because the balance of Clemson’s peers won’t be able to keep up with the big spenders of the SEC and Big Ten. When Purdue finds themselves with money they’ve never had before and decide to poach a top-notch offensive coordinator with a huge salary, Clemson will match their offer. Pittsburgh won’t. Louisville will not. Virginia will not. They might want to match it to keep their OC, but they won’t have the budget.

I am not even sure that “football” schools like Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech will be able to match lucrative offers from SEC & Big Ten schools to poach their best assistant coaches. Historically, even they have been hesitant to invest big money in staff. Miami seems to have changed that attitude, but time will tell if they spend the money well.

The landscape will continue to change drastically for Clemson football in the coming years

By 2030, it is conceivable that Clemson can win the Atlantic Coast Conference and be eyeing a final CFP ranking outside the top four because the ACC, and therefore their schedule, is perceived to be weak compared to the SEC and Big Ten. The Power Two schools (outside South Carolina) are likely to be less and less interested in scheduling them out of conference.

Clemson’s lone hope to prove they belong is to get that spot in the playoff and show on the field that they belong with the big boys of college football. That is the kind of thing we used to say about the Group of Five, but sadly it appears to be the future for the ACC, PAC-12 and Big 12 if they can’t figure out how to increase revenue.

Keep in mind that just because the ACC has a grant of rights through 2036 doesn’t mean they can’t continue to add programs from the PAC-12 or Big 12. Several experts believe Notre Dame has a much simpler path towards exiting the ACC than full members. While they would like to stay independent, they might get an offer they can’t refuse.

I think the Power Two will eventually dominate a four team playoff with no automatic bids or quotas for conference champions. If the playoff is expanded, I still think at least 50% of the teams will come from the Power Two. That won’t change whether the number is eight teams, twelve teams or sixteen teams. The benefit of a 16-team field for non-Power Two schools, including Clemson, will be that there will be more opportunities for them to lineup against a Power Two school and prove they belong.

Many scoff at this line of reasoning. Sometimes they simply think “Clemson has faced all those challenges before, and they will keep beating them”. At the risk of offending those fans, I think that perspective is naïve, short-sighted and a little conceited. The landscape of college football is about to change drastically. An expanded playoff might be the only way the rest of college football, including Clemson, can keep the Power Two from completely tilting the balance of power in their direction.

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