How the new 12-team College Football Playoff will work

Feb 21, 2024, 10:49 AM

UW Huskies Michael Penix Jr College Football Playoff...

Michael Penix Jr. of the UW Huskies celebrates after a win over Texas on Jan. 1, 2024. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 12-team College Football Playoff is 10 months away from kicking off and the format for it has finally been locked in.

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University presidents who make up the CFP Board of Managers unanimously approved one last tweak to increase the number of at-large bids from six to seven. The change to reserve only five spots for conference champions instead of six — as was originally planned — was prompted by conference realignment.

The Pac-12 will continue to operate next season, but with only two schools — Oregon State and Washington State, who will play most of their games against Mountain West opponents.

With the Power Five down to four and the Pac-12’s future uncertain, the commissioners on the CFP management committee agreed to change the model from 6-6 to 5-7. Presidential approval was delayed about a month by some concerns from the Pac-12’s representative, but the format is now set.

“This is a very logical adjustment for the College Football Playoff based on the evolution of our conference structures since the board first adopted this new format in September 2022,” Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State and chairman of the CFP board, said Tuesday.

Considering the fits and starts since work began on expansion in 2019 and a 12-team plan was first publicly introduced in 2021, one more speed bump seemed appropriate.

There are still important behind-the-scenes issues related to governance and revenue distribution for CFP managers to tackle looking toward 2026 and beyond. But the who, where, when and how of the first two seasons of the 12-team playoff seem set.


It is all about the rankings from the 13-member selection panel.

The five highest-ranked conference champions will make the field and then the seven highest-ranked at-large qualifiers. There are no automatic bids.

The four-highest ranked conference champs receive first-round byes into the quarterfinals. The four first-round games will match the teams seeded five through 12.


First-round games will be played on campus, hosted by the higher-ranked team: No. 12 at No. 5; No. 11 at No. 6; No. 10 at No. 7; and No. 9 at No. 8. Those games this year are scheduled to be played Dec. 20 and Dec. 21.

Using the CFP rankings from the end of last season, a 12-team playoff would look like this: No. 12 seed Oklahoma at No. 5 Florida State; No. 11 Ole Miss at No. 6 Georgia; No. 10 Penn State at No. 7 Ohio State; No. 9 Missouri at No. 8 Oregon; and the top four seeds — Michigan, Washington, Texas and Alabama — would get byes.

The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played at traditional bowl sites, using the six bowls in the current CFP semifinal rotation. The top four teams will be slotted into the most advantageous locations, with the top seed getting the most preference.

Teams will not be reseeded after the opening round. The top seed will face the winner of 8 vs. 9; with the No. 2 seed taking on the winner of 7 vs. 10; No. 3 playing the 6 or 11 seed; and No. 4 facing the 5-12 winner.

The Fiesta Bowl quarterfinal next season is set for Dec. 31 and the Peach, Rose and Sugar bowls are slated to be played Jan. 1. The Orange Bowl semifinal is scheduled for Jan. 9 and the Cotton Bowl semifinal Jan. 10.

The first championship game with the 12-team format is scheduled for Jan. 20 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.


It is best to think of the next two seasons of the 12-team playoff as something of a test run for the selection process, the number of at-large bids and where the games are played.

Conceivably, those things could be changed come 2026 because, as of right now, there is no contract in place beyond 2025.

The CFP and ESPN have agreed in principle to a six-year contract that runs through the 2031 football season and is worth more than $7 billion. That deal is not done because issues related to revenue distribution and governance still need to be worked out.

On the revenue side, the Power Five conferences receive about 78% of the CFP revenue to distribute to their members in the old system, with the Group of Five getting almost all of the rest.

With the Power Five shrinking to a Power Four, and the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten separating further in something of a Big Two, how money is split up and decisions are made is certain to change going forward.

The current CFP structure requires unanimity among all 10 conferences, plus Notre Dame, to change the system. That’s why expansion took so long. Expect the SEC and Big Ten to hold more sway over the CFP when a new deal is agreed upon.

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