Sports

What to expect from college football in 2024: Realignment, a 12-team playoff and a Saban-less SEC

The minute after Michigan was presented the national championship trophy in Houston, the college football season — and its accompanying predictions — flipped to 2024.

If ever there was a Y2K year in college football, this was it — but the lights didn’t go out in NRG Stadium and the sport began its journey into unprecedented change that includes sweeping conference realignment and a 12-team playoff that will again alter how the champion is crowned.

Ready or not, here it comes.

“The change is real,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “You can either run from it and hide, or you can embrace it.”

From a sideline without retired Alabama coaching legend Nick Saban to an Atlantic Coast Conference that includes Pacific Coast teams, college football will look vastly different this fall — even to those immersed in it for a living. The new, expanded playoff will start before Christmas — and end on Jan. 20, 2025, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“It’s a big year,” Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “This is a fascinating evolution of the playoff. It’s no small thing.”

Here’s an explanation of all of the big things fans can expect to see changing this fall.

Jump to a topic:
Conference realignment
12-team CFP
CFP schedule
Other bowls
Conference title games
Life without Saban
Who governs the sport?

Who’s in what conference?

Let’s start with the basics, because even that’s nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Beginning with the 2024 season, the Big Ten will be the largest conference in the country with 18 teams, and the ACC — with the additions of SMU, Cal and Stanford — will follow with 17 teams. The SEC and Big 12 will each have 16 teams.

The Pac-12? Well, it’s down to Oregon State and Washington State, which will have a scheduling agreement with the Mountain West Conference.

The SEC will include: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt.

The Big 12 will include: Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor, BYU, Cincinnati, Colorado, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, UCF, Utah, West Virginia.

The Big Ten will include: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Washington.

The ACC will include: Boston College, Cal, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, SMU, Stanford, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest.

None of them will have divisions, so the top two teams in each league will face meet in their respective conference championship games. Retiring American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said he believes that even though more history and rivalries will disappear, the love for the sport will remain.

“People enjoy watching games,” Aresco said. “If USC is playing Ohio State, are people going to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a Big Ten game now, I have no interest.’ I don’t think so. This sport has a hold on America, moreso than any other sport.”


How do teams get into the College Football Playoff?

First, exhale — an undefeated Power 5 champion like Florida State will never be excluded again.

“The automatic conference champion was something that was important to the ACC, and I know it was important to other conferences, too,” said ACC commissioner Jim Phillips. “That’s reassuring to everybody.”

The 11 presidents and chancellors who have the ultimate authority over the playoff are expected to soon approve a model that rewards the five highest-ranked conference champions and the next seven highest-ranked teams. That places a renewed emphasis on the conference championship games, and it also guarantees a spot in the 12-team field for the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion — a major change from the four-team system, in which the only guarantee for the top G5 champ was a New Year’s Six bowl.

“Our leagues will have a shot,” Aresco said.

The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn the top-four seeds and receive a first-round bye. The other eight teams will play in the first round, with the higher seeds hosting the lower seeds either on campus or “at other sites designated by the higher-seeded institution.”

That means any team that doesn’t earn the luxury of a first-round bye will have to win four straight games to win the national championship. If a team lost its conference championship game, and played in four straight playoff games, it would have played an unprecedented 17 games.

(And you thought it was hard now).

Be careful not to confuse the seeding with the selection committee’s ranking. The 13-member committee will still issue its weekly top 25, which will be used to determine the highest-ranked conference champs. That means, though, that if Georgia wins the SEC and is ranked No. 1 by the selection committee, and Alabama loses that game and is No. 3 in the CFP ranking — or even No. 2! — the Tide will be seeded No. 5 behind three other conference champs and Georgia.

(Read that again, please).

Historically, the selection committee releases six rankings, which would likely begin this year on Nov. 5, but that is expected to be determined in April at the annual CFP spring meeting. As of now, there is no minimum ranking requirement for the five highest-ranked conference champions. Any independent like Notre Dame cannot earn a first-round bye because it cannot win a conference title. That also applies to Washington State and Oregon State, which have a temporary scheduling arrangement with the Mountain West and can compete for the national championship, but aren’t eligible to win the MWC and don’t constitute a league of their own, per NCAA and CFP rules.

With the sheer number of Big Ten and SEC teams, there’s a possibility that those leagues could fill the bulk of the field.

“We’ve got great depth,” Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti said. “I expect us to have very strong representation in the playoff. I think our coaches expect it, our ADs expect it, our fans expect it. We’re good, we’re deep, and that’s the best advantage.”

Steinbrecher said, “if they earn it, they earn it.”

“I’m a big believer you’re going to earn your way into this thing,” he said. “I’m not quite convinced that it will be totally that [an SEC-Big Ten majority], but we’ll see how it plays out.”


When are the CFP games?

First round (on-campus)
Friday, Dec. 20, 2024: One game (evening)
Saturday, Dec. 21, 2024: Three games (early afternoon, late afternoon and evening)

Quarterfinals
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2024: Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (evening)
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2025: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (early afternoon), Rose Bowl Game (late afternoon) and Allstate Sugar Bowl (evening)

Semifinals
Thursday, Jan. 9, 2025: Capital One Orange Bowl (evening)
Friday, Jan. 10, 2025: Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (evening)

CFP National Championship game
Monday, Jan. 20, 2025: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta


What will happen to the rest of the bowls?

Traditionally, bowl season has started the second Saturday after the conference title games, which will now also be when the playoff starts (see above). Nick Carparelli, executive director of Bowl Season, said the organization will meet with the conference commissioners and ESPN in late January to consider starting earlier.

“That gives an opportunity for some teams who just qualified for bowl games who are excited about the opportunity to play the game sooner, and then to be able to get on with their recruiting,” Carparelli said. “And maybe some of these guys who are entering the transfer portal will play that last game because they don’t have to wait around too long and then go on and do what’s best for them after that.”

The NCAA’s football competition committee meets late February, but a final decision is unlikely to be approved until later in the spring.

The current December schedule for college football is crammed. The transfer window opened on Dec. 4 — the day after the committee announced the playoff teams, and two days after the conference title games. Players were allowed to transfer through Jan. 2 — the day after the CFP semifinals. Sandwiched between all of that was the Dec. 20 early signing day.

“The problem is not the bowls or the bowl system,” Carparelli said. “The problem is the circumstances that we’ve allowed to be created around it.”

Incoming freshmen were watching the transfer portal, and transfers were watching the signing classes. Fans were watching bowl games without some of their star players.

“I think the recruiting calendar in December has to change,” Sankey said. “That’s not something new for me to say. We’re prepared to address it. We’ll spend time as a league and resend ideas again. The early signing date cannot remain where it is. That’s not fair to the highest-level teams. Where the other 110 teams in the bowl subdivision care or FCS, they have to be attentive that this end of football drives the lot. The notion that it’s an awkward timing is reality.”

The New Year’s Six bowls, which are the Cotton, Fiesta, Peach, Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls, will remain a part of the CFP in 2024 and 2025, but the commissioners haven’t said publicly yet how they will figure into the rotation in the next contract.

“There’s so much that’s still going to be discussed, and that’s a topic that still needs to be vetted out,” Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark said, “but from my perspective there’s a great history with the New Year’s Six. In some respects they credentialize those games because there’s a lot of awareness around them. There will be more conversation, but I’m optimistic those games will be a part of the future.”

Phillips has been outspoken about the bowl games outside of the New Year’s Six, and said the commissioners continue to talk about how to keep the bowl season healthy, while also wondering if more than 40 bowls is sustainable.

“Likely not,” Phillips said.

“I just feel that if we don’t pay close attention to that, that will do college football harm,” he said. “There has always been an awful lot of good football teams at the end of the year that want a chance to continue to play, and this new playoff will whet the appetite of many, but it will only kind of quench the thirst of 12. … There’ll be other good teams that have been left out, so we have to try to learn about what we’ve seen through the CFP current model of four, where now we have the transfer portal, opt-outs at a higher rate than before. There’s always been medical reasons why student-athletes haven’t played as well. That’s a piece of this we have to use as part of the decision-making in what we do with the rest of the bowl system.”

To become bowl eligible a school must have a minimum of six wins with a winning percentage of .500. In 2023, the bowls were only one team short, and 5-7 Minnesota filled in. In 2022, Rice was the only team that filled in, and in 2021, there was one team too many from COVID-10 lingering effects.

“Recent historical data tells us we’re at the right number for bowls,” Carparelli said. “It’s impossible to know at the beginning of the season how many bowl-eligible teams you’ll have at the end, but with the information we have, we’re right at the right number.”

Carparelli said the postseason doesn’t have to be an “either-or” between the CFP and the rest of the bowls.

“It’s both combined,” he said. “They both play a really important role in college football.”


What’s the future of conference championship games?

Conference championship games, theoretically, should receive increased interest, given that the top five winners will earn a trip to the playoff and a first-round bye. There has been no indication from any of the commissioners that there is a desire to relinquish such a valuable property — at least not any time soon.

“We’re committed to playing a championship game,” the Big Ten’s Petitti said. “I think in the structure we’re talking about, there’s enough to still play for. It does mean something to win the Big Ten championship. Our fans really support the game and love it. We saw that this year. And the strength of it on a consistent basis is only going to improve with a no-division format. Now you’re matching up two really, really strong teams.”

Yormark called it “a tentpole moment” for the Big 12.

“Will that change over time? I don’t know,” he said. “I love our game. It creates a wonderful narrative. If you just look at this year’s champ game — highest-attended ever. Highest-gross ever, created a ton of excitement, more social media engagement than any other champ game in our history. But with the ever-changing landscape, we’ll have to see what unfolds in the future.”


What will college football look like without Nick Saban?

It won’t be the same without his news conferences, with the coach always next to his trusty Coke bottle, which is “not a crystal ball,” aight?

Not even Saban knows what Alabama will look like when the Kalen DeBoer era begins this fall, but it’s safe to say his retirement will have a trickle-down effect on the entire sport — from the coaching trees he once planted to a door that could open for other SEC teams on the brink of reaching the title game.

(Cough, cough, Lane Kiffin).

With Oklahoma and Texas joining the conference, the SEC will eliminate its divisions this fall, and teams will play eight conference games plus one required opponent from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, or “major independent.” With the 16-team league, the cutthroat competition of chasing Alabama in the now-extinct SEC West will change. That won’t necessarily make it any easier, as LSU still faces the Tide, Ole Miss — and Oklahoma. Ole Miss doesn’t play Alabama, but hosts Georgia and travels to LSU. Georgia faces Alabama during the regular season — along with Texas.

The top two teams that emerge from this slugfest will play for the SEC title.

Saban has been the face of the SEC, and while Georgia coach Kirby Smart has closed the gap on the Tide by winning two of the past three national titles, Saban set the bar by winning six of his seven titles in Tuscaloosa. Even Georgia has a long way to go before matching that dynasty, though Saban will no longer be the one preventing it in the SEC title game.

In addition to Saban’s replacement, there will also be new faces at the highest level of CFP leadership. CFP executive director Bill Hancock has announced his retirement and will be succeeded by Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, who is currently the superintendent of the Air Force Academy.

In the AAC, Aresco is retiring, and the conference is in the midst of a search for his replacement.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has also announced his retirement, and will be replaced by NBC Sports Group chairman and Notre Dame alum Pete Bevacqua. Both Aresco and Swarbrick are members of the CFP management committee.


Will the CFP ever become the governing body of the CFB?

For years, some leaders in college athletics have pushed for FBS football to operate outside of the NCAA’s governance structure. In 2020, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recommended an organization called the National College Football Association govern FBS football through revenue it generates from the CFP media contract.

FBS football is currently the only collegiate sport that runs its championship and all of its revenue outside of the NCAA. While there hasn’t been enough support for the sport to operate under the purview of the CFP, there are still commissioners and athletic directors who believe the CFP should have more authority moving forward.

“My hope would be it becomes more of an enterprise, like a conference or the NCAA and grow beyond just the game operations,” Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez said. “Right now it has big games, events, but it also has revenue distribution. I would like to see us connect rules to the game, policy around the game. The NCAA has academics, transfers, all that, but I would like to see the CFP plug into the policymaking in a more direct manner because right now it exists on the periphery, but it has all the right people in the room.”

Petitti said the governance of the sport isn’t his priority right now.

“Right now I would say the priority is getting the 12-team playoff right,” Petitti said. “That’s the focus. You’re asking it to do a lot more. I know it’s been talked about a lot, but my focus in terms of how I try to contribute in the room and how to represent the Big Ten is to make sure we do that right first.”

Phillips, who has been the only Power 5 commissioner to serve on both the NCAA Constitution and Transformation committees (2022), said there has been some benefit to having the CFP operate outside of the NCAA. Phillips said “it’s worked so far,” but the commissioners will continue to assess if it should remain unchanged.

“What does it do to other sports?” said Phillips, who will become the president of the Collegiate Commissioners Association this summer. “What does it say to other sports, to the other student-athletes and coaches who are in those sports to have one stand alone? I’m not saying positive or negative, but all of it has to be considered, and we’ll continue to do that.”

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