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    A 12-team College Football Playoff in the BCS/CFP eras: Who would have made it?

    An expanded 12-team College Football Playoff is coming soon, opening the door to far more schools having legitimate hopes of making it into the field, even if the number of teams that can actually win it may still be limited.

    How may teams can be expected to compete for spots? Let’s go back in time and pretend that the 12-team system was in place at the start of the BCS era, using BCS and CFP rankings from the past 24 seasons as the guide for filling out fields dating back to 1998.

    The key points of the new system: The top six conference champions receive automatic bids, with the four highest-ranked champions earning first-round byes. Though a selection committee’s rankings would have differed from the BCS, we’ll use the BCS standings as our guide from 1998-2013 before moving on to the Playoff rankings. In the case of shared conference championships, whoever was ranked highest in the BCS/CFP rankings is given the automatic bid nod.

    In June 2021, after the 12-team plan was initially floated, The Athletic’s Max Olson broke down 10 years of 12-team playoffs and how those races would have shaped up. Here, we’ll dive into the numbers of how many schools would have earned bids in the past 24 years and more takeaways.

    66 schools would have made at least one playoff appearance

    Team App. Years

    18

    1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021

    16

    2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

    13

    1999, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021

    12

    1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2018, 2019, 2020

    11

    2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2012, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021

    11

    2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2018, 2019

    10

    1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

    10

    2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2019

    9

    2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2012, 2015, 2018, 2020, 2021

    9

    2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2016, 2017

    8

    2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014

    8

    1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2012, 2014

    8

    2000, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015

    8

    1998, 1999, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2016, 2017, 2019

    7

    2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

    7

    1999, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2016, 2018, 2021

    7

    1999, 2005, 2008, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019

    7

    2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009

    6

    2004, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2013, 2017

    6

    2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2017

    6

    1999, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2021

    6

    2001, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015

    6

    1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009

    4

    2013, 2014, 2019, 2021

    4

    2008, 2009, 2020, 2021

    4

    2002, 2004, 2009, 2015

    4

    1998, 1999, 2000, 2001

    4

    1998, 1999, 2001, 2003

    4

    2004, 2008, 2019, 2021

    4

    2000, 2016, 2017, 2018

    3

    2006, 2010, 2011

    3

    2007, 2010, 2013

    3

    1998, 2012, 2020

    3

    2013, 2017, 2018

    2

    1998, 2014

    2

    2001, 2016

    2

    2004, 2006

    2

    2011, 2021

    2

    2014, 2021

    2

    2011, 2013

    2

    2005, 2007

    1

    2007

    1

    2004

    1

    2020

    1

    2009

    1

    2007

    1

    2015

    1

    2001

    1

    2020

    1

    2020

    1

    2007

    1

    1999

    1

    2001

    1

    2019

    1

    2003

    1

    2014

    1

    2015

    1

    2012

    1

    2000

    1

    2021

    1

    2008

    1

    1998

    1

    1998

    1

    1998

    1

    2002

    1

    2016

    Thirteen schools have made appearances in the four-team College Football Playoff in its eight seasons of existence. If a 12-team system dated back 24 years to 1998, 66 FBS schools would have earned at least one bid by now.

    The most frequent qualifiers remain predictable. Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama have been the most consistently successful teams over the course of the entire AP poll era, and thanks to the arrival of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has been the most consistently successful in the BCS/CFP era, too.

    The Buckeyes would have made a 12-team playoff in 18 of 24 seasons, falling short only from 1999-2001 and again in 2011 (the Luke Fickell interim season between Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer) and 2012, when they went undefeated under Meyer but were ineligible.

    Alabama would have made a 12-teamer in 12 of Nick Saban’s 15 seasons, excluding his debut in 2007, plus 2010 and 2019.

    Twelve current Group of 5 teams would have made at least one appearance, led by Boise State in eight of 24 seasons. The others: Cincinnati, UCF, Coastal Carolina, Hawaii, Houston, Marshall, Memphis, Miami (OH), Northern Illinois, Tulane and Western Michigan. Only Big 12-bound UCF and Cincinnati (two of which would have come in the Big East) join Boise State with multiple appearances, though Utah, TCU and Louisville would have earned bids prior to joining power conferences.


    UCF would have earned three bids to 12-team playoffs. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

    11 current Power 5 schools would not have earned a bid

    Team Closest call (year, rank)

    2007, 14th

    2013, 24th

    2018, 14th

    1999, 13th

    2021, 18th

    2015, 13th

    2003, 14th

    2006, 16th

    1998, 15th

    N/A

    2006, 14th

    Of the 66 teams that would have earned at least one bid, 54 are currently in the Power 5. The above 11 never quite put themselves in position to earn a spot in an expanded 12-team bracket, though most came close. Only Vanderbilt has never finished ranked in the final BCS/CFP rankings. James Franklin guided the Commodores to a pair of AP poll finishes in 2012 and 2013, but those rankings came after the bowl games.

    The closest teams were a pair of No. 13 rankings from the Big Ten: Minnesota in 1999 and Northwestern in 2015. The Wildcats would have easily gotten the hardest luck, with seven appearances in the final BCS/CFP rankings netting zero 12-team playoff bids. Boston College and Minnesota have the next-most rankings appearances among these teams with four each.

    13 teams would have earned bids from outside the top 12

    Automatic bids given out to the top six conference champions can fall to teams outside the top 12, though most are at least in the ballpark. The lowest-ranked team that would have received a bid was 2014 Boise State, which finished 20th in the CFP rankings. With the Big East evolving into the AAC, that was the first year of the Power 5/Group of 5 divide. The Broncos were the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion, earning a bid to the Fiesta Bowl.

    Two years earlier, Boise State would have received a bid despite being ranked 19th in the BCS. The 2012 season featured numerous oddities, as 12-0 Ohio State was postseason ineligible, the Big Ten was won by 8-5 Wisconsin and the conference would have been left out. The Big East, with a four-way tie for first, also would have been left out. In addition to Boise State from the Mountain West, NIU would have gotten a bid from the MAC.

    Six teams would have received byes from outside the top 6 seeds

    Two of these teams had double-digit rankings, including 2012 ACC champion Florida State. The Seminoles, ranked 12th in the BCS, would have vaulted to the No. 4 seed, while Notre Dame, ranked first in the BCS, would have been the No. 5 seed because of its lack of a conference championship. A year earlier, Wisconsin would have been the No. 4 seed despite being ranked 10th due in part to another stacked year of highly ranked SEC teams.

    In 2001, No. 8 Illinois would have snagged the last bye after LSU upset Tennessee in the SEC title game.

    32 schools would have received at least one bye

    Team Byes Years

    9

    1999, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2021

    9

    1998, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

    9

    2000, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

    7

    1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014

    6

    2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

    6

    2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008

    4

    2003, 2007, 2011, 2019

    4

    2001, 2010, 2011, 2014

    3

    2004, 2010, 2013

    3

    2002, 2005, 2017

    3

    2000, 2001, 2002

    2

    2009, 2021

    2

    2006, 2008

    2

    2003, 2021

    2

    2013, 2015

    2

    2005, 2016

    2

    2012, 2013

    2

    2009, 2010

    2

    2005, 2009

    2

    2004, 2008

    2

    1999, 2007

    2

    2000, 2016

    2

    2010, 2011

    1

    2021

    1

    2001

    1

    2001

    1

    2012

    1

    2006

    1

    1999

    1

    2011

    1

    1998

    1

    1998

    Again, no surprise that Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma are ahead of everyone here. All told, 32 teams would have received at least one bye, including Cincinnati from the AAC in 2021, TCU from the Mountain West in 2009 and 2010 and Utah from the Mountain West in 2004 and 2008. Boise State would have come close with a No. 6 seed in 2009.

    Three of the past 11 national champions would not have earned byes because they did not win their conference: 2021 Georgia, 2017 Alabama and 2011 Alabama.


    All but three of Nick Saban’s Alabama teams would have made 12-team playoffs. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

    The SEC is a step above everyone else

    Conference Bids

    SEC

    68

    Big Ten

    52

    Big 12

    50

    Pac-10/12

    39

    ACC

    29

    Big East

    11

    Mountain West

    10

    Independents

    8

    WAC

    7

    American

    7

    MAC

    4

    Conference USA

    2

    Sun Belt

    1

    Based on conference affiliation at the time of the rankings, the SEC would have garnered 68 bids in 24 seasons, headlined by five bids in 2012, the year it expanded to 14 teams. The 1999 Big Ten, 2001 Big 12, 2006 SEC, 2011 SEC, 2013 SEC, 2016 Big Ten, 2018 SEC and 2020 SEC would have gotten four bids apiece. There’s an asterisk here, as the SEC and Big Ten both expanded to 14 teams. It will only get easier for them to rack up bids as they expand to 16 teams in the coming years.

    The structure of the FBS has also changed during this 24-year window. During the 16-year BCS era, the Big East was considered one of the six power conferences, so there was no guarantee anyone from outside the power conferences would have gotten a bid each year. Going forward, the Group of 5 is guaranteed at least one slot.

    Four teams in the BCS top 2 wouldn’t have received byes

    Year Team CFP/BCS

    2003

    1

    2012

    1

    2001

    2

    2011

    2

    Neither Notre Dame in 2012 nor Alabama in 2011 won a conference championship, and thus they would have been forced to play in the first round. So it goes for Notre Dame as long as it chooses to stay independent.

    The other oddities were in 2001 and 2003, a pair of controversial BCS seasons. In 2001, Nebraska got pummeled 62-36 by Colorado on Black Friday and failed to win the Big 12 North, and yet it dropped only to No. 4 after the loss and then rose back to No. 2 without playing, beating out 10-2 Colorado and 10-1 Oregon for a BCS title game slot against Miami. Had the current system been in place, Colorado, Oregon and Illinois would have joined the Canes in getting byes, and No. 2 Nebraska would have hosted a Round 1 game as the No. 5 seed. That’s based solely on BCS rankings; a selection committee is unlikely to have been as kind to the Huskers as the BCS computers (Nebraska was ranked fourth in the AP poll).

    In 2003, Oklahoma lost 35-7 to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship but stayed No. 1 in the BCS, ahead of fellow one-loss teams LSU and USC. LSU went on to beat Oklahoma for the BCS title, while AP voters rebelled and tabbed USC as their champion. In this 12-team system, Oklahoma would have been penalized for the loss to Kansas State by slipping to the No. 5 seed and hosting a first-round game.

    One four-loss team would have received a bid

    That’s 2002 Florida State, which finished the regular season with a 9-4 record but won the ACC and would have nabbed the last spot in the field. Twenty-eight other teams would have made the 12-team field with three losses.

    Every undefeated team would have made the field, though four teams — 1999 Marshall, 2016 Western Michigan, 2017 UCF and 2020 Coastal Carolina — would have done so as the 12th and last team in.

    Find the full 12-team playoff fields for each season dating back to 1998 here.

    (Top photo of Nebraska and Colorado in 2001: Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

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