What a 12-team College Football Playoff would mean for Week 4's biggest matchups

BySeth Walder ESPN logo
Friday, September 23, 2022

It's a dreary week for the College Football Playoff race. And it has us wondering: What if it were 2026 already?

Throughout the entirety of college football there is not a single game on this week's slate in which both teams have at least one percentage point of playoff leverage, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. In other words: There's no game where a win or loss matters for both teams in terms of the playoff race.

Would it be better with a 12-team playoff? Well, by that measure, yes. There would be eight games where both teams cleared the admittedly low bar of one percentage point of playoff leverage. With more playoff spots available, that was bound to increase. But it would also change the consequences of games across the board. So let's take a look: What would be at stake in Week 4 in a 12-team world?

Florida at Tennessee

In our current state, Tennessee is a playoff contender with an outside shot and a 14% chance at earning a berth. That can increase to ... 15% with a win. A loss drops them to 3%.

In a 12-team playoff? No team would have more playoff leverage at stake in Week 4 than the Vols. A win or a loss against Florida would equate the difference between a 72% chance at the 12-team playoff and a 39% chance. That's huge!

Maryland at Michigan

Remember those eight games I mentioned where both teams would have at least one percentage point worth of playoff leverage? You're looking at the first of them. Suddenly with a 12-team playoff, a team like 3-0 Maryland has a shot if everything breaks right. In this case, if the Terps were to walk out of Michigan Stadium with a win, they would be looking at an 11% chance at the playoff, per the Predictor. As opposed to under a 1% chance today.

Michigan would have multiple levels of leverage at stake: The Wolverines playoff chances would swing from 52% with a loss to 82% with a win. But Michigan will also have its eye on one of those byes if things go well the rest of the way. The Wolverines would be able to get up to a 19% chance of a bye with a win, while a loss would drop their bye hopes to just 7%.

USC at Oregon State

This is no gimme for the Trojans against the 3-0 Beavers, with FPI giving USC a 69% chance to win. The consequences are significant for USC in either setup: The Trojans' playoff chances with a win would jump to 25% in a four-team format and drop to 7% with a loss.

While a loss would no longer be quite as devastating in a 12-team format, the difference between a win and loss would be larger: 73% to 44%. Like with Michigan, there would also be serious bye stakes for USC, especially as a team more likely to win its conference. Beating Oregon State would get the Trojans up to a 48% (!) shot at a bye, while losing would drop them to 29%.

And how about those Beavers? They would have a 7% chance at a playoff berth in a 12-team world should they beat USC this week (under 1% with a loss). It's better than nothing, and it raises the reward of winning from just being a spoiler (from a playoff perspective).

Wisconsin at Ohio State

Here's a game where a playoff contender's leverage would fall in a 12-team playoff setup. Ohio State is currently looking at a 70% chance to earn a berth with a win over the Badgers and a 42% chance with a loss, per the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

With a 12-team playoff, the difference between those numbers would compress, as a loss for an excellent team like Ohio State would hardly keep it out: The Buckeyes would move from a 97% playoff chance with a win to an 85% chance with a loss. But the game would also have first-round bye ramifications, with Ohio State's chances moving from 53% to 38% depending on a win or a loss.

And the game would have playoff meaning for Wisconsin, which it currently does not in the four-team format: The Badgers would have a 20% chance at a berth with a win over Ohio State and an 8% chance with loss.

Minnesota at Michigan State

FPI makes Michigan State a 61% favorite in this contest, though undefeated Minnesota would be the team with higher leverage: an 18 percentage point swing between winning and losing with the upside of a 30% chance to reach the CFP with a victory. The game would matter for the Spartans too, even after their loss to Washington, to the tune of eight percentage points of leverage (maxing out an 11% chance at the CFP with a win).

In our current state, only Minnesota has playoff stakes, and barely: a 3% shot with a win.

Baylor at Iowa State

This game moves from what should be a close game (Baylor is a 53% favorite) with virtually no playoff implications to a close game with significant playoff implications for both teams. Neither team would likely make the playoff in a 12-team format, but with a win, they both would have a chance. For Baylor, that would be a 25% shot and Iowa State a 10% chance.