As much as time has been a weird construct as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s worth noting that we are a little more than two months away from the start of college football season. We’re going to start ramping up the excitement here as the Tar Heels have the ability to put together a special season, but there’s something else on the horizon Carolina fans should be considering:
The College Football Playoff.
By now, you’ve likely heard that the powers that be have proposed a new model for how a college football champion will be determined, all in a structure that keeps the New Year’s Six Bowls in place just...not around New Year’s. The very, very basic version is that the field will be expanded to twelve, proceeding through a four-round tournament that culminates as it does now, in a national championship game. The by-product of this is the elimination of all the “also ran” NY6 bowls, as all six will play some role in the playoff instead of hosting their affiliated teams.
The earliest the change will happen is before the 2023 season, by which point Sam Howell will be long gone from Chapel Hill and hopefully be the reigning NFL Rookie of the Year. That said, based on the recruiting classes coming in right now and who UNC has their eyes on, fans have every reason to pay close attention to this change. Let’s look at a couple of changes and then ask the old question: What does this mean for UNC?
The New Structure
In essence, the CFP committee will now choose twelve teams instead of four to compete for the national title. The top four teams, all of whom have to be conference champions, will get a bye into the round of eight, and the other eight teams will play the first round at the campus site of the higher seed. The winners then meet up with the four bye teams on either New Year’s Day or January 2nd, for the quarterfinals, then the semifinals are held at another two bowls, and finally the national championship is played at a neutral field like it is now.
The assumption here is that the six bowls being used will be the New Year’s Six that host games now, and the reason of course is that the infamous holdout The Rose Bowl is not going to want to play their game any other day than the traditional January 1st (or 2nd if the 1st is on a Sunday). It’s not a sure thing, but for working purposes let’s assume they’ll be the same. The upshot is that the college football season will be extended by a week, but as the NFL season has now been extended by a week thanks to the 17th game, it all works out the same anyway.
Note the term “conference champions.” Why keep that provision in place? It’s always about the money, as this gives teams an incentive to win the lucrative conference title game and get an extra week off. It also adds drama to these games, but note that a conference champion isn’t guaranteed to be in. The example here is, say, an unranked three-loss team upsets a top four team, then the top four team probably still goes, and the unranked team celebrates the conference title and goes to a non-CFP bowl. This also in important for the folks in South Bend, as it means they will never be able to get a bye as they...don’t belong to a conference.
Quotes from the Notre Dame leadership seem to indicate they are fine with this, as they seem confident enough that if they make the tournament they would be a high enough seed to host a home game, and it’ll give them their own “conference championship” that they usually don’t have. That said, add it as another log to the fire as to why the Irish may one day decide to fully come on board to the ACC.
This also represents a huge opportunity for the other FBS schools, as being a conference champion in the American, for example, would count and they could theoretically rise to the level of having a bye. It’s also very likely at at least one, if not more, of them will qualify for this new structure and give them an actual chance at playing for a national title.
What it means for UNC
The biggest thing for the Tar Heels, or for any team really, is that one loss in the regular season won’t actually sink your chances anymore, and two may not even do it. Knowing that you still can play for a national title even if you slip up once could change the focus of several teams, including one that had a few notable stubbed toes last year, and be the rallying point that they need to get over the hump.
Carolina proved in their game against Texas A&M last season that they belonged in the discussion of top programs, and the buzz created by the return of Sam Howell plus the trajectory of the team has already landed some great recruits for Mack Brown. The 2023 season would be his fifth back at Carolina, long enough to have a team full of nothing but his recruits, ones where last season’s would be seniors and so forth.
It also means that in a division begging to have someone take over, the Coastal, Carolina is poised to always be in a discussion for the chance to play for a title simply because they should be at the top of their division. The question, of course, becomes whether or not the ACC sticks with the division format or if they’ll decide to go back to the setup they had last season, where the top two meet for the title, usually guaranteeing at least one will make it to the CFP if not both.
The ability to host a CFP game at Kenan would be huge for the program as well. Brown has brought an energy to Kenan that hasn’t been seen in years, and while hosting a CFP game there would mean they weren’t a top four squad, there would still be no better recruiting tool than seeing a packed stadium of fans, freed from any worries of going to class, cheering on the Tar Heels to the next round. Imagine being able to actually host an NCAA Sweet 16 game at the Smith Center. That’s what this would mean.
The downside is that the Orange Bowl run the Tar Heels made this year would likely be the last one they’d ever have unless they make the CFP. Thus, it creates more of a feeling that if you don’t make the CFP, your season would be a huge disappointment. Never again can you stumble your way into one of the top tier bowls by a combination of luck and good play. It also likely means a slight reorganization of the bowl structure the ACC operates under, and either way if you thought you had too many opt outs for the Orange Bowl-just wait until you have a team full of four and five stars and they aren’t in the CFP.
On the plus side, the new structure is going to be more playoff games for sale, which will likely bring in more money for every conference that participates. In a year where every college program took a hit, being able to count on some extra income is always a good thing.
We won’t know anything for sure until the fall as to whether this will pass, but that it’s gotten this far makes it mostly a fait accompli. Really all that’s left to work out is the details in the sense of which bowls will host which games, and locking up the actual date structure of the games. So while we may have to put up with the ridiculous top four talk this season, in the near future, the college football regular season is about to become a whole lot more fun.