The 12-team playoff is coming.
Pending an official rubber stamp from the College Football Playoff decision-makers, a new era of college football will soon be ushered in with an expanded postseason. The new format, which triples the size of the current four-team model, will go into effect in 2024 after the Rose Bowl agreed to amend its contract and remain a part of the CFP lineup for the 2024 and 2025 seasons and beyond.
So now that the expanded field is (almost) here, what does that mean for Clemson and the rest of the ACC?
First, the ACC champion will be a virtual lock for the playoff, which hasn’t always been the case under the current format. As part of the new format, the 12-team field will be made up of the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest-ranked at-large teams.
A conference title was always good enough for Clemson during its run of six consecutive CFP appearances from 2015-20, but that was because the Tigers started those seasons at or near the top of the rankings and never lost much ground while steamrolling through a league that isn’t the same gauntlet as some other Power Five conferences.
Pittsburgh ended Clemson’s streak of ACC titles last season by knocking off Wake Forest in the 2021 conference championship game, but the Panthers were relegated to the Peach Bowl after finishing No. 12 in the final CFP rankings with two losses. Unless two Group of Five conference champs are ranked higher than the ACC champion going forward – it’s an unlikely scenario given a Group of Five champ has never ended a season ranked higher than the ACC champ during the playoff era – a conference title will ensure the ACC a seat at the table.
The 12-team format also opens the door to the possibility of multiple teams from the league being part of the same playoff, something that’s yet to happen. If the ACC champion is a shoe-in and five other conference champs are as well, then another team from the conference would need to finish the season ranked in the top 12 in order to give itself the best chance at an at-large berth.
The ACC would’ve had multiple playoff representatives three different times had the 12-team format already been in place. The conference would’ve had three teams in at the end of the 2015 season when Clemson won the league and Florida State and North Carolina finished ninth and 10th, respectively, in the final CFP rankings.
A lesser known is how the new format might affect scheduling among Power Five programs if they know winning their conference will get them in. Some of the sport’s traditional powers might not be inclined to put more challenging non-conference games on future slates. Of course, only one team can win the conference title, so many teams may want to keep a quality strength of schedule intact to boost their playoff resume in case they’re left duking it out with other at-large contenders.
Clemson has made a habit of challenging itself in the non-conference under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers have played a Power Five opponent from another league every season since the playoff era began in 2014, and that will continue in the coming years. Clemson will finish up a home-and-home series with Notre Dame next season before opening the 2024 season against Georgia. The Tigers will then start a home-and-home with LSU in 2025.
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