When the 2023 college football season kicks off in earnest this week, enjoy it. You’ll never experience one like this again.
Years of board meetings and conference calls have led to separate, major changes that will converge on the field next fall. Though traditionalists will be annoyed, if not alienated, the hope is that more casual fans will be intrigued as college football pursues the ultimate prize: higher TV ratings. And, of course, more money.
The first big impending change is the College Football Playoff. This is the final year of a four-team bracket; it expands to 12 next season. The massive overhaul has been easy to ignore or forget as expansion talks started, stopped and resumed far too many times since the playoff era opened with the Florida State-Oregon semifinal after the 2014 regular season.
The four-team format eliminated some of the previous era’s any-given-Saturday tension because most championship contenders could recover from one loss. The weekly stakes will be even more different next season.
No two-loss team has ever made the playoff so far. Five would have last season with a 12-team field. A pair of three-loss conference champions (Utah and Kansas State) would have been in, too.
There will still be drama, of course. TCU’s loss in the Big 12 title game would have cost the Horned Frogs a first-round bye (given to the top four conference champions). That’s not the same as missing the field entirely, but it’s significant.
The Florida-Florida State regular-season finale would have been even more intense with the Seminoles on the playoff bubble. The new format also all but ensures that an undefeated mid-major team (like 2017-18 UCF) won’t be left out, which gives you a reason to pay more attention to the sport as a whole.
Whether an expanded field is good or bad for entertainment depends on how it plays out and your personal preferences. But we do know the new-look CFP will shift the entire sport.
So, too, will conferences that realign after two years of chaos.
One of the five major leagues, the Pac-12, will either be dead or a shell of itself by next fall. Texas will play Florida and Vanderbilt as SEC opponents but not Texas Tech (an annual opponent since 1960) or Baylor (a series that dates back to 1901). Oklahoma will play Mississippi and South Carolina but not Oklahoma State.
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The Big Ten will grow to 18 teams by adding USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington, while the Big 12 swells to 16. There’s a growing possibility Cal and Stanford will be conference colleagues with FSU and Miami in the ACC … which (last we checked) stands for Atlantic Coast Conference. For all we know, USF-Washington State will be a conference game, too.
These impending changes, like the expanded playoff, are neither inherently good or bad. Just different. You can be upset at the end of Texas-TCU and a potential break in the Oregon-Oregon State rivalry while looking forward to the return of Texas-Texas A&M and the possibility of Oregon-Ohio State. Realignment giveth, and realignment taketh away.
Next year’s changes are just the beginning. The SEC and Big Ten aren’t done collecting big brands. If UCLA and Washington can leave Cal and Washington State behind, why can’t the Big Ten and SEC ditch Purdue and Mississippi State? FSU and Clemson don’t have much time before they start getting lapped financially in a way that will take years to recover from. Name, image and likeness seems more like a stopgap than a permanent solution to player compensation — another looming force set to transform the sport.
But those factors belong in the background this week. Issues for another day in another fall.
For now, kickoff is nearing. We have blockbuster openers (Florida at No. 14 Utah, No. 8 FSU vs. No. 5 LSU), fascinating debuts (first-time head coach Alex Golesh at USF, plus UCF in the Big 12 and Florida Atlantic in the AAC) and the perennial unpredictability of Miami.
We’ve almost arrived at the first full, long weekend of the college football season. And we’ll never experience another one quite like it.
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