Four teams attempt to solidify their spot in the 2022 College Football Playoff on championship weekend. Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC are the runaway favorites to clinch a spot in the four, while every other contender is sitting at home -- looking at you, Ohio State.
But the calculus is about to change completely. The 12-team College Football Playoff, commencing in 2024-25, will bring new stakes for every single team on championship Saturday and ensure that no team can back its way into one of the coveted four first-round byes. Instead, the results of highly competitive conference championship weekend makes winning conference championships more valuable than ever.
We decided to give ourselves an early taste of the mayhem. In a 12-team playoff world, all 10 teams involved in Power Five conference championship games would have stakes. So would the AAC, with its champion all but guaranteed a spot. Don't count out contenders from the Sun Belt or Conference USA catching our attention, either.
Here is how every participant in a conference championship game would be impacted by the arrival of a 12-team College Football Playoff in 2022, including two play-in games.
No. 9 Clemson: With the way things line up, Clemson is right on the bubble for a first-round bye in a 12-team CFP. The Tigers are in line for a top-six berth but if USC or TCU slipped, they would be right in line to steal a top four-spot. A loss almost certainly knocks the Tigers behind UNC and out of the field.
No. 23 North Carolina: The Tar Heels are outside of the top 12, but winning their first ACC Championship since 1980 would lock them into the sixth (and final) conference championship berth. UNC would likely be the No. 12 seed in the field, but it would help bring star quarterback Drake Maye to the national stage -- and maybe even set up a 2023 Heisman campaign.
No. 2 Michigan: The Wolverines would have a spot locked up, but both seeding and a bye would be on the line in a tune-up against Purdue. Michigan could be within striking distance of the No. 1 seed, but losing would drop UM to no higher than No. 5, which would set up a path where the Wolverines play No. 1 Georgia in the semifinals instead of the national championship game.
Purdue: Strangely, the Big Ten West carousel actually leaves the conference runner-up in a precarious position. With four losses and slightly embarrassing performances against Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, there's no guarantee that winning the Big Ten championship would be enough to raise the Boilermakers past the AAC champ, the Sun Belt champ, or even perhaps UTSA in Conference USA.
No. 3 TCU: The Horned Frogs would have earned a trip to the College Football Playoff prior to the weekend, but they could lock up one of the critical first-round byes. With the way things set up now, a bye would slot the Frogs against an Alabama team that would have had to fight and claw against a highly physical Utah team in the first round. Beating one of the worst Tide teams of the Nick Saban era would earn TCU unmatched credibility.
No. 10 Kansas State: With the current rankings, Kansas State would be the penultimate auto bid in the field ahead of No. 11 Utah. A loss in the Big 12 Championship Game could push the Wildcats out, but a win could be massive as K-State could easily jump a mediocre Clemson performance and push the Wildcats into the top four with a first-round bye. Granted, the positioning wouldn't be too bad right now; as a potential 10-seed, they would play No. 7 seed Tennessee without injured quarterback Hendon Hooker. Still, taking a game off the table would help.
No. 4 USC: The Trojans would be in, but seeding would very much be on the line in this rematch against their lone loss of the season. With an impressive résumé, USC could push TCU for the No. 3 seed, though a loss would push the Trojans back into the field with a potential matchup with Clemson in the second round.
No. 11 Utah: The Utes would be the last team into a potential playoff and could easily fall out with a loss. Utah was the preseason Pac-12 favorite and a popular College Football Playoff pick before USC's rise, and showed it can hang with the Trojans. Kyle Whittingham's squad would have an opportunity to leave no doubt.
No. 1 Georgia: The Bulldogs have the inside track to the top overall seed after dominating the regular season. Taking care of business in the SEC Championship Game would lock in the Bulldogs at No. 1. For more context of how important a conference championship can be, however, look at last season. Losing to Alabama would have pushed the Bulldogs from No. 3 to No. 5
No. 14 LSU: A few weeks ago, the Tigers would have been locks for the field. Now, because of the importance of the regular season, LSU has to beat the No. 1 team in the nation just to make the final 12. Brian Kelly is one of the most underrated in-game coaches in college football and would need to pull out all the stops to make Georgia deeply uncomfortable -- if that's even possible.
Group of Five
No. 18 Tulane, No. 22 UCF: As the only two ranked Group of Five teams in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, the winner of this game is a virtual certainty as the No. 12 team in the expanded College Football Playoff. UCF's success over the past decade has played a major role in the playoff expanding, while Tulane has reached national prominence only once since leaving the SEC in 1949. Needless to say, the stakes in this game would be off the charts.
Everyone else: Most likely, the six auto bids in a 12-team playoff would be taken up by the five Power Five champions and the AAC champ. However, a battle between 10-win teams Coastal Carolina and Troy could catch the committee's attention, especially if the return of Grayson McCall makes the Chanticleers' loss to James Madison look forgivable. UTSA could also get some attention if it's able to finish off a second consecutive Conference USA title. The Mountain West and MAC are probably too far behind to compete right now, but an emphatic victory always helps.