The College Football Playoff is expanding for the 2024 season (which will carry into early 2025).
There will be 12 teams with four rounds of competition. Due to preexisting scheduling challenges, the playoff will be spread out, pushing the action deep into January (the title game is on Martin Luther King Day, or the 20th). This has generally been a time on the sports calendar owned solely by the NFL playoffs.
The result, combined with the previously expanded NFL playoffs (14 teams, up from 12), is a never-before-experienced football-viewing nirvana.
Namely, college football will stage its two semifinals on the Thursday and Friday evenings prior to the NFL’s wild-card weekend, which sees six games played over three days. The result:
Thursday Jan. 9: CFP semifinal
Friday Jan. 10: CFP semifinal
Saturday Jan. 11: two NFL playoff games
Sunday Jan. 12: three NFL playoff games
Monday Jan. 13: one NFL playoff game
That’s five consecutive days/nights of do-or-die playoff action, featuring eight games at two different levels of the sport.
That’s not just a lot of football. That’s a whole lot of high-stakes, high-intensity football.
It repeats in 2026, except the college semis begin on Thursday, Jan. 8.
The five-night football smorgasbord has at least a two-year window.
It's all temporary, because college football would prefer to avoid as much of the NFL ratings and attention juggernaut as it can. As such, the NCAA will likely shift its entire football season up a week — starting before Labor Day.
That will allow two rounds of playoffs to be staged in December and the semifinals to be played on New Year’s Day (which will once again become a college football holiday). The title game will remain in early January.
Until then, however, we have a clunky transitional period.
College football first-round games will be played on campus Friday, Dec. 20 (one game) and Saturday, Dec. 21 (three games). This will clash with regular-season NFL games played that Saturday. It will, no doubt, impact the college ratings, but the NFL will suffer a little too. Either way, for fans, that weekend becomes its own slice of football heaven. Options are always good.
The college quarterfinal round will then proceed with one game on New Year’s Eve and three on New Year’s Day.
Then come the semifinals on the Thursday and Friday before wild-card weekend.
None of this is ideal, but this is the reality for college football. It wasted so many years fighting against the inevitable expansion of the playoff that the NFL gobbled up prime dates.
There are negatives. Having the semifinals played on weeknights at neutral sites (the sport just won’t quit the bowl industry) is tough for fan travel and attendance. And a game the magnitude of a semifinal finishing late on a work/school Thursday night is problematic.
That said, playing the semifinals before wild-card weekend (rather than head-to-head or on the Monday after) should do wonders for the build up of the games. It’s better to be the run up to the NFL than the direct competition or an afterthought.
The three CFP games (two semifinals and the title game) staged last season averaged 20.4 million viewers.
The NFL’s wild-card weekend alone did 28.4 million. The final three-game equivalent to the college playoff isn’t close. The AFC and NFC championship games averaged 50.1 million, while Kansas City defeated Philadelphia in a Super Bowl viewed by 115.1 million.
College football needs to remain unique. It has its own quirks, traditions and passions. The goal shouldn’t be to become the NFL-Lite.
However, if NFL fans geared up for a big football weekend get exposed to college football’s unique blend of passion and action, then some of them are going to be hooked. The sport has incredible growth potential, mainly by tapping into big city fans and viewers who didn’t have the college game instilled in their DNA the way many in the South and Midwest did.
We’ll see, but just know that by January of 2025, when the weather is cold, the sun is still setting early and post-holiday doldrums have set in, there is going to be a five-day sprint of football viewing like never before.
It’s going to be awesome. And you’re probably going to watch every minute.