SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A question with an obvious answer was posed to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on Sunday:
If College Football Playoff were to expand its field, what number of teams should get in the tournament?
“Eight,” Kelly, whose Irish finished the regular season ranked No. 8 by the College Football Playoff selection committee, quickly quipped. “Definitely eight.”
In the current playoff format, when Notre Dame lost to Stanford on Conrad Ukropina’s walk-off field goal Nov. 28, it was effectively eliminated from the tournament. But in the hypothetically-expanded eight-team playoff, that field goal would’ve knocked Notre Dame from a matchup with No. 3 Michigan State or No. 4 Oklahoma to a rematch with No. 1 Clemson.
Kelly’s line about hoping the playoff would expand to eight isn’t new, though — in August of 2014, he said on the Dan Patrick Show that four teams is a “great start, but I don’t think it’s enough,” adding that an eight-team field in which the four top-seeded teams host games on campus would be an intriguing option.
Whether or not you agree with Kelly doesn’t matter. The inaugural College Football Playoff was a TV ratings juggernaut, slaking the nation’s insatiable thirst for a playoff format instead of the BCS. The next two College Football Playoffs will have difficulty coming close to the first competition’s record ratings, given the 2015 and 2016 semifinals will be played on New Year’s Eve.
The current four-team setup is contracted through the 2025-2026 season, after which we may see the field expand.
“It’s a conversation that we'll continue to have,” Kelly said. “I think those eight teams that if you look at the first eight, that would be a pretty good playoff. Everybody would be excited about it.
“I think you've just got to keep moving in this direction. I think you've got to keep putting quality football teams in a position where it gets talked about, and you know, hopefully there continues to be an appetite for college football at a deeper level.
“But I think we've got it down pretty good right now with the four teams. It's very competitive. Certainly when you're on the outside looking in you want more teams in it. I think the committee has done a great job. I think they take it serious. They look at everything.”
The selection committee didn't do anything controversial this year, as Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma were clear-cut participants. But take the Fiesta Bowl, which'll be played on New Year's Day between No. 7 Ohio State and No. 8 Notre Dame. Both teams were flawed, but at times looked to be among the best in the country. In an eight-team playoff, the Buckeyes and Irish are in instead of playing each other in a premier, but ultimately consolation, bowl game.
"We're going to get one more challenge against what could be the best team in the country," Kelly said. "I mean, who's to say they're not? I know the committee decided who the four were, but you could take one of eight teams and make the case for them."
An eight-team field, in theory, would help Notre Dame. But there are plenty of caveats attached to the potential of a benefit: What if an eight-team field requires each Power Five conference champion to get a bid? That wouldn’t have been a problem the last two years with the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC champs all being ranked in the top eight. But what if this year, USC upset Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and made the playoff with three losses and a No. 14 or No. 15 ranking?
The selection committee doesn’t require its participants to be conference champions right now, though teams that win their respective leagues are valued higher than non-league winners. But without that requirement, technically there are four open spots for Notre Dame to fill instead of three in this hypothetical eight-team model.
Notre Dame isn’t changing its stance on being an independent — nor does it have a reason to — and will always have access to the College Football Playoff. Eventually, if/when Notre Dame does make the playoff, it’ll lead to a TV ratings explosion — who wouldn’t want to tune in to see the team everyone either loves or hates play for a shot at a title?
But if Notre Dame does make a playoff, whether it'll be a four- or eight-team field is the question that’ll be answered over the next decade.
“If college football continues on its trend of popularity and teams building the way they are,” Kelly said, “it's going to be hard to stay at four.”