Backcasting best first-round matchups of theoretical 12-team College Football Playoff in the modern era

The postseason is a time for introspection and retrospectives. With a 12-team playoff format launching in the 2024 season, it begs the question of how past playoffs might have played out. What brackets would have offered the most intriguing matchups? Here are the best theoretical first-round matchups for every season dating back to the start of the Bowl Coalition era in 1992.
Don Juan Moore/GettyImages
7 of 8

Late Four-Team College Football Playoff Era (2019-2023)

The past five years of the College Football Playoff straddled the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of athlete agency, and conference consolidation. They also mark the last five years where a 12-team playoff existed only as a thought experiment.

With 12 teams soon to become the norm for playoff brackets, which opening-round matchups would have proved the most entertaining over the past five seasons?


#7 Baylor Bears (11-2 Big 12 runner-up)
#10 Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2 Big Ten East runner-up)

Five years after they last made a 12-team playoff, Baylor would have done so again in 2019. Despite losing in the Big 12 championship game, the Bears would nevertheless host Penn State in the opening round after the Nittany Lions finished as runner-up in the Big Ten East. For Baylor, it would be a chance to earn a showdown against the Ohio State team that claimed the fourth seed a half-decade earlier. For Penn State, it would be a chance for a rematch against one of the only two teams to defeat them in the regular season.


#5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-1 ACC runner-up)
#12 Costal Carolina Chanticleers (11-0 Sun Belt champion)

The 2020 season was the strangest in generations, with some teams playing only six games and others overloading on opponents as universities continued to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In their only season of conference play in school history, Notre Dame made the ACC championship game but fell to Clemson. Coastal Carolina made a Cinderella run to a perfect regular season and a Sun Belt title. The 5/12 pairing would make for television gold.


#5 Georgia Bulldogs (12-1 SEC runner-up)
#12 Pittsburgh Panthers (11-2 ACC champion)

In 2021, top-ranked Georgia fell in the SEC championship game against Alabama and dropped out of the top four. Had a 12-team playoff existed that year, the Bulldogs would still be alive with a shot at the national title as the top seed in the opening round. Their opponent in Athens would be ACC champion Pittsburgh, which prevailed over Wake Forest in the title game in a year of surprises for the league. Despite decades as a power-conference team, Pitt would still be sold as a major underdog.


#6 Alabama Crimson Tide (10-2 SEC West runner-up)
#11 Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2 Big Ten East third place)

A matchup of blue-blood college football programs always sets the hype machine in motion. A showdown between Penn State and Alabama in Tuscaloosa would provide plenty of fodder for writers, pundits, and studio hosts across the land. Neither finished as the best team in their respective divisions, but in this case the names on the scoreboard would prove more important than the win-loss record next to those names.


#5 Florida State Seminoles (13-0 ACC champion)
#12 Oklahoma Sooners (10-2 Big 12 runner-up)

In the last year before the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams, undefeated ACC champion Florida State was left out of the four-team bracket in favor of a pair of one-loss champs. It was the first time that an undefeated major-conference winner was left out of the field. In a world where the 12-team playoff already existed, Florida State would have hosted Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma in Tallahassee for a chance to take on Alabama in the quarterfinals.