College Football Playoff expansion discussions are moving faster than anyone initially thought. Doubling the CFP field to eight teams is all but assumed at this point, but expansion may not stop there, multiple industry sources tell CBS Sports.
“Expansion is coming, and it may be as soon as this summer. It might even be more than [eight teams],” an FBS athletic director, who recently spoke with their league’s commissioner, told CBS Sports.
Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that a 12-team model is favored by multiple parties. CFP executive director Bill Hancock’s bold assertion the bracket could expand to as many as 16 teams — found in the 17th paragraph of an otherwise sleepy April press release — ignited increased speculation.
“The SEC is going to push 12 because of their brand. I’m hearing 12,” a Group of Five AD told CBS Sports.
A 12-team field would presumably allow for six automatic bids — Power Five conference champions and the top-ranked Group of Five team — along with six at-large bids.
While the SEC might not be overtly driving the discussion for 12 teams, such a structure would likely benefit the game’s most powerful conference. In an eight-team bracket, the SEC would all but be guaranteed two spots annually. In a 12-team bracket, that number could be three or four teams given the current strength of the league and how well it performs in the CFP Rankings.
“The SEC wants more at-larges,” one AD located in the South said.
Outgoing Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told the New York Times on Monday that he expects a decision “in principle” by the commissioners next week when they meet June 17-18 in Chicago. Incoming Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff came out in support expansion in what was a prominent part of his introductory press conference.
Talks have progressed since April. A working group made up of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick — chairman of the group — will update their peers next week. The presidents who oversee the CFP will meet on June 22 in Dallas.
It’s not clear yet when a detailed expansion announcement could come. The commissioners could recommend one or multiple models to the presidents next week.
Thoughts seem to be coalescing around a final decision on the future look of the CFP coming by September at the latest. A meeting between the CFP Management Committee (commissioners) and CFP Board of Managers (presidents) has already been scheduled for that month.
Driving the discussion now are several factors. Obviously, there is the money. Two industry sources said, depending on the size of the field, an expanded playoff could be worth two or perhaps even three times more than the current $7.2 billion that ESPN is paying the CFP. The average annual payout of the current deal is $475 million. However, typical of media rights deals the payout is backloaded to increase in the final years.
A significant part of the discussion is less about access and more about enhancing the value of the regular season. A sort-of playoff fatigue has formed around the recent stranglehold Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have put on the game.
“We could go to 24 , and you might still have Alabama and Clemson playing for the championship,” said one person with intimate knowledge of the process.
Concern was expressed that ESPN’s “Who’s In?” advertising campaign for the CFP has drained interest from the second half of the college football season. That source wasn’t the only one who thought the playoff-or-bust mentality had impacted interest. A growing number of ADs and coaches have been critical.
There has been enough thought on the subject that one Power Five source speculated about the impact of a 24-team field.
“You’d have half of FBS that would still be alive in November for those slots,” the source said. “We’re not going to 24, but theoretically, that’s what I think we can accomplish with this.”
College football has long lacked the Cinderella factor. An expanded bracket would at least make it more possible for a Group of Five program to have an automatic berth. Such a team playing for the national championship simply hasn’t happened in the 23-year history of the BCS and CFP. While technically no team gets an automatic berth now with four at-large bids, an undefeated Power Five program is going to be given far more consideration than an undefeated Group of Five.
In the CFP, the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion is guaranteed only a New Year’s Six bowl. It must make it into the top four to be in the playoff. Cincinnati (2020) and UCF (2018) were the highest-ranked Group of Five teams in the CFP era. Both finished No. 8.
Last month, before playoff discussions had become more focused, several sources told CBS Sports that Group of Five access was going to be a tipping point.
“There will be a lawsuit if they don’t [give the Group of Five an automatic berth],” one Group of Five AD said.
“To me that’s a non-starter,” said MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. “If [a guaranteed spot is] not there, why are we doing it? We’ve set up a rather anti-competitive system.”
Since 2013, the FCS has put 24 teams in its NCAA-sponsored playoff. That represents almost one-fifth of the FCS membership. In FBS, only four of 130 (3%) get in the CFP.
In the end, the presidents will have to be convinced that an expanded field can preserve whatever level of integrity they attach to the process. Remember, this was a group that, in the BCS days, drew a line in the sand: no more second-semester football. Then in 2019, major college football played its longest season ever lasting 143 days.
Approving expansion of the bracket and the timing of actually changing the playoff field are two different things. ESPN and the CFP still have five years left on the original 12-year contract. When there were three years left on the contract, Hancock said no expansion would happen for at least two years.
ESPN’s motivation to do a new deal inside the contract would be cost certainty. That would keep the CFP from hitting the open market. Unless and until that contract runs out, ESPN has exclusive negotiating rights.
As far the bowls are concerned, tearing up that deal and installing a new one could be “pretty disruptive,” according to source. It’s not that it couldn’t be done, but the New Year’s Six bowls all have contracts aligned based on the current CFP. For example, the Rose Bowl gets its traditional best-available Big Ten and Pac-12 teams in years when it doesn’t host the semifinal. In expansion, the quality of those teams could be diminished.
Those selections might be moved down a peg if one or both conferences have two teams in an expanded playoff. After the 2016 season, Ohio State played in the CFP despite not winning its division in the Big Ten. That left Big Ten champion Penn State playing in the Rose Bowl against the Pac-12’s USC, which had finished second behind Colorado in the Pac-12 North.
The Rose Bowl had to be convinced to give up its exclusivity to its two traditional conferences to join the BCS in 1998. Eight times since, at least one non-traditional team has played in the “Granddaddy of ’em All” due to BCS and CFP commitments.
In an eight-team field, speculation has centered around five automatic qualifiers from the Power Five, something that wasn’t possible with only four slots in the current CFP. One source said there might be no automatic berths in an expanded field; however, weight would likely be given to conference champions.
That would prevent the equivalent of an NCAA Tournament “bid stealer.” Example: If Northwestern at 8-4 would had beaten Ohio State in the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game, the Wildcats could have earned an automatic berth in an expanded bracket that otherwise would have gone to a higher ranked at-large team from another conference.
Guaranteeing the Group of Five a spot in an eight-team field presents problems as that would potentially lead to six guaranteed spots. There is concern that deserving at-large teams could be left out. In 2020, the six automatic qualifiers would have been No. 1 Alabama (SEC), No. 2 Clemson (ACC), No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten), No. 6 Oklahoma (Big 12), No. 8 Cincinnati (Group of Five) and No. 25 Oregon (Pac-12).
In that scenario, at least four top 10 teams would be left out in an eight-team field. Only two at-large spots would be left. That is another reason why a 12-team bracket may is preferred.
With an expanded bracket, the playoff would likely start in mid-December. In some years, that would be within a week or so of conference championship games.
If the regular season started in the last week of August, another weekend could be created to ensure a 12-game season could be played while retaining those league championship games. That so-called “Week Zero” in late August is now reserved for a soft opening of the season by a handful of teams.