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The Rose Bowl Throws a Wrench in College Football's Playoff Expansion Plan

Two months before the 12-team expansion model is set for potential approval, the Jan. 1 event could present a significant roadblock in the path to an agreement.

HOOVER, Ala. — In a second-floor ballroom here inside the Hyatt Regency, Greg Sankey opened SEC media days by addressing the many elephants in the room.

There was talk of vaccination and the new COVID-19 variant. There was talk of NCAA change and name, image and likeness. There was talk of the Supreme Court, Congress and enforcement of infractions.

The SEC commissioner touched on every major topic in college athletics today— except the impending expansion of the College Football Playoff.

But outside of here, in each college town across America, within athletic departments, presidents’ offices and board meeting rooms, CFP expansion is a raging topic of discussion.

One month into the three-month nationwide survey seeking feedback on the proposed 12-team model, a bevy of issues are arising.

Does the proposal add too many games? Should the quarterfinals be played on campus instead of bowl sites? And, in this world of NIL, what cut of CFP revenue will athletes get?

However, among some of the top decision-makers in the sport, another question exists.

What if the Rose Bowl refuses to move its date and time?

View of the Rose Bowl exterior

Two months before college football’s new playoff model is scheduled for potential approval, one entity could present a significant roadblock in the path to an agreement.

Many college athletic leaders do not expect the Rose Bowl, entrenched in its tradition and historically protected by its longtime relationships with the Pac-12 and Big Ten, to move its time-honored kickoff time and date of mid-afternoon on Jan. 1. Like an ominous cloud, the possibility lurches over the expansion discussion.

The decision would present problems to the scheduling model that CFP decision-makers outlined last month, in which six bowls—presumably the current New Year’s Six—would be in a rotation to host the quarterfinals and semifinals. In fact, if the Rose Bowl’s league partners stand behind it, some believe the game’s position could completely crater the expansion proposal.

“It’s the big issue,” says a top decision-maker.

Several college football officials spoke to Sports Illustrated for this story on condition of anonymity. Many high-ranking CFP executives declined comment when reached.

Labeled stubborn by some and traditionalists by others, the Rose Bowl’s position has long been expected, previously described by some as “the biggest hangup” in expanding the playoff before the current CFP contract expires after the 2025 season.  

The Rose, coined the “Granddaddy of Them All” as the sport’s oldest operating bowl game, has been played every year since 1916, a 105-year-old run that, through the years, has afforded it the accommodations of college football’s most elite event.

The game is somewhat wedded to the Rose Bowl Parade, and kickoff each year is purposely timed—2 p.m. local time in Pasadena—to have the sun set, in the fourth quarter, on the San Gabriel Mountains in a scene that many believe is the most picturesque in the sport.

Times, however, are changing.

In the 12-team playoff model proposed by CFP executives, the six participating bowls would rotate hosting quarterfinals, scheduled for New Year’s Day, and semifinals, scheduled for later in January.

If there is no flexibility from the Rose Bowl, the CFP is left with a stirring dilemma: 1) make concessions to keep the Rose Bowl at its date and time; or 2) move on without the Rose Bowl.

Option No. 1 is likely only achieved by having the Rose serve as a permanent quarterfinal host—a real option, according to industry sources. And what of Option 2, advancing the expansion model without one of the most prominent and historic affairs in football?

View of the Mountains in the background of the Rose Bowl

It is, apparently, a real possibility too. There is a growing feeling among CFP leadership that the Rose Bowl must play ball like everyone else.

“The general sentiment is that enough is enough,” says one high-placed source. “There will be a lot of drama, but at the end of the day, are those two conferences going to walk away from the playoff to protect the Rose Bowl?”

The answer is unclear. Officials from the Pac-12 declined comment. A Big Ten spokesman said the conference wants to “wait until the time is right” to comment on the situation. The leagues could, in a way, protect the Rose Bowl in the voting process. The CFP Board of Managers, made up of 11 university presidents and chancellors from each FBS conference, must unanimously agree to approve the model.

The Pac-12 and its new commissioner, George Kliavkoff, have publicly supported expansion as much as any other league. In seven years, the conference has qualified two teams for the playoff. The SEC and ACC have each qualified eight and the Big Ten has qualified five.

The date and the time isn’t the only sticky point with the Rose. The game owns a lucrative contract with both the Pac-12 and Big Ten that, while integrated into the playoff, is separate. It’s another potential hurdle to address during negotiations— whenever they begin.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock told Sports Illustrated on Sunday that his organization has not started formal discussions with the bowls, including the Rose.

“When the time comes to talk, we’ll be talking. That time hasn’t come,” he says.

It’s early in the process. While the Rose has discussed the topic internally, bowl officials have not met around the proverbial table, says a bowl official who represents the game’s interests.

“We’ve always found a way to do this,” the source tells SI. “The Rose Bowl has made sacrifices in the past. I’d put their record for flexibility against anybody’s. The day and the time are important. How important? I don’t know. I’d presume there’s a 12-team model that represents all interests.”

There’s a long way to go. One official describes the impending negotiating process as more of a six-month ordeal rather than a six-week ordeal.

In a statement to SI, the Rose Bowl said the CFP working group’s proposal was the first step of many in a possible expansion.

“The Rose Bowl Game is an important part of the history of college football, and we will continue to work closely with the College Football Playoff to determine how the tradition of the Rose Bowl Game will be a part of the evolving playoff system,” the statement said.

The Rose Bowl isn’t the only twig in the wheel of playoff change. If all entities agree to break the CFP contract early, that means not going to market with one of the more lucrative offerings in college football history.

There are other bowls involved in discussions as well. And there’s the case of the quarterfinals at bowl sites instead of on campus like the four first-round games.

There are more arguable issues, too. In fact, during Big 12 media days last week, commissioner Bob Bowlsby told SI that one of the bigger questions up for debate is whether the 12-team model should incorporate more bowl games in its structure. Instead of having first-round games on campus, maybe they should be played at bowl sites.

“We talked a lot about that. I don’t know how much more we’ll discuss it, but that’s certainly an option that could be implemented,” Bowlsby says. “Instead of the bowls playing Dec. 25 week, we can play Dec. 16 and play it at bowl sites.

“I like the idea of playing on campuses, but the fact is, if you’re going to play on Dec. 16 in Iowa City, Iowa.... that stadium is not winterized for that sort of an event at that time of the year. It’s that way for most of the northern half of the country. There are purely logistical aspects.”

On Monday, from SEC media days, Sankey said he didn’t know the situation with the Rose Bowl but told SI, “We can stay at four.” In an interview with a reporter last week, Bowlsby was asked what would happen if the Rose doesn’t want to move its date and time.

“I’m not prepared to comment on that at this point,” he answered.

And so, two months before the Board of Managers meets in Dallas to potentially approve the proposal, life in college football marches on and questions about the Rose Bowl remain somewhat unanswered.

“I’ve heard all this before,” says one bowl official, “but I’ve always seen it work out.”

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