For two long years, the four men kept their mission a secret.
Only a select group knew that conference commissioners Bob Bowlsby, Greg Sankey and Craig Thompson, as well as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, were tasked to explore proposals to expand the College Football Playoff. They examined well over 100 postseason formats, even kept specifics of the meetings hidden from their fellow commissioners and, after rigorous debate as well as data-driven analysis, agreed on a concept they thought was fair to each entity in college football: the Power 5, the Group of 5, the bowls and the fans.
And then, all hell broke loose.
The Pac-12 hired a new commissioner who is unafraid of publicly rattling the status quo. A wave of conference realignment, triggered by the impending SEC departures of Texas and Oklahoma, washed through the sport. And then, as if this wasn’t enough, three power conferences, each with a relatively new commissioner, announced the formation of a pact, the Alliance, that seems to have further divided the executive branch of college sports.
“We live in interesting times. I don’t know whether that is a curse or blessing,” says Mike Aresco, commissioner for the Group of 5’s American Athletic Conference. “A lot of things are converging at the same time. The system is under stress right now. But you deal with it. You don’t take it personally. You work through it.”
The shifting landscape, hurt feelings and public barbs have cast a shadow of doubt that leaders can agree both on a new playoff concept and the timing of expansion itself.
On Wednesday in Dallas, the CFP management committee—the 10 FBS commissioners plus Swarbrick—is scheduled to further explore the expansion issue. The hope is that it can create enough progress to bring a proposed recommendation to a scheduled meeting in Chicago next Tuesday with the CFP board of managers, a group of school presidents and the ultimate decision-makers in the playoff hierarchy.
Wednesday’s meeting marks the commissioners’ first face-to-face interaction since a cascade of decisions has disrupted college sports, though at least two of them will participate virtually (Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff and C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod).
They plan to review feedback from their respective member schools on the proposed 12-team expansion model and discuss how realignment impacts any future changes. Members of the four-man subcommittee, Swarbrick, Sankey, Bowlsby and Thompson, may give a more detailed explanation on how they arrived at the 12-team concept.
Lastly, there will likely be intense discussion about their disagreements, much of which has been aired across media platforms.
“We will discuss the things I’m reading about,” says Sankey, commissioner of the SEC. “I thought these things would be talked about in the room, but people have chosen to state their positions publicly. If everybody has to get everything on their Christmas list, we probably won’t come to a decision. It won’t be a happy Christmas morning.
“But if people are willing to compromise and engage in meaningful dialogue, which the format subcommittee certainly did, there’s an opportunity.”
Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West, sees the latest qualms about the expansion model he helped craft as progress.
The system, he says, is working. “That was part of the process. We came up with a model. Now pick it apart and tear it up.”
Some are scrutinizing the proposal more than others. A variety of issues have bubbled to the surface over the last two months.
- Should the playoff include only eight teams, such as to avoid a further extension of the season?
- Should first-round games be hosted by bowls instead of played on campus, as to avoid the “winterization” of northern football stadiums and grant bowls more involvement?
- Should automatic bids be reexamined, as a way to guarantee specific leagues access?
- And finally, should expansion be delayed until the current contract is exhausted after the 2025 season, as to bring this lucrative idea to the open market for more financial benefit?
Of those aforementioned grievances, none may be as complicated as the Rose Bowl problem.
As detailed by Sports Illustrated in July, the Rose Bowl’s insistence on keeping its kickoff time and date unchanged could complicate matters, as well as its wish to keep separate its contract with the Pac-12 and Big Ten (more on that later).
It’s yet another issue that makes some decision-makers question when expansion approval will come any time soon. Things might not be ironed out by Tuesday’s meeting. In fact, there might not be an in-person Tuesday meeting at all, league executives say. It may depend on how Wednesday’s commissioners’ gathering goes.
“I think there’s more work to be done and questions to be answered,” Thompson says. “Can they be answered on Sept. 28? It might take longer. It might be extended. I would hope that at a minimum, coming out of the [board of managers] meeting, they say keep plugging on an expansion model.”
So what happens then? Does the four-man expansion subcommittee go back to the proverbial drawing board? Sankey believes the subcommittee has “discharged its duties,” he says.
Any new model may not be easily and quickly assembled. The working group debated for a year before it agreed on 12 teams. It spent another year compromising on the particular concepts of the models. In the end, it resulted in three cornerstones: (1) the six highest-ranked conference champions automatically qualify; (2) the four highest-ranked conference champions earn top four seeds and first-round byes; (3) and the next highest-ranked six teams complete the field. First-round games are hosted by the best seeds, and the quarterfinals and semifinals are played in a rotation of six bowls.
“If [the 12-team model] is rejected, we’ll have to think about process and if there’s a need for a new format,” Sankey says. “But keep in mind, we can keep the four best teams. As I’ve said repeatedly, consistently, vocally, four has worked just as it was intended, it is working and it can continue to work.”
More than any league, the SEC benefits from no change at all. The conference has evolved into the dominant force over the last 15 years in college football. From 2006–2012, the SEC won seven straight national championships, and the league has held a tight grip on the game during the CFP era.
The SEC is tied with the ACC in qualifying the most teams (eight) for playoff spots, followed by the Big Ten (five), Big 12 (four) and the Pac-12 (two). The league has won five more playoff games (11) than any other conference, and it has won more CFP titles (four) than all other leagues combined.
“We were not the ones pushing for expansion,” Sankey says.
A subset group of presidents on the board of managers commissioned the working group to create the expanded model and pushed working group members to produce something by this past spring.
“We’ll remind people [this week at the meeting] that a certain set of presidents on the CFP essentially demanded we introduce the format,” Sankey says. “We’ve done that.”
Without anyone knowing, four of the most powerful people in college football spent two years—from spring 2019 to spring 2021—covertly meeting at airport hotels, while using masking tape to cover conference room walls with drawn-up brackets, to create an expanded playoff model.
The expansion subcommittee spent the majority of its time modeling five potential brackets: a seven-, eight-, nine-, 10- and 12-team playoff, each with a half-dozen or more variations. Overall, it examined more than 100 playoff models.
Soon, it may be heading back to Square 1.
Some within the college football world are driving an eight-team model for reasons that include athlete health, academics and logistics. By eliminating the first round of matchups, you decrease the overall number of games, eliminate on-campus contests and grant the bowls not involved in the CFP better matchups.
However, an eight-team model also eliminates opportunities for four more teams to access the playoff. More importantly maybe, an eight-team playoff triggers what some believe is an unsolvable situation: compromising on automatic qualifiers.
Guaranteeing six conference champions a spot means that only two at-large teams get in.
“Going from four at-larges like we have now to two at-larges just didn’t make a lot of sense,” CPF executive director Bill Hancock told SI this summer.
Sankey says he is against such an eight-team model, describing the decreasing number of at-large selections as “counterintuitive” to expansion. He would support an eight-team at-large model—often described as a “best eight”—but he’d expect other leagues to push back against such.
Without automatic qualifiers, the Group of 5 is at risk of not having regular access. The same goes for the Pac-12. In fact, if a best-eight model were used over the last four years, the SEC would have qualified 10 teams, the Big Ten seven, the Big 12 five, the ACC four, the Pac-12 two and the Group of 5 two. The Pac-12 and the Group of 5 would have not qualified a team in two of the four years.
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Group of 5 commissioners have made it clear: They will push back against any proposal that does not guarantee them access. In order for any proposal to pass, it needs unanimous support, Hancock says.
“One league is saying ‘Why do we give the G5 a spot?’” says Thompson, of the Mountain West. “Obviously, I’m on the other side of that.”
Pac-12 leaders have, in the past, at least publicly clamored that each Power 5 champion gain automatic access into the field. After vetting such a model, the subcommittee decided to instead grant automatic bids to the six highest-ranked conference champions as to avoid the inclusion of a team with three or four losses.
Also, models constructed by the subcommittee showed that a 12-team playoff during the last seven seasons would have provided opportunities to about 35–40 different teams, says Thompson. An eight-team model would conceivably drop that number to 25–30.
Subcommittee members push back on concerns expressed by others regarding the amount of total games played. At its max, the 12-team playoff adds two extra games than the current four-team model (15 to 17 games). But the only way a team reaches that 17-game mark is if it (A) plays in a conference championship game, (B) then plays in a first-round game and (C) advances to the title game.
“The odds of playing a 17th game are low,” says Aresco, who’s in favor of the 12-team format. “You’d end up playing the same number with an eight team and no byes.”