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College Football Playoff Expansion Is in Peril: 'If This All Falls Apart, We’re Going to Get Hammered Publicly'

Ahead of a key meeting with CFP executives, the proposed 12-team model faces several new and existing hurdles.

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.”

'College Football Playoff' is printed on a football

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.”

Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner

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.”

Hired as the Pac-12 commissioner this summer, Kliavkoff is new to college sports. He is not new to sports entertainment.

The league hired him away from MGM Resorts, where he served as president of entertainment and sports. Before that, he co-led the largest and most profitable division at Hearst Entertainment and Syndication. He’s been the interim CEO of Hulu, and he was the first chief digital officer at NBCUniversal.

He knows media, he knows sports and he knows that college sports needs to explore an adjusted model for its media rights, such as not having one company—in this case, ESPN—controlling its entire postseason.

Kliavkoff has expressed this both privately and publicly. He has plenty who agree with him as well.

“ESPN has been a great partner on the playoff and is a great partner for college football,” Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, says. “There’s no question that competition in the marketplace is good for rights sellers. It’s no different for the playoff than it is with anything.”

The issue with ESPN got more intense this summer, when many publicly and privately accused the network of arranging Texas and Oklahoma’s future move to the SEC. Bowlsby even sent a cease and desist letter to the network. ESPN has categorically denied its involvement.

The debacle has further divided the sport’s top leagues, with some describing the scene as an “us vs. the SEC/ESPN” approach. The animosity has found its way into the playoff debate, where the integrity of the process that determined the 12-team model is under question. While creating the model as a member of the subcommittee, Sankey knew what others didn’t—that OU and Texas were potentially joining his league. He denies that this impacted his work on the subcommittee.

Either way, the resistance to ESPN controlling the playoff is a driving force for some to pause approval of expansion.

“George’s comments are basic business,” says one high-ranking athletic director who wished to remain anonymous. “He’s looking at the best comparable entity in our business, which would be the NFL. The NFL doesn’t have one rights holder.

“People don’t feel like they can get into college football because it’s being monopolized by ESPN,” the AD continues. “Can you get other people in? Turner, Amazon, Hulu, NBC … do you have them get in?”

There are two paths in which the expanded playoff can be split into two or more packages to be bid on by differing media partners.

1. Officials delay expansion until the current contract expires after the 2025 season, bringing an expanded model to bid in packages.

2. ESPN, holding the right of first refusal, agrees to grant a second media competitor the rights to a portion of an expanded playoff before the current contract ends.

“I can’t see ESPN doing that,” says one conference executive.

However, the door is ajar for the playoff to expand within the current contract, in 2024, CFP leaders tell SI. But that ultimately would mean ESPN retaining full control of the rights of an expanded playoff for the final two years of the deal.

If officials pass on such, it could mean leaving more than $2 billion on the table in 2024 and 2025. An expanded playoff is valued to be at least triple the annual distribution of the current four-team model ($475 million).

“It’s free money,” says one official.

“Some people have said, ‘Yeah, leave money on the table,” says another college administrator. “We don’t have enough [media] players in the game.”

A general view of the 2018 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game

After the 2020 game was moved due to COVID-19, 2018 was the last time the Rose Bowl hosted a College Football Playoff semifinal.

Keith Gill, commissioner of the Sun Belt, spent the last two months meeting with on-campus groups at his member schools to determine their feelings on the 12-team playoff model. The league even distributed surveys that went to coaches, athletes and athletic administrators.

The verdict is in.

“It had overwhelming support, including even from our faculty representatives,” Gill says.

MacLeod, commissioner of Conference USA, noticed similar feedback.

“There’s been a lot of enthusiasm,” she says.

And yet, most commissioners enter Wednesday’s meeting with a sense of doubt that they can agree unanimously to pass a recommendation to the board of managers.

“At this point, I’m not sure there will be one that has full room support,” says one league executive.

The detractors aren’t just coming from out West. West Virginia president Gordon Gee, the Big 12’s representative on said board, publicly suggested he’d vote against the proposal, if there even is a vote. His own commissioner, Bowlsby, helped create the 12-team model and says the majority of his conference seems to support the expansion proposal.

Yet his CFP representative doesn’t?

“I think president Gee believed that the change in alignments was impactful enough that we oughta be thoughtful about moving ahead and I think he’s right about that,” Bowlsby says. “We’re going to have another conversation with [the Big 12 executive board of presidents] and he’ll get his own feedback from there.”

With the makeup of the five power conferences changing, some feel like playoff discussion should “start over,” says one Pac-12 administrator, because “the dynamics have changed.”

Others disagree completely. The membership change—Texas and OU to the SEC; Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and BYU to the Big 12—is irrelevant to the model, they say.

Kliavkoff says college football did a “disservice” to the fans by suggesting expansion would be approved so quickly.

That said, many administrators believe that all of the issues raised are resolvable—conference realignment, multi-media partners, number of games, automatic qualifiers—except one.

That one is the Rose Bowl problem.

In a conference call recently with CFP executives, Rose Bowl leaders expressed their desire to participate in the playoff. However, they want to control their contract—a lucrative agreement with the Pac-12 and Big Ten—and want to keep their traditional kickoff date and time of 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 1.

The latter issue can be resolved. Under the 12-team proposal, the bowl could keep its date and time by being a permanent quarterfinal host (the quarterfinals are scheduled for Jan. 1 each year).

As to the contract, there is little agreement to concede to the Rose Bowl. In an expanded playoff, the CFP plans to negotiate its TV rights under the same umbrella. That includes the Orange and Sugar bowls, both of which are linked to respective conference affiliates (the ACC and the Big 12/SEC, respectively). The Rose Bowl’s contract with the Pac-12 and Big Ten is seen as the most valuable. The bowl wants to keep that value and not permanently transfer it to the CFP.

Advising the Rose Bowl, as well as the Orange, is one of the sport’s most powerful men: Jim Delaney, the former Big Ten commissioner who still holds a powerful presence behind the scenes as a consultant.

Could the Rose Bowl take down the entire operation? Could it cost others billions? Would college football dare to walk away from the game’s oldest bowl game, and its two conference partners, for an expanded playoff?

More than two years after the subcommittee held its first meeting to discuss expansion, the model seems in peril.

“If this all falls apart,” says one CFP official, “we’re going to get hammered publicly.”

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