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Three Years After Talks Started, Can CFP Expansion Get Over Its Hurdles?

College football's most powerful executives meet again Saturday, with the clock ticking on any hope of change before 2026.

This Saturday marks an anniversary of sorts.

On that day three years ago—Jan. 8, 2019—college leaders set off on the long, winding road of seriously exploring an expansion to the College Football Playoff. Within a lavish, downtown San Jose hotel, Mark Keenum, the Mississippi State president and the chair of the CFP’s highest governing body, the Board of Managers, approached executive director Bill Hancock with a directive.

“We’re halfway through the 12-year CFP contract,” he told Hancock. “Let’s examine the Playoff.”

Exactly three years later, college football’s most powerful executives meet Saturday from Indianapolis in a somewhat fractured state, frazzled and frustrated, lacking consensus on a format for expansion. The CFP management committee, an 11-member group of the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, will meet over the weekend with dubious hopes of reaching unanimity on an expansion recommendation.

Either way, the committee is expected to present a report to Keenum and the Board of Managers, made up of 11 school presidents representing each FBS conference and Notre Dame. The committee could even submit to the board a recommendation of the Playoff model that garners the majority of the vote, some believe.

In summation, the commissioners will place the proverbial ball in the court of their superiors, the group that originally requested and even encouraged expansion. The board needs unanimity among the 11 presidents to expand before the current contract ends after the 2025 Playoff.

What will they do? The question remains unanswered.

All of this transpires amid the backdrop of a transformative and unsettling time in college athletics. Blocks away from this weekend’s meeting site, Monday’s national championship will match two SEC teams for the third time in the last 11 years—the first of which, Alabama vs. LSU in 2011, triggered the previous round of expansion conversations that eventually toppled the BCS.

Alabama holds the trophy after the Cotton Bowl semifinal vs. Cincinnati

After beating Cincinnati, Alabama will go for back-to-back national titles on Monday.

The matchup is a commentary itself on the state of college football’s championship postseason; a parade of the same teams from the same conferences winning semifinals in blowout fashion.

There is little parity and few opportunities for even the power leagues. This year, for instance, three of the five power conferences were not represented in the Playoff— the second time that’s happened in the CFP’s eight years. The Pac-12 hasn’t advanced to the Playoff since 2016. In fact, the Pac-12 and Big 12 have combined to qualify six teams for the eight Playoffs—the same amount as the Big Ten. The SEC has qualified 10 and the ACC eight.

The numbers are jaw dropping.

Since 1998, the first year of the BCS, when college football’s champion was switched to being crowned on the field instead of by the polls, six teams have won 74% of the championships: Alabama (six), LSU (three), Clemson (two), Florida State (two), Florida (two) and Ohio State (two). In the Playoff era, six teams have accounted for 25 of the 32 playoff spots (78%).

There have been plenty of blowouts to go around, as well as SEC dominance. Just three of 16 CFP semifinals have been decided by single digits. Including this year, the SEC has qualified at least one team in 15 of the last 16 title bouts, has sent 18 teams overall to them and has won 12.

Expanding the Playoff isn’t fixing that problem, says Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. So what’s the solution?

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“We need to get good enough to beat them,” he says. “That’s not going to change in a four-team or eight-team or 12-team playoff.”

What expansion will do, he says, is provide more opportunities, incorporating a deeper number of teams and conferences, make November more compelling and enliven interest from coast to coast.

“If there were more teams in the mix, it would be a good thing overall for college football,” says Bowlsby. “We don’t need the same teams in it all the time. It diminishes interest in the event on a national basis.”

The commissioners agree: Everyone wants expansion. However, there is no unanimity on the format or agreement on the timing. A 12-team format proposed by a subcommittee of commissioners last summer has garnered the most support of any model seriously considered. The proposed model grants automatic bids to the six highest-ranked conference champions, gives first-round byes to the highest-ranked four champions and completes the field with six at-large selections. The first round would be played on campus before a rotation of six bowls is used for the quarterfinals and semifinals.

Eight committee members have publicly spoken in support of the model and a ninth, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, has not opposed it. The two holdouts publicly expressed their opposition last month at an event in Las Vegas. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and ACC commissioner Jim Phillips believe in automatic qualifiers for Power 5 champions. Furthermore, Phillips says the process should be delayed until after the on-going NCAA transformation is complete. He also holds the belief that eight teams, not 12, is the appropriate amount for a Playoff. Since last month, the ACC’s position has not changed, Phillips says.

“I'll walk in prepared to make a decision. We've not been in a circumstance to do that as a group so far and perhaps that can happen,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told SiriusXM SEC Radio on Wednesday.

For the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, there is a historic relationship to consider. The two leagues hold a separate lucrative contract with the Rose Bowl, the oldest bowl game in college football. The expansion proposal impacts that agreement, the date of the game’s kickoff and the traditional matchup of teams, something seen as a possible hurdle. This year’s Rose Bowl, a dramatic comeback win for Ohio State over Utah, drew an average viewership of 16.6 million, matching the rating of Alabama’s semifinal win over Cincinnati.

“Candidly, given everything that’s been said publicly, looks like we are stuck at four for a while,” Kliavkoff said on 750 The Game on Portland radio Wednesday.

The stalemate has dragged on long enough—six months—that officials are barreling toward an arbitrary deadline. The hope of expanding in the final two years of the CFP contract with ESPN, in 2024 and 2025, is at a near unattainable point, commissioners say. As each day passes, expansion’s earliest year moves closer to 2026, the first year of what would be the CFP’s new multi-media rights deal.

But passing on expansion now is costly. A 12-team Playoff in 2024 and 2025 would generate an additional $450 million in revenue, sources told Sports Illustrated last year.

Some are already focused on 2026. With a new deal, comes new rules. While unanimity is required to expand the Playoff before the contract ends, it's not necessary to create a Playoff format in a new contract.

A “subset” of the CFP management committee could agree on a model and “then others would have the right to join us,” Kliavkoff told reporters last month in Las Vegas.

Is he suggesting the Power 5 create the format?

“You guys can all determine for yourself what subset of those 11 people would have to say, ‘We agree’ for that to become the College Football Playoff,” Kliavkoff says. “Once you do that and by definition, because it’s going to be expanded, it provides more access for everyone, I think you could then go back to the people who weren’t part of the group that came up with the new proposal and say ‘We’d also like to start that in ’24, not in ’26.’ Everybody would go ‘We’re O.K. with that.’”

'College Football Playoff' is printed on a football

The current four-team model has been in effect since the 2014 season.

What model would that be? Likely one of two 12-team formats: the original proposal granting automatic bids to the six highest-ranked champions or an alternate 12-team format granting auto bids to the Power 5 conference champions as well as the highest-ranked Group of 5. The latter has generated pushback from Group of 5 commissioners and some Power 5 leaders as well.

The models are virtually identical, aside from the alternate format guaranteeing that a second Group of 5 champion does not take a spot from a Power 5 champion.

Eight-team models were discussed among the commissioners and explored extensively by the subcommittee, but they have not garnered near the amount of support.

“I really believe reading the room and meetings we’ve had since the format was rolled out, people are all in favor of expansion. Eight is still on the table, but I don’t think eight is going to make it,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson told SI last month. “I think we will expand, but it’s a matter of when.”

A more immediate question looms: When commissioners report back to the Board of Managers this weekend, what do the presidents decide? Do they end this version of expansion discussions and look instead to 2026? Do they tell commissioners to keep plowing ahead despite the deadlock?

Or, do they take a vote knowing that there is no unanimity (very much a longshot)?

“Will a president vote against his own commissioner? I don’t see it,” says one high-ranking college football official.

This latest expansion expedition seems bound for a fruitless end, another failed examination into college football’s postseason—the fifth such instance since 1976. At least this one got further than the others.

In 1976, there was never even a vote at the NCAA convention over a proposed two- and four-team playoff. In '88, NCAA members soundly defeated a proposal for a championship game. The most serious of expansion talks in '94 ended in another rejection from a committee of presidents, this time of an eight-team playoff. And in 2008, commissioners shot down a four-team model in a straw poll before approving it four years later.

This one might be the most surprising failure of them all. Why? The CFP’s top leaders originally requested expansion, seen by many as a foregone conclusion this year to pass. Instead, a host of underlying issues rippled through the proceedings. The SEC’s acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas triggered a conference realignment wave that changed the landscape of college football, hurt feelings around the country and painted the league as untrustworthy.

COVID-19 delayed the subcommittee’s discussions for roughly a year. Without the pandemic, an expansion proposal is likely presented a year earlier, in the summer of 2020, before the commissioner chairs changed in both the Pac-12 and ACC.

“We are approaching the end of a 12-year cycle of agreements,” Sankey told SirusXM. “And if you go back two, three years, one of the issues raised by a number of my colleagues and a number of presidents who serve on the Board of Managers is their desire to see the College Football Playoff expanded, to see it happen in a timely manner, more timely than Year 13, if at all possible. So we're now at a point of making decisions around that desire.”

The Board of Managers didn’t only request expansion, it strongly encouraged and even pressured the subcommittee to finalize the 12-team proposal that was released over the summer.

Swarbrick, one of four subcommittee members who created the 12-team model, was responsible for presenting updates to the board over the two years in which the subcommittee deliberated. Swarbrick updated the presidents at least two different times—both of which featured no real updates at all.

We’re not there yet, he told them each time.

“The second time I gave that update, they made it very clear that they didn’t want a repeat the third time,” Swarbrick said in a conversation with SI over the summer.

But on Monday, during a joint meeting with commissioners and presidents three years from the start of this long journey, another update may be the same as the last several.

We’re not there yet.

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