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College Football Playoff Will Expand to 12-Team Tournament

College football’s long national nightmare is over.

The playoffs are expanding—quite possibly very soon.

The College Football Playoff’s executive board on Friday approved an expansion to 12 teams, bringing to an end a more-than-three-year endeavor and delivering the most significant change to the postseason in college football history.

In a meeting that was cloaked in secrecy before a report from Sports Illustrated on Wednesday, the 11-member CFP Board of Managers, composed of presidents from each of the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame, voted unanimously to approve the 12-team format and implement it no later than 2026, sources tell SI. The decision, wholly unexpected just a week ago, caps a yearlong stalemate over playoff expansion from the Management Committee, a corresponding CFP governing group of conference commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, which failed to agree on an expansion format.

In light of the commissioners’ fruitless attempts, presidents more heavily involved themselves in the issue, spending the past several months discussing playoff models before reaching a turning point recently when, for the first time in more than a year, unanimity appeared possible. Mark Keenum, the Mississippi State president and chair of the CFP Board of Managers, led an aggressive push to arrive at a decision Friday. “This was a very historic day for college football,” said Keenum. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 voted against the expansion proposal just six months ago but reversed course this time.

The 12-team format is the same model proposed 15 months ago by three commissioners and Swarbrick. The four were part of a CFP working group that spent two years creating the expansion proposal.

The 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. First-round games, between seeds 5 through 12, are expected to be played on campus or at a location designated by the better seed. A rotation of six bowls will host quarterfinals and semifinals. For more complete details of the model, see here.

“As far as the years ’24 and ’25, if the current six bowls want to participate, they will,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said in a conference call with reporters. “For ’26 and beyond, we haven’t determined what the specifications will be. I think most of the expectation is that it will be the same six bowl games, but that will be up to their responses to the specs. 

“As far as the other bowl games, the bowl system remains strong, remains an opportunity for student-athletes to finish their season in a great environment, and I don’t answer this change in the CFP to have a significant effect on the other games.”

Unanimity was necessary in order to change the composition of the CFP before the current contract with ESPN expires after the 2025 playoff. That said, the decision doesn’t mean early expansion is guaranteed. While the ’25 season is a more plausible start date, officials are expected to work toward ’24, the earliest the playoff could grow.

There are logistical hurdles. A current operation of three games (semifinals + championship) would nearly quadruple in size to 11 games, with just 27 months of lead time. The original deadline for expanding early was nine months ago.

The CFP just recently announced the dates and sites of the championship games for the 2024 and ’25 seasons, Atlanta and Miami, respectively. In any expanded playoff model, the championship game will be moved back at least a week, into mid-January. New sites and new dates might be necessary.

Hancock and his staff, as well as the commissioners, are tasked with finalizing details of the expansion format and determining what year the new playoff will start.

One of their more pressing issues involves ESPN. The network owns the rights of the 2024 and ’25 playoff, problematic for many commissioners who want to see multiple networks holding rights. While ESPN has shown a willingness to compromise, the nature of those talks is unclear.

The commissioners and Swarbrick will meet in Dallas next week in a previously scheduled gathering—their first meeting since three significant events transpired this summer: the expansion vote; UCLA’s and USC’s joining the Big Ten; and the hiring of Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark. The group is set to attempt to compromise on several unresolved hurdles, including the media rights piece with ESPN; how revenue will be distributed in an expanded playoff; and the role of the Rose Bowl, a sticking point during the past year of negotiations.

“(Next week) will be the beginning of the implementation process,” Hancock said. “I’d say identify the steps that need to be taken to implement in 2026 but also what might need to be done in ’24 and ’25. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Hancock would not “handicap” the chances in expanding before 2026, and Keenum noted the many “logistical issues.”

That said, his “hope” is that the playoff can be implemented as “quickly as possible.”

The impacts of an expanded playoff are far and wide, especially if it happens in two years. Expansion would generate a combined $450 million in estimated additional revenue in 2024 and ’25, some of which may be earmarked for athlete benefits such as health care and family travel. But will players be brought in to share some of this additional revenue?

“We’re obviously doing things for the players now, and the question is what more can be done to be consistent with the current policies nationally,” Hancock said in a separate conference call with reporters after Friday’s formal announcement. “Remember that players’ families have their expenses paid to the games, and certainly the players get a really nice opportunity for mementos from the games. But is there more? I think there probably is, we just haven’t dug in deep enough to know what that might be.”

Expansion in those two years also provides a combined 16 new opportunities in a sport that has struggled to establish parity. The playoff era has been marked by a parade of the same teams from the same leagues advancing to the postseason.

For instance, over the eight-year CFP era, six teams have accounted for 25 of the 32 playoff spots (78%). Last year, 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 and Big 12 have combined to qualify six teams for the eight playoffs—the same number as the Big Ten. The SEC has qualified 10 and the ACC eight.

Expanding doesn’t solve a decades-long parity issue in the sport, but it is expected to at least create more critically important late-season matchups for more programs. Even in late November, as many as 30 teams could still be alive to make the field.

“If there were more teams in the mix, it would be a good thing overall for college football,” Bob Bowlsby, the former Big 12 commissioner who helped create the 12-team model, said in January. “We don’t need the same teams in it all the time. It diminishes interest in the event on a national basis.”

College football’s postseason will now more closely mirror other NCAA sports. A four-team playoff incorporates only about 3% of college football teams. Most NCAA postseason fields, such as basketball, baseball and softball, include at least 10% of a sport’s total teams.

Another impact of expansion: conference scheduling. Several leagues are in the midst of determining their future league scheduling formats, most notably the SEC.

SEC athletic directors have been split on remaining at eight or moving to nine league games when Texas and Oklahoma enter in 2024 or ’25. A 12-team playoff clears a path for teams to lose two or three games and still advance, creating more of an appetite for SEC athletic directors to move to nine conference games.

In a way, the SEC spearheaded the expansion charge despite its dominance in the current model. The league has qualified at least one team in 15 of the past 16 title bouts, has won 12 of those and has sent 18 teams to the last 16 championship games.

That said, in January 2019, Keenum directed commissioners to create an expansion model. A subsection of commissioners spent two years narrowing more than 60 models to a single, 12-team format presented last summer. What many believed would be a quick passage turned out to be a 10-month stretch of negotiations that included public barbs, hurt feelings and, in the end, a failed 8-3 vote in February.

It was another failed examination into college football’s postseason—the fifth such instance in the past 45 years. In 1976, two- and four-team playoff models were shot down. In ’88, NCAA members soundly defeated a proposal for a championship game, and in ’94, presidents rejected an eight-team model. In the most recent attempt, commissioners shot down a four-team model in a straw poll in 2008 before approving it four years later.

So why, this time, did it take so long to come to a consensus on such an obviously necessary move? A cacophony of unrelated issues arose to hamper negotiations.

First, the expansion originally was expected to be discussed and approved in 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed talks for a year, at which point two new Power 5 commissioners, the ACC’s Jim Phillips and Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff, arrived. They took issue with the subcommittee’s process at arriving at the 12-team model. The SEC’s acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas further damaged relationships and complicated negotiations.

Amid it all, the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC formed the Alliance. Each of their commissioners held public and private reasons for voting against the format. The Big Ten and ACC both expressed interest in each Power 5 champion earning an automatic berth. Before voting to expand, the ACC also wanted to resolve myriad off-the-field issues enveloping college football, most notably the 365-day football calendar. The Pac-12’s issues were not with the actual format, but other matters. They ranged from the revenue distribution model to the incorporation of the Rose Bowl, which wishes to remain in its traditional date and time.

The three leagues since have seemed to relax their positions, likely a product of varying circumstances. For one, the Alliance, torpedoed by the Big Ten’s acquisition of USC and UCLA this summer, is not expected to continue in its original form. Secondly, the Big Ten now has completed its multibillion dollar television deal, which some believe was a hang-up in its expansion position.

The ACC, meanwhile, has led a now monthslong examination into the creation of a new 365-day football calendar, potentially resolving its biggest issue with expansion. Out West, the Pac-12 needs expansion more than any other major conference—it hasn’t qualified for the four-team playoff since 2016.

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