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College Football Playoff Expansion: What We Know, What We Don’t and What’s Next

The sport’s postseason is expanding to 12 teams, but plenty of questions remain. Here’s where things stand.

Greg Sankey swung open the doors and burst into the circle of reporters gathered in the lobby of Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. The SEC commissioner took a deep breath inward as if he was seconds away from a major announcement, maybe a breakthrough in negotiations for college football’s expanded Playoff.

“My quote is this!” he bellowed, and then, as he darted toward the door, Sankey smiled and pointed toward CFP executive director Bill Hancock, “Whatever he says!”

The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick met for about 10 hours over two days here. Hancock says the group “made progress” toward the end goal—expanding the College Football Playoff by 2024—but no specifics, answers or details were provided. No final decisions were made (or at least they weren’t made public).

“Earlier is icing on the cake. We’re going to have our cake in 2026,” Hancock says. “Can we ice it now and start earlier? That’s what we’re working on now.”

Commissioners next meet in Dallas on Oct. 20, which some believe is a deadline of sorts to determine whether expansion can happen before the current TV contract expires after the 2025 season. Between now and then, they are expected to hold a bevy of virtual calls with one another as well as on-campus subcommittee groups.

For what it’s worth, commissioners exited Tuesday and Wednesday’s meetings with more optimism over early expansion than maybe ever before. There appears to be more of a collaborative effort and collegially atmosphere compared to last year, when expansion stalled because of an assortment of issues, many of them frivolous in nature. Commissioners even all dined together on Tuesday night in Chicago.

“There a million details, but I’m really encouraged by our ability to work through them. Lot of work to do,” Swarbrick said. “Thus far, [there’s] nothing that causes you to say, ‘This is impossible.’”

CFP presidents adopted the 12-team expansion model about a month ago. If you’ve forgotten the details, the highest-ranked six conference champions receive automatic bids into the field, and the next six highest-ranked teams get at-large berths. The top four conference champions get a bye into the quarterfinals. The four first-round games are played on the campus of the better seeds (Nos. 9–12 at Nos. 5–8). Six bowls host the quarterfinals and semifinals in a rotation, and the national title game is put out for bid as it is now.

At the very latest, the Playoff will begin in 2026, but the executive board of presidents encouraged commissioners to find a way to expand as early as ’24. However, there are plenty of hurdles.

After a month of negotiations, where do things stand?

A player warms up on the College Football Playoff logo

The CFP will expand to 12 teams, but when?

What We Know

The 2026 Playoff might look different

Commissioners seem to be handling the 2024 and ’25 playoffs separately from ’26 and beyond. The CFP has four years remaining on its current contract with ESPN, running through the ’25 Playoff. That means a new contract needs to be agreed to starting in ’26.

But first, officials are trying to determine whether they can expand early. Because of the expedited timeline needed to hold a Playoff in 2024 and/or ’25, those events could look much different from the ’26-and-beyond version—not from a size standpoint (still 12 teams) or even a format standpoint (still six AQs plus six at-large), but from a schedule and logistical standpoint.

“You take an issue, and one of the early elements of the discussion of that issue is, ‘Is this [2024 and ’25] critical?’ You put it in one bucket or the other,” Swarbrick said.

In the 2024–25 Playoffs, particulars have to be unanimously agreed upon. That’s not the case with ’26 and beyond, because it does not fall under the current contract. The expectation is that dates of Playoff rounds may differ as well as the revenue distribution model in ’24–25 compared to anything ’26 and beyond.

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Prepare for midweek Playoff games

Be prepared for first-round Playoff games to kick off on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Or maybe all three. As Sports Illustrated has reported, this is expected. It’s something that CFP executive director Bill Hancock strongly suggested in a conversation with reporters Tuesday. Hancock said he’d be “surprised” if all four first-round games were on a Saturday. That’s for at least two reasons: avoiding competing with the NFL, which begins regular-season games on Saturdays in mid-December; and television windows.

“You’d like to have each game in its own window. As you know, there are just three windows: 12 [p.m.], 4 and 8,” Hancock says.

Inside the room, discussions have centered around several possibilities, including holding one Playoff game each night Wednesday through Friday and then a Saturday afternoon Playoff game leading into the NFL games. Or maybe you play two Thursday games, a Friday game and a Saturday. Or two Saturday games—one potentially competing against the NFL—and one each on Thursday or Friday.

Either way, expect a midweek game or two. But much of that will be up to the network (see below).

ESPN holds the rights in 2024 and ’25

ESPN controls the broadcasting rights for the 2024 and ’25 Playoffs. While some commissioners have expressed a desire for multiple media partners to broadcast the Playoff, Hancock says there has been no discussion about having multiple networks for ’24 and ’25 because, well, ESPN owns them. The network will have a choice: (1) televise all 11 CFP games, or (2) allow a second media outlet—a competitor—to bid on part of the package.

“Everybody understands we need to talk to multiple networks,” Hancock said earlier this month. “We have 11 games. We’d like to talk to multiple broadcasters about televising those. Whether multiple people televise them or not is to be determined. Might happen, might not. We all see an advantage in having multiple partners.”

Late last fall, CFP officials said the network expressed flexibility, but plenty has changed since. There’s been another wave of realignment, the Big Ten signed its new ESPN-less deal, and two Power 5 leagues—the Pac-12 and Big 12—have opened negotiations with the network and Fox on reaching a new media rights package.

Some believe ESPN will not budge on exclusivity to the final two years of the contract. “No way,” says one CFP source. That means full control for ESPN in 2024 and ’25 before going to market for the next contract starting in ’26. However, going to market does not mean that the CFP will include multiple media partners starting in ’26, Sankey said earlier this month.

“We all said for [2026], we would fully go to market with the media rights. What that conveyed is that everybody will have an opportunity to participate,” he said. “We were always going to market. There’s no guarantee we’d go with multiple media partners. That’s a possibility, but we have to see the actual proposals.”

Home games are happening

There seems to be no sentiment to move the first-round games from on-campus stadiums to bowl sites. The topic did not arise during commissioners’ discussions on Tuesday, Hancock says. And most commissioners say privately they do not expect the first round to move from campuses.

In fact, there is talk among many athletic directors to move the quarterfinals to campus sites, arguing that the top four seeds in the Playoff will never host a postseason game—opportunities that will be both a competitive advantage and a financial boon (though most if not all of the ticket revenue is expected to go toward the CFP).

Bowl Season, the organization presiding over the 42 bowl games, believes the bowls should host the first round. Bowl Season executive director Nick Carparelli is in a continuous lobbying effort to achieve such.

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What We Don’t Know

When the first expanded Playoff begins

Well, we at least know one of three options here: 2024, ’25 or ’26. Though the CFP hasn’t set an official deadline to decide, the expectation is that commissioners’ next meeting (Oct. 20) looms as a significant one. Most believe that if expansion is to happen in ’24, a decision must be made by the end of October.

But don’t be surprised if this drags on. CFP officials set multiple deadlines for such a move last fall and winter, and commissioners blew right through them. The CFP even announced the sites of the 2024 and ’25 championship games (Atlanta and Miami, respectively), and less than a week later presidents adopted the 12-team model. Those championship dates are now expected to be moved back a week, which complicates matters—specifically at Atlanta, where the city has a conflict that weekend.

Discussions with Atlanta have been “great,” Hancock says, but “they have some work to do, because of other business in the community and meeting/hotel-type business.” Atlanta accommodating a shifted title game could potentially make or break Playoff expansion in 2024. The CFP has not explored moving to another city, and it might be too late for that.

Bill Hancock poses in front of SoFi Stadium

Hancock poses at SoFi Stadium, the host of this season’s national championship game.

Exact dates of Playoff rounds

Commissioners have established tentative dates for the four rounds, but nothing is concrete.

The first round falls roughly two weeks after conference title games in mid-December. The second round kicks off on the typical New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day window. The semifinals would be played a week later, followed by a championship game that, depending on the year, could kick off two or three weeks into January.

However, in future models, we could see significant changes there. Hancock says “there was some” talk among commissioners on Tuesday about moving up the regular season, but he views that as a “future, long-term item.” Moving up the regular season is nothing new. The concept calls for Week 1 to become Week 0 as a way to provide flexibility for additional Playoff games. Rivalry weekend would move off Thanksgiving, and conference championship games would move onto the holiday week.

This seems like a more long-term plan. Temporarily, we could see more teams playing in Week 0 and having an extra bye week during the regular season, as the proposed 365-day calendar suggests.

The revenue distribution model

For many, this is the top issue to solve. An expanded CFP would generate a combined $450 million in additional revenue in 2024 and ’25 (that’s gross revenue and does not include the expense of putting on eight more games).

Currently, the CFP distributes about 80% of its annual $600 million of revenue to the Power 5 leagues and roughly 20% to the Group of 5. A conference gets a $6 million bonus payment for every qualifying semifinal team and $4 million for each team playing in a non-Playoff CFP bowl.

At the center of negotiations is the 80% cut going to the Power 5. In light of realignment and the composition change to leagues, the Power 5 revenue distribution is in for some adjustment, many believe. The Big Ten and SEC have not only dominated the event, but the conferences have swelled to 16 teams (or at least they will have by the time 2026 rolls around). Why should the 10-team Pac-12 or 14-team ACC get the same cut as bigger conferences? Especially if those bigger conferences are responsible for the majority of CFP qualifiers? The SEC and Big Ten have qualified 16 teams for the CFP in its history. The other three leagues have qualified 14.

You hear plenty of talk now about leagues like the ACC and Big Ten moving to a conference-wide uneven revenue distribution model (giving more bucks to the more valued and successful programs). Well, on the national scale, the CFP is almost certain to do the same with its new revenue distribution, which includes a bigger cut for the bigger leagues and those conferences that have most success in the field.

“It needs to be updated comprehensively,” says Sankey.

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