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Would Proposed 14-Team Football Playoff Format Be Good for ACC and Cal?

Big Ten and SEC are trying to use their power to give them more automatic berths

Although a 12-team playoff is set for the next two seasons, a 14-team playoff and different monetary distributions are being discussed for 2026 and beyond.

An unofficial deadline to present a proposal to TV networks being sometime this month so this is coming at us fast. It behooves us to see whether the proposals are good or bad for the Atlantic Coast Conference in general and Cal football in particular since the Bears will be a members of the ACC next fall.

In short, would the ACC -- and Cal -- be content with fewer automatic berths than the Big Ten and SEC would get in a 14-team playoff. That seems to be where this is headed.

There are two components to discussions among conferences regarding a playoff proposal:

1. The financial payouts to each conference, which is what conference and school administrators care about most since this is what will fund their football programs and athletic programs over the long haul.

2. The playoff format, which is what players and fans care most about because that determines which teams get a chance to play for a national championship.

Coaches would seem to care about both, because the former affects their long-term success and the latter affects their short-term success.

Ross Dellenger of Yahoo Sports has been doing the most extensive reporting on the proposals, and the main takeaway is that the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference are dictating the discussions and trying to get the financial and format issues in their favor.

It has become increasingly clear that the Big Ten and SEC have become the dominant football conferences, with the ACC and Big 12 a big step behind. Let’s face it, a Big Ten conference that features Michigan, Ohio State, Washington, USC and Penn State and an SEC that boasts Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and LSU have a clear superiority over an ACC that claims Florida State and Clemson (both of whom would like to leave the ACC) and a Big 12 that has Utah, Oklahoma State and TCU as its football flag bearers.

The most discussion has been about financial distribution to the conferences, and the Big Ten and SEC are trying to claim a much bigger piece of the huge playoff pie.

Here is what Dellenger reported:

In the past structure, the five major conferences mostly split evenly 80% of the CFP’s $460 million in revenue.

In a proposal socialized with administrators this week, the Big Ten and SEC would combine to earn about 58% of the CFP’s base distribution — a figure that will certainly grow in participation distribution as their individual schools earn more revenue for qualifying and advancing through the playoffs. The figure would greatly exceed the ACC and Big 12’s combined distribution number, which is expected to be around 31%. The remaining amount (roughly 10%) will be distributed to Notre Dame and the 64 Group of Five teams.

The difference in distribution between the two sets of conferences — SEC/Big Ten and ACC/Big 12 — will likely exceed $300 million a year. The Power Two will earn around a combined $760 million versus around $440 million for the ACC and Big 12. Roughly $115 million is slotted for the Group of Five.

And this:

Considering the distribution percentages, SEC teams will earn as much as $23 million annually, Big Ten $21 million, ACC around $13.7 million and Big 12 around $12.3 million. Group of Five teams are expected to earn a figure just south of $2 million.

The financial issue is becoming increasingly important with the prospect of colleges being required to pay its athletes directly at some point. That seems to be inevitable, especially with the confusion and controversy involved with the NIL compensation method.

Presumably that difference in financial distribution from the playoff would, over time, increase the already considerable gap between the two power conferences and the rest of the college football world when it comes to football success.

Obviously this would be a detriment to Cal’s long-term football success, although the larger amount of money the conferences are expected to make in the next TV playoff deal might be enough to keep the Golden Bears competitive and better finance their other sports.

But let’s turn to the 14-team playoff format proposals, which is what the largest component of college football – the fans – is most interested in.

The 14-team format proposal that received the most publicity this week was one in which the Big Ten and SEC would get three automatic berths, the ACC and Big 12 would get two automatic berths, the Group of Five schools would get one automatic berth, and the three final spots would be filled by at-large selections. The short hand for this alignment is the 3-3-2-2-1+3 format.

Another model proposed is the 2-2-1-1-1+7 format in which the Big Ten and SEC would each get two automatic berths while the ACC, Big 12 and Group of Five would get one automatic berth apiece with seven at-large berths.

The Big Ten and SEC are pushing for their two conferences to get first-round byes in a 14-team playoff.

Another model proposed would be similar to the 12-team format that will be used the next two seasons. (The 12-team field will be composed of the five highest-ranked conference champions plus the next seven highest-ranked teams.)

But the first two proposed models being pushed hardest and the ones in which the ACC and Big 12 would get fewer automatic berths than the Big Ten and SEC.

By accepting either of these proposals the ACC and Big 12 would be publicly admitting that they are inferior football conferences. It’s one thing for the football world to assume the Big Ten and SEC now have most of the power, but it’s another thing for the two other major conferences to wave the white flag publicly and figuratively bow down to the Big Ten and SEC.

However, pragmatism must supersede ego. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury-News points out that the Big Ten and SEC teams have dominated the College Football Playoff by noting the number of CFP berths each conference (as it will be constituted in 2024) has had over the past 10 years:

SEC: 17

Big Ten: 12

ACC: 7

Big 12: 2

Notre Dame: 2

Logic suggests it would be better to be guaranteed two berths than leave it up to on-field success in the form of rankings to get ACC teams into the 14-team field.

If Notre Dame were a football member of the ACC, the ACC might be able to play hardball and hold out for an equal number of automatic berths. However, the Irish are ACC members in all sports except football, which, of course, is the driving force in all these discussions.

So if we ignore for a moment that the Big Ten and SEC will be getting more automatic berths than the ACC, it would seem like a win to get two automatic berths – and possibly a third as an at-large team – for the ACC and Cal.

It seems unlikely now, but Cal certainly would have a shot at finishing among the top two in the ACC at some point in the near future, especially in a year in which it has a favorable ACC schedule. We saw Louisville play in the ACC championship game this past season, and the Cardinals did not look like a powerhouse team. They got to the ACC title game with former Cal starting quarterback Jack Plummer as their starting quarterback.

How the entire TV deal and playoff format would be affected if Florida State and Clemson (and perhaps others) leave the ACC is another issue, but that will be addressed when the time comes.

For now it’s seems best for the ACC – and Cal – to swallow their pride and get behind the 3-3-2-2-1+3 playoff model.

Cover photo of Jadyn Ott by Annie Rice, Avalanche-Journal, USA TODAY NETWORK

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