College Football Playoff expansion: Answering the biggest lingering questions

ByESPN Staff via ESPN logo
Saturday, September 3, 2022
ESPN

Tired of waiting for the commissioners to make a decision about expanding the College Football Playoff, the 11 presidents and chancellors who comprise the CFP's board of managers took control on Friday with a unanimous vote to expand the field to 12 teams in 2026.

The presidents have strongly urged the commissioners to try and implement the new format as soon as 2024. The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will meet next week in Irving, Texas, to start that discussion.

After more than a year of indecision and unproductive in-person meetings, the monumental change to the sport's postseason happened swiftly -- in a one-hour, virtual meeting.

How did they finally come to an agreement? Who benefits the most from the new deal? And what comes next?

Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Pete Thamel break it all down.

Why are they expanding now?

The root of this expansion, like most things in college sports, comes back to money.

Two weeks ago, when the board of managers held an unscheduled call to set up this moment, there was a tone among the presidents on the call that they were leaving too much money on the table. The cost of not expanding for the final two years of the current College Football Playoff contract was an estimated $450 million. And a source told ESPN that leaving so much money on the table was the motivator for reengaging. It's certain there'll be a 12-team playoff after 2026. The next few weeks should determine whether or not they can work out logistics in time to implement it any sooner.

When asked why now, on the Friday of Labor Day weekend and the opening of the college football season, Mississippi State president and CFP board chair Mark Keenum said, "It's time."

"It's time to make a decision," he said. "We need to give direction to our commissioners. We felt like we needed to give them a definitive, 'This is where we are. This is where we think college football needs to be headed as far as the playoff is concerned for our national champion.' ... I do believe our commissioners, they need this direction from this board, and so I'm pleased that we were able to give it to them today." -- Thamel

How did they end up at 12 over 8 or 16?

There has always been strong support at both the presidential and commissioner level for 12 teams, and part of it is because they like the first-round byes for the top four seeds, but also because of the workable logistics in the overall college football calendar. While there were some who at least wanted to consider the possibility of a 16-team format, there simply wasn't enough interest.

"You start getting down into some of the details and logistics ... and then somebody said, 'Well, why can't we think about other options?'" Keenum said. "Well, I'll say this, all of the presidents believe that the 12-team format is the right thing to do, for this time, at this moment." -- Dinich

How does this affect future conference realignment?

The biggest reverberation is that the six at-large bids will serve as a lure to keep Notre Dame independent in the immediate future. With clear playoff access and NBC appearing motivated to keep Notre Dame now that it has a slice of the Big Ten, the two biggest tentpoles to Irish independence appear set for the immediate future.

As for the rest of college football, this is a fascinating question. The money gap between the Power Two of the Big Ten and SEC remains large. There will always be motivated schools jockeying to join those leagues. But the fact that there will be automatic bids for the top six conference champions adds a layer of certainty to leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12 that have been hurt by recent defections. Holistically, it helps the sport. Realignment would happen unrelated to playoff access. -- Thamel

Who benefits most from an expanded playoff? Does it hurt anyone?

The SEC has had the most appearances (10), wins (14) and championships (5) during the CFP era, and likely will enhance its share of the field with up to seven available slots. Although commissioner Greg Sankey repeatedly stated the league was fine with a four-team playoff, the number of CFP-capable programs in his league, plus the additions of Oklahoma and Texas, increased the need for access. The Big Ten also stands to benefit, as the league has packed the top 12 of the final CFP standings, but has had only six total appearances by three teams in the four-team model.

The model also marks a significant win for the Group of 5 conferences, which produced their first CFP participant in the four-team system last year (Cincinnati) and unanimously supported the 12-team proposal. At least one Group of 5 program will make the 12-team playoff annually, and the improved profiles of leagues such as the AAC and Sun Belt increase the chances of two Group of 5 participants in some years. Although Group of 5 participants likely will be road teams playing in first-round matchups, they finally have a true seat at the table.

The vote is good news for Notre Dame, which will have six access points instead of four. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick was part of the four-man working group that in June 2021 presented the 12-team model, which was later adopted. He remained an ardent supporter and ally to Sankey and others during the tense commissioner meetings that followed.

There are no obvious losers in an expanded playoff, although the annual distribution of teams could reinforce the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten and the other power conferences. A model guaranteeing spots for the six highest-rated conference champions creates the possibility of leagues such as the Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC being left out entirely, which would sting in multiple ways. The Pac-12 hasn't had a CFP team since 2016, while the Big 12's only CFP participant, Oklahoma, soon will depart for the SEC. But a postseason system that triples the number of spots should, in theory, help every power league.

-- Rittenberg

What does this mean for Notre Dame's independence?

Notre Dame's strong preference is to remain an FBS independent well into the future. Football independence is central to the university's identity, and there's a belief around college athletics that Swarbrick and president the Rev. John Jenkins, both 68, don't want to be the leaders to relinquish that status before they retire.

Swarbrick's input and support for the 12-team model underscores his belief that it will allow Notre Dame to maintain its position while still having the necessary access to compete for national championships. While some playoff stakeholders have been less willing to compromise, Notre Dame approved a system where it would never receive a first-round bye, making the path to a championship significantly more difficult.

Notre Dame will remain an expansion target for any league, namely the Big Ten, which has coveted the school for decades. But Notre Dame is less motivated by money than other expansion candidates, and has left millions on the table to remain independent in football. Notre Dame always was more likely to join a conference because of playoff access issues or the inability to craft a nationally competitive schedule. Although scheduling concerns might increase because of realignment, Notre Dame is positioned to regularly compete for one of the six at-large spots. Notre Dame has twice made the four-team CFP and has finished in the top 15 of the final CFP rankings every year since 2017.

-- Rittenberg

Is this the last time we see playoff expansion?

One of many unanswered questions is how long the next contract will be, which will help determine how committed the presidents are to this format. The current contract was 12 years, and it might be only 10 before they change the four-team field. If there's one thing that's certain about college athletics, it's that nothing is certain for any length of time.

Keenum couldn't help but laugh a little when he referenced his coach, Mike Leach, who has stated publicly and repeatedly he is in favor of a 64-team format.

"Will we always be at a 12-team [format]? I can't answer that," Keenum said. "We continue to look for ways to further improve the playoff going forward ... And my goodness, I have a head football coach who thinks we ought to have a 64-team playoff. I mean, that's what he believes, so my point is there's always going to be room for improvement." -- Dinich

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