This Saturday marks a kind of anniversary.
On that day three years ago, Jan. October 8, 2019: College leaders set out on the long and winding road of seriously exploring expansion into the college football playoffs. Inside a luxurious hotel in downtown San Jose, Mark Keenum, the president of the state of Mississippi and chairman of the CFP’s highest governing body, the Board of Managers, approached CEO Bill Hancock with a directive.
“We are in the middle of the 12-year CFP contract,” he told Hancock. “Let’s examine the Playoff.”
Exactly three years later, the most powerful executives in college football meet Saturday from Indianapolis in a somewhat fractured, exhausted and frustrated state, with no consensus on an expansion format. The CFP’s management committee, an 11-member group of FBS and Notre Dame AD’s 10 conference commissioners Jack Swarbrick, will meet over the weekend with dubious hopes of reaching unanimity on an expansion recommendation.
Either way, the committee is expected to report back to Keenum and the Board of Trustees, made up of 11 school presidents representing each FBS and Notre Dame conference. Some believe the committee could even present the board with a recommendation for the Playoff model that gets the most votes.
In sum, commissioners will put 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 tie.
What will they do? The question remains unanswered.
All of this happens in the context of a transformative and unsettling time in college athletics. Blocks from this weekend’s meeting venue, Monday’s national championship will meet two SEC teams for the third time in the past 11 years; the first of them, Alabama vs. LSU in 2011, sparked the previous round of expansion talks that ultimately brought down the BCS. .
The showdown is itself a comment on the status of the college football championship postseason; a parade of the same teams from the same conferences winning the semifinals in spectacular fashion.
There is little parity and few opportunities even for the leagues of power. This year, for example, three of the five power conferences were not represented in the Playoff, the second time that has occurred in the eight years of the CFP. The Pac-12 have not advanced to the Playoffs since 2016. In fact, 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 rated 10 and the ACC eight.
The numbers are staggering.
Since 1998, the BCS’s first year, when the college football champion went on to be crowned on the field rather than in the polls, six teams have won 74% of championships: Alabama (six), LSU (three ), Clemson (two), the state of Florida (two), Florida (two), and the state of Ohio (two). In the playoff era, six teams have accounted for 25 of the 32 playoff spots (78%).
There have been many blowouts, as well as the dominance of the SEC. Only three of the 16 CFP semi-finals 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, sent them 18 teams in total, and won 12.
Expanding the playoff isn’t solving that problem, says Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. So what is the solution?
“We need to be good enough to beat them,” he says. “That’s not going to change in a four, eight or 12-team postseason.”
What the expansion will do, he says, is provide more opportunities, bring in a deeper number of teams and conferences, make November more attractive, and fuel interest from coast to coast.
“If there were more teams in the mix, it would be a good thing overall for college football,” Bowlsby says. “We don’t need the same teams all the time. National interest in the event diminishes. “
Commissioners agree: They all want expansion. However, there is no unanimity on the format or agreement on the timetable. A 12-team format proposed by a subcommittee of commissioners last summer has garnered the most support of any seriously considered model. The proposed model automatically bids the six highest-ranked conference champions, gives the four highest-ranked champions a first round break, and completes the field with six overall picks. The first round would be played on campus before a six-pin rotation is used for the quarterfinals and semi-finals.
Eight committee members have spoken publicly in support of the model and a ninth, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, has not objected. 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. Additionally, Phillips says the process should be delayed until the NCAA’s ongoing transformation is complete. . He also believes that eight teams, not 12, is the right amount for a playoff. Since last month, the ACC’s position has not changed, Phillips says.
For the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, there is a historical relationship to consider. The two leagues have separate lucrative contracts with the Rose Bowl, the oldest bowling game in college football. The expansion proposal impacts that agreement, the start date of the game and the traditional team confrontation, something seen as a possible obstacle. This year’s Rose Bowl, a spectacular comeback by Ohio State over Utah, drew an average audience of 16.6 million, matching the rating of Alabama’s semifinal victory over Cincinnati.
The stalemate has dragged on long enough, six months, that officials are rushing toward an arbitrary deadline. The hope of expanding in the final two years of CFP’s contract with ESPN, in 2024 and 2025, is at an almost unattainable point, commissioners say. As each day passes, the first year of expansion approaches 2026, the first year of what would be CFP’s new multimedia rights agreement.
But handing over expansion now is costly. A 12-team Playoff in 2024 and 2025 would generate an additional $ 450 million in revenue, the sources said. Illustrated Sports last year.
Some are already focused on 2026. With a new deal, come new rules. While unanimity is required to expand the Playoff before the contract expires, it is 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.
Are you suggesting that the Power 5 create the format?
“You can determine for yourself which subset of those 11 people would have to say, ‘We agree’ for that to become the college football tie,” says Kliavkoff. “Once you do that and by definition because it will expand, it provides more access for everyone, I think you could go back to the people who were not part of the group that presented the new proposal and say ‘We would also like to start that in ’24, not ’26 “. Everybody would say, ‘We’re cool with that.’
What model would that be? Likely one of two 12-team formats: the original proposition giving automatic bids to the top six ranked champions or an alternate 12-team format giving automatic bids to the Power 5 conference champions as well as the Pool of 5 with the highest ranking. The latter has generated rejection from the Commissioners of the Group of 5 and also from some leaders of Power 5.
The models are practically identical, apart from the alternate format that ensures that a second Group of 5 champion does not take a place of a Power 5 champion.
The eight-team models were discussed among commissioners and explored extensively by the subcommittee, but have not garnered the necessary support.
“I really think reading the room and the meetings we’ve had since the format was launched, people are in favor of expansion. There are still eight on the table, but I don’t think eight is enough, ”Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson told SI last month. “I think we will expand, but it is a question of when.”
A more immediate question arises: When commissioners report to the Board this weekend, what do the presidents decide? Are you ending this version of the expansion discussions and looking to 2026 instead? Are they telling commissioners to keep moving despite the stalemate?
Or do they vote knowing that there is no unanimity (much less)?
“Will a president vote against his own commissioner? I don’t see it, ”says a high-ranking college football official.
This latest expansion expedition seems doomed to an unsuccessful end, another failed college football postseason exam, the fifth since 1976. At least this one went further than the others.
In 1976, there was not even a vote at the NCAA convention on a proposed playoff for two and four teams. In 1988, the members of the NCAA roundly defeated a proposal for a championship game. The most serious of expansion talks in 1994 ended with another rejection by a committee of presidents, this time from an eight-team tiebreaker. And in 2008, commissioners shot down a four-team model in an informal poll before approving it four years later.
This could be the most surprising failure of all. Why? The CFP’s top leaders originally called for the expansion, which many saw as a foregone conclusion for this year. Instead, a number of underlying problems spread throughout the procedure. The SEC’s takeover of Oklahoma and Texas set off a wave of conference realignment that changed the landscape of college football, hurt feelings across the country and described the league as unreliable.
COVID-19 delayed the subcommittee’s discussions for about a year. Without the pandemic, an expansion proposal is likely to be submitted a year early, in the summer of 2020, before the chairmen of the commissioners switch to both the Pac-12 and the ACC.
The Board of Directors not only called for expansion, but also vigorously encouraged and even lobbied the subcommittee to finalize the 12-team proposal that was released over the summer.
Swarbrick, one of the four subcommittee members who created the 12-team model, was responsible for presenting updates to the board during the two years the subcommittee deliberated. Swarbrick updated the presidents at least two different times, and neither of them featured actual updates.
We haven’t arrived yet, I would tell them each time.
“The second time I gave that update, they made it very clear that they didn’t want it to repeat itself 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 into this long journey, another update may be the same as the latest.
We have not arrived yet.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.