College Football Playoff expansion — Answering the biggest lingering questions

Tired of waiting for commissioners to make a decision on expanding the college football playoffs, the 11 presidents and chancellors who make up the CFP governing board voted unanimously on Friday to expand the field to 12 teams in 2026.

The presidents strongly urged commissioners to try to implement the new format as soon as possible in 2024. The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will meet next week in Irvine, Texas, to begin discussions.

After more than a year of indecision and futile in-person meetings, the sport’s playoffs have changed dramatically — in an hour-long virtual session.

How did they finally come to an agreement? Who benefits the most from the New Deal? What will happen next?

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

Why are they expanding now?

Like most things in college sports, the root of this expansion is money.

When the management committee held an unscheduled conference call to establish the moment two weeks ago, there was a tone from the presidents on the call that they had left too much money on the table. The cost of not scaling up in the final two years of the current College Football Playoff contract is estimated at $450 million. A source told ESPN that leaving so much money behind was the motivation to re-engage. There will definitely be a 12-team playoff after 2026. The next few weeks should determine if they can develop the logistics in time to implement as quickly as possible.

Asked why now, on Friday over Labor Day weekend and the opening of the college football season, Mississippi President and CFP Board Chairman Mark Keenum said, “It’s about time.”

“It’s time to make a decision,” he said. “We need to give our commissioners direction. We feel like we need to give them a clear message, ‘This is where we are. This is where we think college football needs to be in the playoffs for our national championships. The direction of focus. …I do trust our commissioners that they need this board’s direction, so I’m glad we were able to give it to them today.” – Tamil

How did they get to 12 when they were 8 or 16?

The 12 teams have been strongly supported at the presidential and commissioner levels, in part because they like the first-round byes of the top four seeds, but also because of the logistics that are feasible throughout the college football schedule. While some would at least want to consider the possibility of a 16-team format, there is simply not enough interest.

“You start digging into some of the details and the logistics … and then someone says, ‘Okay, why can’t we look at other options?'” Keenum said. “Well, I’ll say this, all the presidents think the 12-team format is the right thing to do, right at this time, at this time.” – Dinich

How does this affect future meeting adjustments?

The biggest response was that six general bids would be the bait to keep Notre Dame independent in the near future. With clear playoff entry and NBC seemingly motivated to keep Notre Dame, as it now owns part of the Big Ten, two of the biggest pillars of Irish independence appear to be on the horizon.

As for the rest of college football, that’s an interesting question. The funding gap between the top two in the top ten and the SEC remains wide. There will always be active schools vying to join these alliances. 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, which have been hurt by recent defections. Overall, it helps the sport. Adjustments will occur unrelated to the playoffs. – Tamil

Who benefits the most from an expanded playoffs? Will it hurt anyone?

In the CFP era, the SEC has the most appearances (10), wins (14), and championships (5), and will likely increase its share of the field with as many as 7 spots available. Although Commissioner Greg Sankey has repeatedly said the league is doing well in the four-team playoffs, the number of programs in the league that support CFP, plus the additions of Oklahoma and Texas, has increased entry. demand. The Big Ten will also benefit, as the league is already packed with the top 12 of the final CFP standings, but in the four-team mode, the three teams make a total of six appearances.

The model also marked a major victory for the G5 meeting, 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 playoffs each year, and improvements in leagues such as the AAC and Sun Belt increase the chances of two Group of 5 participants in certain years. Although the 5-man entrants will likely be the road teams for the opening round, they end up with real seats.

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

There are no clear losers in the expanded playoffs, although the annual distribution of teams could widen the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten and other power conferences. A model that guarantees spots for the six highest-rated conference champions creates the possibility of a league such as the Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC being completely excluded, which stings in a number of ways. The Pac-12 has not had a CFP team since 2016, and Oklahoma, the Big 12’s only CFP player, will soon head to the SEC. But in theory, a playoff system that triples the number of seats should help every strong team.

– Rittenberg

What does this mean for Notre Dame’s independence?

Notre Dame’s strong preference is to keep FBS independent in the future. Football independence is at the heart of the college’s identity, and there is a belief in college sports that Swarbrick, 68, and Chancellor Rev. John Jenkins don’t want to be leaders who relinquish that status before retirement.

Swarbrick’s commitment and support for the 12-team model underscores his belief that it will keep Notre Dame in its place while still having the necessary opportunity to play in the National Championship. While some playoff stakeholders were reluctant to compromise, Notre Dame approved a system that would never get a first-round bye, making the road to a championship that much harder.

Notre Dame will remain an expansion target for any league, the Big Ten that 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 keep football independent. Notre Dame is always more likely to be in the conference due to playoff entry issues or the inability to develop a schedule for a national competition. Although scheduling issues may increase due to the realignment, Notre Dame is positioned to regularly compete for one of six regular seats. Notre Dame has been a four-team CFP twice since 2017 and has been in the top 15 of the final CFP rankings each year.

– Rittenberg

Is this the last time we’ll see a playoff expansion?

One of the many open questions is how long the next contract will last, which will help determine the president’s level of commitment to the format. The current contract is 12 years, maybe only 10 years, they will only change four teams. If there’s one thing certain about college sports, it’s that it hasn’t been certain for any period of time.

Keenum couldn’t help but laugh when he mentioned his head coach Mike Leach, who has publicly stated his support for the 64’s format on several occasions.

“Will we always be on a team of 12? [format]”I can’t answer that,” Keenum said. “We’re going to continue to look for ways to further improve the playoffs … gosh, I have a head coach who thinks we should have 64 teams in the playoffs. I mean, that’s what he believes, so my point is there’s always room for improvement. ” – Dinich


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