Mandel: CFP expansion arrives just in time for everyone outside the Big Ten, SEC

It’s been a doom and gloom summer for college football fans. First, shifting portals would kill the sport. Then zero. Then, most certainly, the super session. Rip off your season tickets, Virginia Tech fans. Skip Homecoming, Iowa fans. Because if your team isn’t in the Big Ten or in the SEC by 2024, it might as well close its doors.

But, lo and behold, on the Friday before the last unofficial weekend of summer, the 11 college presidents who oversee the college football playoffs went and threw 99 FBS programs into these two conferences, or headed to both conferences , which is a giant lifebuoy.

It’s been a long, tortuous and frankly odd process to get there, but a 12-team college football playoff is officially here, possibly as early as 2024, but no later than 2026. The news comes just in time for conferences like the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC — the latter two being run by commissioners who inexplicably voted no last winter.

After commissioners failed to reach an agreement after an eight-month meeting, angry presidents effectively said, “Thank you, we’ll take it from here.” Multiple sources said sports A small group of presidents, led by Mark Keenum of Mississippi and Gordon Gee of West Virginia, have been in informal discussions for months.

The model they approved Friday was little changed from the June 2021 working group’s initial proposal. The six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest-ranked general teams will still be invited.

You read that right. Six sessions guarantee access to the Big Ball. Not two.

Every current Power 5 league plus at least one Group of 5 conference will remain nationally relevant through the final week of the regular season, no matter how many billions they may be short of the Big Ten or the SEC.

“Obviously there’s a ‘P2’ and I’ve used that word before and the media has started using it,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said on Friday. “I think with this integration, everyone realizes that having (CFP) access is important.”

To that end, Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff should send his best bottle of champagne to Keenum, chairman of the CFP board. Keenum’s conference could have continued to flourish in the four-team playoffs until the end of time. Kliavkoff’s, on the other hand, hasn’t seen one of its teams advance in six years. Kliavkoff voted against early expansion for the first time because he wanted a clearer picture of how revenue was distributed.

It’s interesting to see how those concerns were allayed when USC and UCLA headed to the Big Ten and took 40% of the Pac-12’s projected earnings.

ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips last staunchly opposed early expansion, arguing that his peers should be more focused on tackling NIL and other issues. Interestingly, all of these concerns were miraculously eased when the Big Ten TV League signed an $8 billion TV contract that would pay its members two to three times the ACC fee.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren also voted against last winter, confusingly arguing that the Power 5 conference was granted priority automatic berths. Curiously, his stance “softened” shortly after his tier 5 brought another tier 5 to the brink of extinction.

About that.

Friday’s news came just in time for the depleted Pac-12, which is currently negotiating its next TV contract with ESPN and others. Regardless of the offer, knowing that the Pac-12 Championship is going to be the CFP’s annual event, its value may just go up. Plus its CFP revenue cuts will soar with the next TV contract. ESPN’s current deal, which began in 2014, pays an average of $470 million a year. A 12-team event, especially if it hits the open market in 2026 and beyond, could fetch $2 billion a year.

Will that be enough to stop Oregon State from turning down an invitation to the Big Ten if one hangs in the balance? Maybe not. Although that school may now need to consider whether it’s better to be in a 12-team league versus one or two other CFP contenders versus six to eight other contenders in an 18-team league.

The same goes for the Big 12, which announced this week that it will be in discussions with ESPN and Fox about potential early negotiations on a new contract. Oklahoma is currently the only Big 12 program eligible for CFP eligibility and will exit by 2025 at the latest. In this new world, everyone from Oklahoma State and Baylor to Cincinnati and UCF can become an annual CFP contender. Its regular season has also become more valuable.

Even though Cincinnati is being promoted from the AAC, last season’s playoffs have now gone from a 5-team rarity to an annual. Imagine being a fan of East Carolina or a fan of Wyoming…heck, even a fan of Central Michigan, this thing went into effect in season one. Playoffs are no longer your school’s dream.

Note: This does not mean that the non-Alabama, Georgia and Ohio states of the world will start winning national championships more often. Possibly the opposite. Now, even in years when these plans are 10-to-2 (maybe even 9-to-3), they’re giving it a try.

But unlike BCS, which went from two to four, the push for playoff expansion was never meant to determine champions. The four-team model does this very well. The conference title game is meaningless if the participant ranks below No. 5 in the country. It’s about the frustration of fans having to wait four weeks every December to watch Alabama and Clemson beat that year’s semifinal opponents. It’s about once-sublime bowls like roses, sugar, and oranges being relegated to glorified displays that the team’s NFL stars don’t bother to play.

Last year, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker both opted out of the Peach Bowl, which ended both teams’ best seasons in years. In the new format, the annual Peach Bowl could be at least the CFP quarterfinals.

The process leading up to Friday’s epic news dump began in January 2019, on the morning of the third Alabama-Clemson National Championship game in Santa Clara, when Keenum and the Board of Directors empowered They began to explore potential expansion models. But before 2026, going from 4 to 8, let alone 12, still seems highly unlikely. Too many problems, too much resistance, too complex to blow up the internetwork that makes up CFP’s television and bowl contracts.

Today, more than three years later, it has become a necessity for the health of college football.

The sport has proven very resilient over the last century, so the two Los Angeles schools running road races in New Jersey probably won’t kill that either. However, there is something to be said for creating fan interest rather than testing it.

On Friday, 11 university presidents invited a fan base of nearly 100.

— Nicole Auerbach contributed reporting.

(Photo: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY)

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