Thursday, January 20, 2022

College Football Playoff expansion: Weekend meetings could result in change or further delay to 2026

INDIANAPOLIS — After all the disagreements, public wrangling and proposals, some finality could actually be achieved next week in expanding the College Football Playoff.

The CFP Management Committee (conference commissioners) could make a recommendation Monday to the CFP Board of Managers (school presidents) on how to move forward with expansion after meeting over the weekend. Those campus CEOs are the ones who will ultimately make the decision on whether to expand.

While there is no unanimity among the committee, ultimately, the only vote that matters is those presidents who would have to decide unanimously how to proceed.

“I expect we’ll be making a recommendation to the board, but it may not be unanimous, and they will deal with it as they see fit,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told CBS Sports.

So there’s hope? Hardly. It’s almost assured those commissioners will not be unanimous in a recommendation. So, what are the odds the presidents vote as one, some defying their own commissioners’ conclusions?

“I’m guessing most presidents aren’t going to want to vote against their commissioners, but you never know,” Bowlsby said.

That was a subtle way of saying the odds are long that expansion gets approved inside the current agreement with ESPN, which currently has four years remaining after Monday night’s CFP National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.

That’s the discussion at this point: Not so much if the bracket will expand but when.

The committee will continue the discussion this weekend whether expansion will start with the 2024 season or after the current contract expires before the 2026 season begins. This weekend’s meetings are seen as a sort of drop-dead date on expanding the playoff before 2026.

One high-ranking CFP source said the managers will probably be dealing with “Year 13” — expansion beginning in 2026.

“Year 11 [2024] is probably gone,” Bowlsby said. “Whether there is anything to be done for Year 12 [2025], I don’t know. I don’t think Year 11 is salvageable at this point. You need hotels and buildings and entertainment. Logistically, it becomes untenable.”

However, a different CFP stakeholder believes there’s still plenty of runway.

“Guess what, if we tell them six months before 2025 [the playoff is expanding], you’d have a line of cities wanting to host it. It’s a nonsense deadline,” that stakeholder said.

More than eight months into the discussion that began in April with a reference in a press release, the expansion process has become more complicated than expansion itself.

There seems to be a general agreement with a 12-team bracket — at some point. In June, a four-person subcommittee proposed a structure populated with the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams. The top four conference champions would receive byes.

Since then, the process has gotten complex as a series of self-interests intersected with what should have been a fairly easy process. A month after that June proposal, word leaked that Texas and Oklahoma had been talking to the SEC. In short order, the Longhorns and Sooners made their intentions to depart the Big 12 known. An alliance then formed between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 in response to the SEC’s perceived (or real) consolidation of power. The Rose Bowl as a separate entity had to be dealt with as did the Group of Five, which wants to be guaranteed a spot.

An alternate discussion formed around the so-called 5+1+6 model. Instead of the proposed top six conference champions, each of the Power Five champions would get an automatic bid along with the highest-ranked Group of Five member.

For now, if the CFP decides to expand to 12 within the current contract, ESPN would have to pay for it. It’s written into the contract language. Sports Illustrated reported the CFP would get a combined $450 million for the 2024 and 2025 seasons with a 12-team bracket.

In essence, it’s not a TV negotiation if the bracket expands inside the current contract. The CFP could expand and get a defined revenue bump for two years just by flipping that unanimous switch.

Easier said than done.

As for the specifics …

The ACC, per commissioner Jim Phillips, wants to wait to decide on the CFP until the NCAA’s Transformation Committee reconfigures the NCAA Constitution. The new constitution is scheduled to take effect Aug. 1.

“It has more to do with all the unrest as it relates to NCAA governance, the transfer portal, the Alston decision, player safety,” said Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich. “Those voices are fairly loud right now. Where the ACC is: ‘Hey let’s answer some of these questions before we jump into this,’ which I can certainly respect.”

The ACC continues to hold out hope that Notre Dame joins its ranks one day. That addition would increase revenue and improve the league’s playoff chances. Its current contract with ESPN lasts until 2036, giving the network cost certainty but the conference less wriggle room in realignment unless it could add Notre Dame.

The contract states that if Notre Dame were to decide to join a conference, it must join the ACC through the term of its contract in 2036. 

Out of respect for the process, Phillips told CBS Sports he preferred not to speak about the CFP.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has reiterated he is comfortable with four teams. Why not? The league is already assured of its 13th national championship in the last 16 years. Georgia essentially played the SEC Championship Game for seeding in the CFP, dropping from No. 1 to No. 3.

Sankey’s conference has filled 10 of the 32 spots in the CFP era (31%). This is the seventh straight year at least one SEC team will play for the national title, and it will be the SEC’s fifth playoff win in eight total seasons.

A win Monday would mark Nick Saban’s seventh championship in the last 13 years at Alabama.

“If this is the best four teams and they played each other, I don’t see the logic in it if we had more teams there would be better games,” Saban said. “I don’t see how that adds up.”

There is the curious adherence to the 5+1+6 model for some Power Five conferences that needs addressing. Going with five automatic bids for conference champions potentially takes an at-large bid from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 in the event of an upset in the conference championship game.

Think of an 8-4 Northwestern upsetting an undefeated Ohio State. The Wildcats would be guaranteed a spot in the bracket when they wouldn’t otherwise be there at 9-4. Meanwhile, Ohio State would be an at-large team at 12-1. Northwestern, then, would be perceived as a bid stealer for at-large schools from the Big Ten and other conferences. (The SEC is not included in this discussion because it is simply less susceptible in the event of an upset.)

American commissioner Mike Aresco is against the 5+1+6 model primarily because of branding issues. His conference has self-designated itself a member of the “Power Six” conferences. Hence, he would support access through being one of the six highest-ranked conference champions.

An AAC team has earned the automatic New Year’s Six berth over six of the last eight years. Either way, his conference would all be but guaranteed a spot in a 12-team field.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have to be heartened with ratings from the Rose Bowl. The Granddaddy of ’em All had a rating (16.6 million viewers) similar to the CFP semifinals.

According to ESPN, the Rose was the second highest-rated non-semifinal New Year’s Six bowl in the CFP era. The Rose, Big Ten and Pac-12 are pushing that Rose Bowl traditions be accounted for during expansion talks. The Rose wants to continue being played on Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET with teams from those conference.

The ratings at least gives those two leagues leverage in their continued fight to assimilate the Rose into the expanded playoff.

Conferences began to realize they all had leverage once there was a lack of unanimity. One vote could scuttle the process given the unanimous decision making that supposedly has to be presented to the board.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff last month sent the message that the Power Five could set the parameters themselves once the current contract runs out. At that point, the Group of Five could lose access and revenue in a process over which they currently have at least some control.

“I think we should get in a room and come to an agreement on what the expanded CFP looks like and then announce that,” Kliavkoff said, “rather than negotiate in the media.”

Kliavkoff has complained that more conferences weren’t involved in the sub-committee that met on expansion. However, no reservations were expressed in 2019 when Bowlsby, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey embarked on a two-year examination before deciding on 12 teams. COVID-19 then delayed the process further.

“I’d say [the feeling] is ‘frustrated’,” Bowlsby said. “The sub-committee did what we were asked to do. We considered a wide variety of possibilities. … There were those who thought the process was flawed. They’re entitled to their opinion, but we did what we were asked to do.”

The road to 12 makes so much sense. Only three of the five Power Five leagues were represented this year in the playoff, only the second time that has happened in the eight-year existence of the CFP. The Pac-12 hasn’t been in the field since 2016 and is going on its 18th straight season without a national championship. The Group of Five broke through for the first time with Cincinnati.

But with 12 teams, the field would be tripled. Nearly 9% FBS would be in the playoff instead of the current 3%. In Division I men’s college basketball, nearly 20% of the teams make the NCAA Tournament.

In the end, what the commissioners are sparring over is access to the six at-large spots – as well as the extra revenue and access to the championship that access would bring.

That leads us to Monday, which could be a seminal moment or more kicking the bracket (years) down the road.

“We’ve been working on a project, and we’re going to have to report out on it at the board meeting,” Bowlsby said. “If we don’t get something that we’d call a recommendation, we’re still going to have to provide [the presidents] a report. … They’ll do what they see fit.”

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