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College Football Playoff negotiations move to more at-large teams amid outcry over Big Ten, SEC automatic byes

Negotiations over a 14-team College Football Playoff format, which would begin in the 2026 season, are trending to featuring ore at-large teams amid backlash to bidding from the Big Ten and SEC that would have afforded the conferences a sizable portion of the field and automatic first-round byes each year, sources familiar with the negotiations told CBS Sports.

When discussions began two weeks ago, sources told CBS Sports that the Big Ten and SEC would seek to receive as many as four automatic qualifiers each — eight total — in an expanded playoff. Coming out of the first College Football Playoff Management Committee meeting, it seemed as if a “3-3-2-2-1” model was gaining the most traction; that would have the Big Ten and SEC receiving three AQs, the ACC and Big 12 getting two each and the Group of Five being guaranteed a playoff bid with three at-large spots remaining.

As part of that model, the Big Ten and SEC sought to be guaranteed the only two byes in the bracket on an annual basis with their respective conference champions immediately advancing to the second week of play.

Discussions have pivoted since that proposed format led to a substantial outcry with fairness being immediately called into question.

“What they’re basically saying is, ‘We don’t trust the selection committee. Therefore, we basically want to take away their power,'” a person familiar with the discussions told CBS Sports. 

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has long supported a CFP bracket that includes all at-large teams. The CFP negotiation process has been one of horse trading with conferences going back and forth with their demands. All parties are seeking a resolution within the next few weeks as the CFP seeks to firm up a deal with ESPN for future media rights.

Another source familiar with the process told CBS Sports that the concept of byes and automatic qualifiers has “all went out the window” for conference commissioners. That doesn’t necessarily mean those elements will not factor into the final decision; it was conveyed that further discussions were needed on the topic.

Though the debut of a second expanded CFP bracket is 34 months away, time is of the essence in hashing out the details, mainly as revenue distribution among the conferences needs to be worked out.

One such proposal being circulated would include 58% of combined CFP revenue going to the Big Ten and SEC with the ACC and Big 12 splitting approximately $31 million. The remaining 10% would be divvied up between Notre Dame and the Group of Five conferences, according to Yahoo Sports

The Power Five conferences split $400 million equally (about $80 million each) under the current format. That represents about 78% of annual CFP revenue. The other 22% goes to the Group of Five, which then decides how that slice is split between the five conferences based off on-field accomplishments. 

The timeline for the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to have a format finalized for 2026 and beyond is mid- to late-March, one source told CBS Sports. 

Including the latest round of conference realignment, the Big Ten and SEC would have combined to fill nine spots (75%) if a 12-team format was in place for the 2023 season. Over the 10-year history of the CFP, the Big Ten and SEC — as constructed in 2024 and beyond — would have combined for an average of 7.6 teams in a 12-team field, according to CBS Sports research. 

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