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 board of directors took control on Friday with a unanimous vote to expand the field to 12 teams. in 2026.

The presidents strongly urged commissioners to try to implement the new format as early as 2024. The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will meet next week in Irving, Texas to begin this discussion. .

After more than a year of indecision and fruitless in-person meetings, the sport’s monumental playoff change happened quickly — in an hour-long virtual meeting.

How did they finally come to an agreement? Who benefits the most from the new contract? And what comes next?

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

Why are they growing now?

The root of this expansion, like most things in college sports, comes down to money.

Two weeks ago, when the board held an unscheduled call to organize this moment, there was a tone among the presidents on the call that they were leaving too much money on the table. The cost of not expanding for the final two years of the current college football playoff contract was estimated at $450 million. And a source told ESPN that leaving so much money on the table was the motivation to re-engage. It is certain that there will be a 12-team playoff after 2026. The next few weeks should determine whether or not they can work out the logistics in time to implement it sooner.

When asked why now, on the Friday of Labor Day weekend and the opener of the college football season, Mississippi State President and CFP Board Chairman Mark Keenum said, “It’s time.”

“It’s time to make a decision,” he said. “We have to give direction to our commissioners. We felt we had to give them a definitive answer: ‘This is where we are. This is where we believe college football needs to be headed when it comes to the playoffs for our national champion. .’ … I believe our commissioners need that direction from this board, so I’m glad we were able to give it to them today.” –Thamel

How did they end up at 12 out of 8 or 16?

There has always been strong support at Presidential and Commissioners level for 12 teams, and that’s partly because they like first-round byes for the top four seeds, but also because feasible logistics within the overall college football schedule. While some wanted to at least consider the possibility of a 16-team format, there just wasn’t enough interest.

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

How does this affect the future realignment of the conference?

The biggest reverb is that the six general offers will serve as a decoy to keep Notre Dame independent for the immediate future. With clear access to the playoffs and NBC seeming motivated to keep Notre Dame now that it has a share of the Big Ten, the two biggest poles of Irish independence look set for the immediate future.

As for the rest of college football, that’s a fascinating question. The monetary gap between the Power Two of the Big Ten and the SEC remains wide. There will always be schools motivated to join these leagues. But having the offers go to the conference’s top six champions adds a layer of certainty and security to leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12 that have been hurt by recent defections. Overall, it helps the sport. The realignment would occur unrelated to playoff access. –Thamel

Who benefits most from an expanded playoff? Does it hurt anyone?

The SEC had the most appearances (10), wins (14) and championships (5) during the CFP era, and will likely improve its share of the field with up to seven slots available. Although commissioner Greg Sankey has repeatedly said the league is fine with a four-team playoff, the number of CFP-compatible programs in his league, along with the additions of Oklahoma and Texas, has increased the need for ‘access. The Big Ten should also benefit, as the league filled the top 12 in the final CFP standings, but only had six appearances in total by three teams in the four-team model.

The model also marks a significant victory for the Group of 5 conferences, which produced their first CFP participant in the four-team system last year (Cincinnati) and unanimously backed the 12-team proposal. At least one Group of 5 program will make the 12-team playoffs each year, and enhanced profiles from leagues such as the AAC and Sun Belt increase the chances of two Group of 5 entrants in some years. Although the group of 5 participants will likely be road teams playing in first-round matchups, they finally have a real seat at the table.

The vote is good news for Notre-Dame, which will have six access points instead of four. Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick was part of the four-man task force that in June 2021 introduced the 12-team model, which was subsequently adopted. He remained a staunch supporter and ally of Sankey and others in the tense commissioners’ meetings that followed.

There are no obvious losers in an expanded playoff, though the annual team split could reinforce the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten and other power conferences. A model guaranteeing spots for the six highest-rated conference champions creates the possibility that leagues such as the Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC will be left out entirely, which would sting in several ways. The Pac-12 hasn’t had a CFP team since 2016, while the Big 12’s only CFP entrant, Oklahoma, will soon leave for the SEC. But a postseason system that triples the number of spots should, in theory, help every power league.


What does this mean for the independence of Notre-Dame?

Notre Dame’s strong preference is to remain an independent FBS in the future. Football independence is central to the university’s identity, and there’s a belief around varsity athletics that Swarbrick and President Reverend John Jenkins, both 68, don’t want to be leaders to relinquish this status before retiring.

Swarbrick’s contribution and support of the 12-team model underscores his belief that it will allow Notre Dame to maintain its position while still having the necessary access to compete for national championships. While some playoff stakeholders have been less willing to compromise, Notre Dame has endorsed a system in which it would never receive a first-round bye, making the path to a championship that much more difficult.

Notre Dame will remain an expansion target for any league, namely the Big Ten, which has coveted the school for decades. But Notre Dame is less driven by money than other expansion candidates and has left millions on the table to remain independent in football. Notre Dame has historically been more likely to join a conference due to playoff access issues or the inability to develop a nationally competitive schedule. Although scheduling issues may increase due to the realignment, Notre Dame is able to consistently compete for one of six spots overall. Notre Dame has been part of the four-team CFP twice and has finished in the top 15 of the final CFP standings every year since 2017.


Is this the last time we see a playoff expansion?

One of the many unanswered questions is the length of the next contract, which will help determine the Presidents’ commitment to this format. The current contract was for 12 years, and there could be only 10 left before changing the field to four teams. If there’s one thing that’s certain about college athletics, it’s that nothing is certain for a while.

Keenum couldn’t help but laugh a little when he referenced his head coach, Mike Leach, who has publicly and repeatedly stated that he favors a 64-team format.

“Will we always be in a team of 12 [format]? I can’t answer that,” Keenum said. “We keep looking for ways to make the playoffs even better in the future… And my God, I have a head football coach who thinks we should have a 64-team playoff. I mean, that’s what he believes, so what I’m saying is there’s always going to be room for improvement.” — Dinich

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