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’s board of directors took control Friday with a unanimous vote to set the field up To expand to 12 teams in 2026.

Presidents have urged Commissioners to try and implement the new format as early as 2024. The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swabrick will meet in Irving, Texas next week to start this discussion.

After more than a year of indecision and unproductive face-to-face meetings, the monumental move to the sport’s postseason happened quickly — in an hour-long virtual meetup.

How did they finally come to an agreement? Who benefits most from the new deal? And what’s next?

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

Why are you expanding now?

At the root of this expansion, as with most things in collegiate sports, is money.

Two weeks ago, when the board held an unscheduled call to prepare for this moment, the tone among the presidents on the call was that they were leaving too much money on the table. The cost of not expanding the current College Football Playoff contract in the final two years was an estimated $450 million. And a source told ESPN that leaving so much money on the table was the motivator for getting engaged again. It is certain that after 2026 there will be a 12-team playoff. The next few weeks should decide if they can work out the logistics in time to implement it sooner.

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

“It’s time to make a decision,” he said. “We have to give instructions to our commissioners. We felt like we definitely had to tell them, ‘Here we are. This is where, in our opinion, college football needs to be executed in terms of the playoffs for our national champion.’ … I think our commissioners need that direction from this board, so I’m glad we were able to give it to them today.” – Thamel

How did you end up with 12 over 8 or 16?

There has always been strong support for 12 teams at both the presidential and commissioner levels, and that’s partly because they like first-round byes for the top four seeds, but also because of the logistics that work throughout college football Calendar. While there were some who wanted to at least consider the possibility of a 16-team format, there just wasn’t enough interest.

“You start looking at some of the details and the logistics … and then someone said, ‘Well, why can’t we think about other options?'” Keenum said. “Well, I’ll say this, all presidents believe the 12-team format is right for this time and moment.” – Dinich

How does this affect the future realignment of the conference?

The biggest reverberation is that the six free bids will serve as bait to keep Notre Dame independent in the near future. With clear access to the playoffs and NBC looking motivated to hold Notre Dame now that it has a slice of the Big Ten, the two biggest tent poles for Irish independence look poised for the immediate future.

For the rest of college football, this is an intriguing question. The money gap between the power two of the Big Ten and the SEC remains wide. There will always be motivated schools fighting to join these leagues. But the fact that there will be automatic bids for the top six conference champions brings some reassurance to leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12, which have been marred by recent defectors. Overall, it helps the sport. The realignment would come regardless of playoff entry. – Thamel

Who benefits most from extended playoffs? does it hurt anyone

The SEC had the most appearances (10), wins (14), and championships (5) during the CFP era and will likely increase their share of the field with up to seven spots available. Although Commissioner Greg Sankey has repeatedly stated that the league is fine with a four-team playoff, the number of CFP-eligible programs in his league, as well as the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, increased the need for access. The Big Ten will also benefit as the league has occupied the top-12 in the final CFP standings but has only had six total appearances from three teams in the four-team model.

The model also represents a significant win for the Group of 5 conferences, 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 annually, and the improved profiles of leagues like the AAC and Sun Belt increase the odds of two Group of 5 entrants a few years down the line. Although the group of 5 participants will likely be street teams going head-to-head in the first round, 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. Athletics director Jack Swabrick was part of the four-person working group that unveiled the later adopted 12-team model in June 2021. He remained an ardent supporter and ally of Sankey and others during the tense commission meetings that followed.

There are no obvious losers in an extended playoff, although the annual spread of teams could widen the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten and the other power conferences. A model that guarantees spots for the six top-rated conference champions creates the opportunity for leagues like the Pac-12, Big 12, or ACC to be left out entirely, which would sting in more ways than one. The Pac-12 has not had a CFP team since 2016, while the Big 12’s only CFP competitor, Oklahoma, will soon head to the SEC. But a postseason system that triples the number of spots should theoretically help any Power League.

– Rittenberg

What does this mean for Notre Dame’s independence?

Notre Dame’s strong preference is to remain an independent FBS well into the future. Football’s independence is central to the university’s identity, and in collegiate athletics there is a belief that Swabrick and President Rev. John Jenkins, both 68, do not want to be the leaders who relinquish that status before they retire .

Swarbrick’s contribution and support for the 12-team model underscores his belief that it will allow Notre Dame to maintain its position while having the necessary access to compete for national championships. While some playoff players were less willing to compromise, Notre Dame sanctioned a system where it would never receive a first-round bye, making the road to a championship much more difficult.

Notre Dame will remain an expansion target for any league, namely the Big Ten, which the school has coveted for decades. But Notre Dame is less money-motivated than other expansion candidates and has left millions on the table to remain independent in football. Notre Dame was always more likely to attend a conference because of problems getting into the playoffs or an inability to create a nationally competitive schedule. Although scheduling concerns may increase due to the realignment, Notre Dame is able to regularly compete for one of the six vacancies. Notre Dame has made the four-team CFP twice and has ranked in the top 15 of the final CFP rankings every year since 2017.

– Rittenberg

Is this the last time we see the playoff expansion?

One of many unanswered questions is how long the next contract will last, which will help determine how committed presidents are to the format. The current deal was for 12 years and it could be just 10 years before they switch four-team fields. If there’s one thing that’s certain about collegiate athletics, it’s that nothing is certain for long.

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

“We will always be a team of 12 [format]? I can’t answer that,” Keenum said. “We continue to look for ways to keep improving the playoffs going forward … And gosh, I have a head coach who thinks we should have 64-team playoffs. I mean, he thinks so, so my point is there’s always going to be room for improvement.” – Dinich College Football Playoff expansion — Answering the biggest lingering questions

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