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Inside the inevitable College Football Playoff expansion and why it will be anything but easy

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For a guy with a journalism background, Bill Hancock sure knows now to bury the lead.

In a Friday statement summarizing the College Football Playoff spring meetings, the CFP’s executive director waited until the 17th paragraph to unload a bit of a shocker: A working group was modeling expansion possibilities that could see as many as 16 teams compete in a playoff.

It had been all but forgotten that the CFP Board of Managers commissioned the working group from the CFP Management Committee in 2019. COVID-19 slowed down that group’s progress until now.

As it turns out, it is considering five possibilities, playoffs including six, eight, 10, 12 or 16 teams.

The existence of that working group – consisting of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson — and the detail of its progress so far would seem to indicate an expansion of the CFP bracket is an inevitability.

After teasing us with Friday’s nugget, Hancock has spent the subsequent days fielding calls about the details of expansion.

“When a butterfly flaps its wings about the CFP, it makes news,” he told CBS Sports.

Except you don’t throw raw meat to lions and be surprised by a feeding frenzy. Hancock was the one who further baited the hook by noting that “63 possibilities” of an expanded playoff model were discussed.

Still, there will not be a format change this season or the next.

“If I was a reporter, I’d have to report the timing is unclear,” Hancock said.

That suggests, even if expansion of the bracket is approved this year, it would take at least two years to implement. That hints that the current 12-year contract with ESPN could be altered before it runs out at the end of the 2025 season.

It was previously believed the size of the playoff field would not change until that contract expired.

Now that the prospect is on the table, expansion seems to be inescapable. CBS Sports has spoken with multiple sources directly or indirectly involved with the process to create a primer on what’s ahead for the CFP.

CFP expansion could be approved soon 

… but will it be? Probably not.

The FBS commissioners will next meet June 17-18 at the tail end of the annual Collegiate Commissioners Association meeting, which will happen in person this year in Chicago. The next week, the commissioners will meet with the CFP Board of Managers in Dallas.

The working group will share some more information among those groups at that time. The next date to watch is the fall meeting between the commissioners and presidents (date to be determined). That’s when the presidents could make a move. They would have to decide by unanimous vote.

The complexity of the situation was stressed as a significant issue by nearly every source contacted by CBS Sports. Because of COVID-19, that working group essentially had a year of work tabled. The fact it is considering as much as a 16-team bracket only adds to the work ahead.

For an organization so secretive about its dealings, one administrator was ticked that so much detail was released Friday.

“We, honest to God, talked no details about playoff expansion,” that source said. “We talked a little about process.”

One person with knowledge of the situation described the suddenness of Friday’s announcement this way: “Now, everyone’s antenna is up and vibrating.”

Who has the most to lose/gain?

On the surface, the Big 12 and Pac-12 would have to be big fans of an expanded playoff. The Pac- 12 has been to the CFP twice in seven years, missing the last five straight. These are the only two Power Five conferences that have not yet won a national championship in the CFP era.

That doesn’t necessarily mean their conference presidents would vote for expansion. The Pac-12 is having a hard time finding a new commissioner. The Big 12 has never advanced past a semifinal. Oklahoma has lost all four of the Big 12’s CFP appearances.

Only 11 teams have played in the CFP. Only four have won it. Any expansion — depending on the size of the field — could benefit the Group of Five conferences that are guaranteed a New Year’s Six bowl but are all but shut out from CFP consideration.

But any expansion means more Power Five participants and more money in its coffers. The Power Five currently collects approximately 85% of CFP revenue annually.

It would make it even easier for conferences like the SEC to get multiple teams in the field. Consider that the SEC has seen 3-4 teams in the top 10 of the final CFP Rankings every year since 2017.

63 possibilities?

There are at least that many variations of playoff expansion. Think of three flavors of ice cream. Pick one, two or all three. Now decide whether you want sprinkles, gummy bears and/or chocolate syrup. You’re starting to figure out the scenarios the working group is working through.

With each expansion scenario, the working group has to consider:

Whether to embed bowl games in an expanded playoff. A playoff of eight teams or will almost certainly have to begin at campus sites. Any expansion probably impacts the current bowl structure.

Dates. It’s laughable to consider the presidents once said, “No more second-semester football,” in the old BCS days. We crossed that boundary with the CFP. Now the presidents may consider what Hancock used to warn was “bracket creep” — the imposition of a larger bracket into the football and academic calendars.

Play-in games. A simple six-team playoff means adding two teams to the four-team field with a bye for the top two teams. That means two play-in games. Ah, but how to populate it?

One insider helped lay out these choices for a six-team format:

  • Top five teams as selected by the committee plus a guaranteed Group of Five spot
  • Top six teams as selected by the committee
  • Power Five champions plus one an at-large team
  • Power Five champions plus the highest-ranked Group of Five champion
  • Top four, five or six ranked conference champions (additional at-large teams as needed)
  • Top undetermined number of conference champions limited by a minimum ranking (top 10, 12?)

The contract

Hancock reiterated there won’t be a change this season or next. That means the soonest an expanded playoff could debut would be the 2023 season with three years left on the current 12-year, $7.2 billion contract with ESPN.

If that happens, NRG Stadium in Houston would host the first CFP National Championship of the expanded bracket on Jan. 8, 2024. The semifinals that season are in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. That’s what it looks like for a four-team bracket. It would take the addition of four more games in the quarterfinals to stage an eight-team playoff.

As I wrote six years ago, there are not any look-in clauses in the 12-year, $7.2 billion contract. In other words, there’s no ability to reopening and rewrite the existing contract.

“We don’t know whether that’s possible or not,” Hancock said, “whether it can be done, whether the parties can agree.”

There’s lots to consider, but one thing is clear: If a new deal makes sense to both parties, of course they’d alter the contract. Considering the stakes, everything is negotiable. There could always be a reason to reopen the contract. Things could change tomorrow.

What remains to be seen is ESPN’s appetite for tearing up the current contract and paying more in the current financial climate.

Wait … 16 teams? Really?

It’s “not inconceivable” the bracket could move from four to the max of 16 teams, according to a person close to the process. The template is there with the FCS playoffs, which in a normal year features 24 teams.

The difference being FCS teams play an 11-game regular season. And those FCS athletes, for the most part, don’t have the pressure of an NFL career looming. Talk about issues with opting out. That’s why there would have to be a health and welfare consideration for adding 12 additional playoff games.

Given the current schedule, that means two teams would be playing their 17th game in the national championship. In that scenario, playoff games would have to start in early December, either replacing the conference championship games or coming immediately after them. 

Preserving the bowls

Many think we’ve already reached critical mass with 42 bowls. They weren’t all played last season because of COVID-19. Any expansion bumps up against the traditional bowl season and the ability to keep all 42 of those games in business.

“It’s a sliding scale,” said one person close to the process. “The more [playoff] access you grant, the more impact there is on the existing bowls.

“A lot of these things will work if you don’t worry about blowing up the bowl season. If you do care about that, it creates other imperatives for you.”



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