The College Football Playoff's Board of Managers voted Friday to expand the playoff field to 12 teams with an aim to implement the larger format as soon as possible, sources tell CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd. The unanimous vote is an important first step in pushing the playoff beyond the current four-team format.
The expanded 12-team bracket will feature the six highest-ranked conference champions as automatic qualifiers along with the next six highest-ranked teams. The board has approved the new format to be utilized beginning with the 2026 season, though it hopes that it can be implemented earlier, perhaps as soon as the 2024 campaign.
While the 11-member board -- including university presidents and chancellors representing each of the 10 FBS conferences, plus Notre Dame president John Jenkins -- approved expansion as a concept, it is only the first step in ensuring the field moves beyond four teams. It is now up to the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, those who comprise the CFP Management Committee, to oversee implementation.
The committee is scheduled meet on Thursday in Irving, Texas. Among the main topics on the docket for the committee will be addressing the board's request to implement the 12-team field earlier than 2026 along with when and where games will be played. A person responsible for the logistics of the expanded playoff told CBS Sports a 2024 start is "unlikely" with 2025 being more "reasonable." The CFP's 12-year contract with ESPN expires ahead of the 2026 season.
"This is an historic and exciting day for college football," said Mark Keenum, chairman of the CFP Board of Managers chairman and president of Mississippi State. "More teams, more participation and more excitement are good for our fans, alumni, and student-athletes. I'm grateful to my colleagues on the board for their thoughtful approach to this issue and for their resolve to get expansion across the goal line and for the extensive work of the Management Committee that made this decision possible."
Among the measures approved by the CFP board Friday:
- 12-team bracket: Six highest-ranked conference champions (no minimum ranking requirement), plus next six highest-ranked teams
- Rankings system: CFP Selection Committee will continue to determine weekly rankings with criteria to be reevaluated
- Bracket placement: Four highest-ranked conference champions will be seeded 1-4 with first-round byes; four highest remaining seeds will host lower seeds at sites to be determined
- Scheduling: First-round games will be played at campus sites* on either the second or third weekend in December, at least 12 days after conference championship games
- Bowl relationship: Quarterfinal and semifinal games will be played at rotating bowl sites subject to agreements being reached; national championship will continue being played at neutral sites; existing conference relationships with bowls will be considered for game placements
* Exceptions may be made, for example, if a team with a smaller stadium prefers to host in a larger nearby venue or a Big Ten team wants to play at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home of the Big Ten Championship Game, sources told Dodd.
A CFP subcommittee comprised of FBS commissioners that originally developed this 12-team bracket received a favorable reception when it was first introduced in June 2021. Following that presentation and before expansion could be approved, realignment rocked college sports as Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to depart the Big 12 for the SEC.
Given SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby were on that CFP subcommittee, the ranks were rattled with other conference commissioners putting a halt to expansion conversations while reevaluating their leagues' places in the sport.
First came an alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 with the conferences agreeing to vote as a block on key issues. That alliance stood in the way of expansion on Jan. 10 with an 8-3 tally in support of moving to a larger field; a unanimous vote was required to pass expansion. In February 2022, given the board largely expected a rubber stamp in the prior vote, expansion was considered a shelved topic for the foreseeable future.
The Big Ten swiping USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 this past offseason, a continuation of this round of realignment, brought a clear end to that short-lived alliance. It also opened the door to revitalized talks given the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 will not be bringing in media rights revenue to the level of the Big Ten and SEC in the near future and can use CFP expansion to help guarantee their respective futures.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock previously stated that the playoff would not expand before the end of its current contract, which is set to expire in 2025. In releasing national championship game sites through the 2025 season just weeks ago -- Atlanta will host following the 2024 season, South Florida the next year -- the CFP seemingly confirmed a format change would not occur earlier.
If the CFP aims to expand prior to the end of its ESPN contract, it faces a hurdle of needing to find enough game sites (possibly on campus for early-round games) and enact appropriate logistics (hotel rooms, practice facilities, etc.) in a short period of time. While those remain large obstacles, several sources told Dodd all could be cleared with 28 months to go until a potentially expanded playoff in 2024.
"My response in general is, if people are willing [to do it], anything can happen," said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, one of the four key members of that subcommittee alongside Sankey, Bowlsby and Swarbrick.
A 12-team playoff has been valued at $1.2 billion annually, industry sources told Dodd, up from the current $600 million the CFP is earning from ESPN. By not enacting expansion prior to the 2026 season, the CFP would be leaving significant money on the table. ESPN would hold rights to any additional CFP games through the final two years of its 12-year deal.
There remains widespread support for CFP media rights to go out to multiple bidders once the ESPN contract expires. The Big Ten recently signed a $1.2 billion annual deal with CBS, Fox and NBC to air its games.