Less than a month before College Football Playoff executives gather to consider next steps in the evolution of the current four-team field, approval of a proposed 12-team expansion has never been more in doubt, multiple sources tell CBS Sports.
Prominent individuals within integral CFP committees have concerns about the process as well as whether the proposed structure is the right move for their conferences and teams.
What appeared to be a simple approval process just months ago is now an effort muddled in jealousy and doubt that lacks mutual trust between key parties.
Uncertainty was ratcheted up in late July when news broke prematurely that Texas and Oklahoma were talking about leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. The sudden migration of those two powerhouses has cast playoff expansion in a different light.
Eight days after Texas-Oklahoma news broke, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told CBS Sports that expansion would have to be "readdressed."
One Power Five source suggested the process to "rush out" playoff expansion news earlier this year was intentional to get in front of the Texas and Oklahoma move becoming public.
The consternation has risen to the point that two high-profile sources involved in the process tell CBS Sports they support expansion at a number smaller than the proposed 12 teams, perhaps as few as eight.
Likely to further slow the expansion process, according to one of those sources, are "alternative proposals" that are expected to come forward. Those proposals will surely feature different concepts for structure and access in light of the SEC's growth.
"I think we go back to square zero and start over," said one source intimately involved in the expansion process. "I don't see 12 there."
Beyond number of teams and access, sources tell CBS Sports there are also concerns about the potential of teams playing as many as 17 games as well as the perception of the SEC dominating a 12-team format.
As proposed, the expanded playoff would include the top six ranked conference champions followed by six at-large teams determined by CFP Rankings. The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive first-round byes.
It was thought that the 12-team proposal leveled the playing field. The Pac-12 would have increased access. In most years, it would almost certainly have its champion ranked in the top six. Notre Dame would have its best access ever, only needing to finish in or around the top 12 to get a bid. The top-ranked Group of Five champion would basically be guaranteed a spot with the potential for other Group of Five teams to get into the field as well.
Any change to the playoff field requires a unanimous vote from the CFP Board of Managers (11 FBS presidents/chancellors). That group is scheduled to meet with the CFP Management Committee (FBS athletic directors) to review a feasibility study of the 12-team field in late September.
It was once assumed that meeting would result in a rubber-stamp approval of an expanded 12-team playoff field. Now, such action appears extremely unlikely.
"The board will meet on the 28th," CFP executive director Bill Hancock told CBS Sports. "It will be up to them to decide what action to take, if any."
Eyebrows were raised Tuesday when Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said it was his "understanding" the 12-team proposal would be voted on in September.
"That proposal hasn't been voted on yet," Barta said while speaking with reporters. "My understanding is that will happen in September. That's number one, just a quick update."
Responding to Barta's comments, a source modeling the expansion process tells CBS Sports a vote is "highly unlikely." Said another: "Don't believe that's accurate."
"Whether they vote or approve anything is certainly [to be determined]," CFP spokesman Brett Daniels told CBS Sports in an email.
Barta is the chairman of the CFP Selection Committee that sets the CFP Rankings each week and ultimately determines the four-team field at the end of the season. He does not have a vote on the expansion. It's entirely possible he simply misspoke.
All of it adds to the confusion created by the Texas-Oklahoma move. That added fresh levels of consideration to a process that began in April. Buried in a CFP release that month was the news that a working group was looking at expansion of the field to as few as six or as many as 16 teams.
It's safe to say the college football world was rocked.
In approving the proposal for a 12-team bracket in June, the CFP board went ahead with a feasibility study that was termed a "summer review". Commissioners were charged with going back to their campuses and getting feedback from coaches, athletes and faculty athletic representatives. The word "vote" never appeared in that June press release.
Since that statement, the SEC has grown to 16 teams, becoming the first "superconference" (starting in 2025 at the latest). The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 reacted by forming a loose "alliance" for nonconference scheduling and other purposes. The Big 12 has been marginalized as an eight-team league focused on adding teams to maintain its Power Five status.
West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee summarized part of the angst last week. He said the concept of a 12-team playoff was on "life support". Gee is a member of the board who will vote on potential expansion. He indicated he would not vote for it now despite being in favor of a 12-team playoff when the concept was announced nearly five months ago.
That put in doubt the prospect of unanimous approval later this month. CFP personnel have been meeting weekly this summer to discussion expansion.
"I am not clear that is the path," Gee told CBS Sports regarding an expansion vote. "I will need to revisit the whole issue."
Due to the sensitivity of the subject, sources were only willing speak with CBS Sports under the condition of anonymity.
One source contacted for this story suggested key parties haven't yet been given enough information to make a proper decision.
Add to that the continuing upheaval over the perception that adding Texas and Oklahoma tipped college football's scales (even more) in favor of the SEC. The league continues to have the most, best programs and games. That dominance will surely continue with the addition of two powerhouse programs in the Longhorns and Sooners.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, a key member of the CFP expansion working group, maintains the league did not contact Texas and Oklahoma. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was also a member of that group with the two -- and others -- discussing expansion while the SEC simultaneously considered raiding the Big 12 of its top programs.
Any other Power Five league, Sankey said, would have taken the Texas-Oklahoma call the same as the SEC did. He maintains that any parallel work done on playoff expansion was conducted in good faith.
"I have yet to have any one of [the other commissioners] say, 'I wouldn't have done the same thing you did had that opportunity materialized,'" Sankey told 1010XL in Jacksonville, Florida, last month.
Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 executives have hinted at being frustrated they were not involved with the original working group. The structure of said group was commissioned by the CFP Board of Managers and approved by all the conferences in 2019.
While the CFP may wind up with a 12-team field anyway, there's simply too many conflicting issues for that Sept. 28 meeting to result in a rubber stamp.
Beyond the structure of the playoff, discussions are necessary regarding how to maximize its value. Ohio State AD Gene Smith, among others, is on record with his support in allowing the current 12-year deal to run out in order to price a newly expanded playoff in the open market.
There is support in some circles to the idea of selling rights to different levels of the playoff (quarterfinals, semifinal, championship) to multiple rightsholders once the ESPN deal runs its course.
Among those who will be in the room on Sept. 28, it has been suggested ESPN could be persuaded to give up its exclusive negotiating window in return for long-term rights to a portion of the playoff. The CFP would theoretically have leverage because it could -- as Smith endorsed -- take the lucrative TV property to market in five years after ESPN's window closed.
ESPN has owned exclusive rights to BCS/CFP games in the over 20 of the last 24 years (since the BCS was introduced in 1998) and will maintain them through 2025.
Industry sources have valued an expanded playoff at 2-5 times its current average annual value, $475 million.
Complicating matters is how damaged the Big 12 has been from losing its two most prominent teams. Will it receive the same access and revenue split that it did as a 10-team league with Texas and Oklahoma? The league is currently evaluating its expansion options with four years to go on its current TV deals with ESPN and Fox.
Further complicating matters, ESPN has expiring conference contracts with the Big Ten (2023), Pac-12 (2024) and Big 12 (2025) before the CFP deal comes up. Media rights economics would suggest that negotiations for an expanded CFP field would be a priority ahead of new conference deals.