Why expanding the College Football Playoff soon is not as simple or likely as you may think
The CFP may expand one day in the future, but it's unlikely to be anytime soon
Speculation about expanding the College Football Playoff has become all the rage lately. But the truth is that it's not as easy as it sounds. In fact, there are myriad considerations to expanding the field -- whether to six or eight -- and while some may be hoping that change will come soon, it is much more likely to come in the future if at all.
Here's what you need to know about potential CFP expansion, including its obstacles, impact, timeframe and more.
Where's the outrage? Over the first five years of the playoff, the CFP Selection Committee has basically gotten it right. The 2017 playoff wouldn't have been credible without an Alabama that didn't win its division. It was one of the four best teams in the country and backed up its selection by winning it all. The same can be said of the 2018 field. Forget the UCF bluster, this year's four-team field would not have been credible if it included a two-loss Georgia that essentially lost to the two toughest teams it faced, blowing a two-touchdown lead to Alabama to seal its fate. You want outrage? Try two SEC teams in the bracket in consecutive seasons.
UCF and its chatty athletic director Danny White have made their feelings known. But it would be highly hypocritical of those who devised the playoff to now criticize it because UCF is excluded. Everyone -- including UCF and the AAC -- previously signed off on this format.
Changes can be made, just not soon: Nearly every person who matters in the process continues to say the 12-year contract with ESPN will be honored without tinkering. "There is no reference in the contract [about] considering any new format before the time comes," CFP executive director Bill Hancock tells CBS Sports. "… This will be about process. There was an extensive process that followed when we ended up creating the CFP."
Hancock did add that playoff officials may "ponder when to ponder" change at their Jan. 7 meeting in Santa Clara, California. Those meetings are held by the 11-person board of managers, including 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, who has a team in this year's playoff.
Considering how long it took for the field to expand from two to four, don't hold your breath on it happening anytime soon. The BCS lasted 16 years. Meaningful buzz about an actual playoff began after the LSU-Alabama rematch in the 2012 BCS Championship Game. It took three years -- and the end of a contract -- that for the playoff kick off.
As things stand, the soonest anyone will know about change is 2022. That's nine years into the deal when the CFP would have to indicate to potential bidders what exactly they would be bidding on. That's three years before the contract expires after the 2025 season. Any change would bubble up from the commissioners, who would recommend it to the presidents on that board of managers.
On Thursday, Brett McMurphy of Stadium surveyed the 11 members of the aforementioned management committee as to whether the playoff should expand before the current contract ends. Three were in favor of expansion, while three were undecided, four abstained and one wanted the playoff to remain at four teams. You can look at that result one of two ways: Only three of 11 members were pro-expansion at this early juncture, or six of 11 members were either undecided or favored early expansion.
"My point here is that, since the playoff started, many people have had thoughts on how to structure it," Hancock said on SiriusXM earlier this week. "People have always shared their thoughts. … The fact is, the commissioners and presidents who manage it have not talked about new formats yet."
Did Jim Delany have a change of heart? The Big Ten commissioner seemingly changed his mind in the space of 13 days. Delany told a group of reporters on Dec. 5 in New York, "We knew what we were buying. We didn't have buyer's remorse on [a four-team playoff]. … I don't spend a lot of time thinking how to redo it." He told The Athletic this week he would "be happy to discuss [playoff] structure issues with colleagues."
But what does Delaney actually mean by "discuss" and "structure?" He did not respond to a request for comment. What he hasn't said out loud is that he supports an expansion of four to some larger number. What Delany says does carry weight. That's why his apparent shift in outlook is significant.
Think of "structure," then, as perhaps a code for change in strength of schedule and a lean toward conference champions. The Big Ten is one of three Power Five conferences that plays a nine-game conference schedule. There is a known resentment in some quarters that the ACC and SEC don't risk as much, playing one less conference game (eight) than the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 (nine).
Put simply: Half of the 14 schools in the SEC and ACC aren't taking an extra loss each season incurred by those other leagues playing an extra conference game. As an example, Florida (9-3) is playing in the Peach Bowl despite beating two ranked teams and playing two FCS opponents. Meanwhile, Washington State (10-2) missed out on a major bowl despite beating two ranked teams, playing a nine-game schedule and only one FCS opponent.
"I wouldn't say scheduling alone because I wouldn't want to detract from Alabama or Clemson," Delany said on Dec. 5. "The teams that are getting in from those conferences are undefeated. The basketball committee, over a long period of time, sent messages about strength of schedule. But they weren't dealing with the top seed. … It became pretty clear after a while that winning 20 games wasn't going to get you in the NCAA Tournament. This committee has not sent those kind of messages. That's not their job."
But it could be. "Structure" could mean anything: different or more folks on the selection committee, a threshold that a team that fails to win its conference must meet to be included. And absolutely nothing happens without consideration for the Rose Bowl (see below).
These are complicated discussions fraught with partisan politics, turf battles and, of course, cash. Another example: The Big Ten conference champion has been left out three straight seasons. The selection committee is almost intentionally vague on any of the bullet points to be considered. For example, Notre Dame cannot be evaluated for "championships won" because it is an independent.
"It's just that we knew going into it we didn't go with the 'four best [conference] champions,'" Delany said. "We went with the 'four best teams.' But the tiebreaker was supposed to go to champions."
Nowhere in the protocol does it take into consideration that every other year teams in the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten play more conference games on the road (five) than at home (four). The Big Ten banned scheduling FCS opponents for a period of two years. It amended that practice in 2017 saying if a member team played only four home conference games, it could schedule an FCS team.
"What do we know after five years [of the playoff]?" Delany said. "Lose two games and you're out. [Playing FCS teams] doesn't matter."
So maybe it's up to Delany speaking in that elaborate code. "If people want to talk about it, they can talk about it, but it really comes from the presidents. It's not going to come from any one of us because we're disappointed in a particular year," he said.
Delany went on to defend the four-team model earlier this month saying the current playoff keeps the regular season "appropriate." Has he changed his mind?
Impact on the Grandaddy: Another reason Delany probably isn't an expansion advocate, per se: An eight-team playoff would have a direct impact on the Rose Bowl. The Grandaddy of Them All is sacred to the Big Ten and Pac-12. (Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott declined an interview "if it's about the CFP," referring me to Hancock.) Remember, the Big Ten was dragged kicking and screaming into the BCS two decades ago. That's because joining the BCS meant potentially giving up the traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup once every four years.
Joining the CFP meant, in any given year, the best teams from the Big Ten (and/or Pac-12) would not play in the Rose Bowl. In other words, in the playoff era, the Rose Bowl can become a fallback. That's certainly the case for Ohio State this season after winning the Big Ten but narrowly missing the playoff. In an eight-team bracket, the Rose could be subjected to the Big Ten's (or Pac-12's) third-best team. Two (or more) Big Ten or Pac-12 teams could be in the playoff.
Example: Assuming the eight best teams were selected this season in an expanded playoff, Ohio State and Michigan would be in the field. In that scenario, a pair of 9-3 teams would play in the Rose Bowl next month -- Penn State and Washington. That's not a Rose Bowl; that's a Holiday Bowl. In the 104-game history of the game, two teams with at least three losses have never met.
Conference champions argument: If the issue is conference champions are being left out, well, that shouldn't be an issue. The CFP was formed, in part, because the committee was charged with selecting the four best teams. While that means the likes of Alabama (in 2017) and Ohio State (in 2016) got in without winning their conferences, that was nothing new. Conference championships began to matter less once the BCS was formed in 1998.
Let's look at an eight-team bracket this year that would be populated by upset conference championship game winners. This year, would you really have wanted Northwestern (at 9-4), Pittsburgh (8-5), Texas (10-3) and Utah (10-3) competing for a national championship? No, it has to be the eight best teams. Most likely, this year would have meant two from the SEC (Alabama-Georgia) and the Big Ten (Ohio State-Michigan).
All of this is not to mention that one concept to make space for expanding the field is to get rid of conference championship games entirely; however, that is a non-starter for the SEC and likely to bristle some other Power Five conferences, too. Should the conference championship games remain while also expanding the field, the two teams that make it all the way would have to play 16 games, the equivalent of an NFL schedule.
Not a lot of this is new: Wisconsin athletic director College Football Association.that it might be time for a six-team bracket. Big 12 commissioner in October. The venerable Chuck Neinas has been advocating for a 16-team bracket since he was head of the old
"You don't plant the seed one day and harvest the crop the next," Neinas told me. "Some people may think it's [playoff] too ambitious. Some may think it's cock-eyed. Others may think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread."
That was from 29 years ago by the former Big Eight and Big 12 commissioner.
ESPN expense: Three years ago, ratings for weeknight New Year's Eve semifinal games dropped 36 percent. The CFP quickly found out The Worldwide Leader isn't in the business of losing money. That was the end of weeknight semifinals; they were moved to weekends. So far, no one has asked ESPN how it would feel about essentially doubling its investment in the playoff if it goes from four teams to eight. (A high-ranking ESPN official would not comment.) Any expansion would have to be worthwhile to ESPN.
Early on, according to one source, school presidents said "not only said no, but hell no" to quarterfinal games on campus in an eight-team format. A TV consultant told CBS Sports all those quarterfinal games wouldn't necessarily be a ratings winner. UCF as a No. 8 seed playing at No. 1 Alabama might be sexy this year, but what happens when that Group of Five team is a 10-2 Marshall or an 8-4 Central Michigan?
The expense for any entity that bids on the CFP will be significant. Another round of conference realignment may be on the horizon. Plenty of other sports properties will be up for bid as well (NASCAR, NFL and 'Monday Night Football,' MLB all by 2024 at the latest). Any streaming/broadcast/cable company must choose wisely on how to spend its money.
that the Big 12 could earn an extra $1 billion by expanding by as many as four teams. The Big 12 eventually decided there were no desirable teams for expansion. It also decided it didn't want to antagonize its TV partner.
The CFP might do just that by asking to reopen that 12-year contract before its completion.
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