Skip to main content

The College Football Playoff is (likely) expanding. Now the real fight begins

Agreeing to expand the field is the easy part. What comes next?

It's too soon to say the College Football Playoff is definitely expanding, but it's fair to say it would be an Idaho-over-Alabama level upset if the field is still at four teams five years from now.

Next week, a subcommittee will submit the findings of a 2-year study into expanding the 4-team field to the CFP management committee, the 11-member board of university presidents that serves as the Playoff's highest governing body. If and when the Playoff expands, it'll be this group that gives the final thumbs up.

And as we move forward, it's important to keep in mind that no one -- not one person -- will enter the Playoff negotiations with the best interest in college football as a whole as their primary motivation. That doesn't mean it isn't a motivation, but the primary goal for everyone involved will be to benefit their school and/or their conference first, and the game itself second.

With all that in mind, the posturing has officially begun.

Just this week, Yahoo's Pete Thamel and CBS's Dennis Dodd published pieces examining the state of play heading into a pivotal summer for the future of college football. I thought we'd go through both and pluck the interesting fruit.

From Yahoo, in regards to why momentum is reportedly blowing past an 8-team field toward 12:

“The reason that you go to 12 is because you can develop the road of least resistance toward a good result,” said a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the process.

Keep in mind "a good result" does not necessarily mean "a product that fans will be happy with." It means "a proposal that will get necessary votes."

In other words, the point of expanding the Playoff would be to: A) Keep more sections of the country interested in college football past Halloween, and B) To make more money. And not necessarily in that order. 

But it's how the Playoff expands that matters. The Pac-12 and the Group of Five have no incentive to expand without guaranteed bids, so they'd presumably be happy with the format you've probably seen touted the most -- eight bids, one to each Power 5 champion, one to the top Group of 5 team, and two at-larges.

But in the SEC, that could be seen as decreasing their odds of winning titles. They want at-large bids -- plural. (To date, twice in seven years has a conference gotten multiple teams in, and that comes with an asterisk: Alabama and Georgia from the SEC, and Clemson and Notre Dame from the ACC in 2020.)

In Birmingham and on the 14 SEC campuses, a 12-team field with no automatic bids is the most advantageous field. 

From CBS:

"The SEC is going to push 12 because of their brand. I'm hearing 12," a Group of Five AD told CBS Sports.

"The SEC wants more at-larges," one AD located in the South said.

And Yahoo:

In the room, there are three new commissioner faces in the power leagues — the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, the ACC’s Jim Phillips and the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff. An industry source long-versed in college athletics politics said: “I’d say Sankey is head and shoulders the most powerful voice in the room. He probably has more power than the three new guys combined.”

It makes sense that Sankey would emerge as the de facto CFB commissioner, given that he's the second-longest tenured of the Power 5 commissioners (the Big 12's Bob Bowlsby has three years on Sankey). Sankey's time with the SEC dates back to 2002, and he became Mike Slive's No. 2 in 2012, giving him nearly a decade as being the guy who represents the conference with the most good teams. His gravitas in the room where it happens is earned.

But he's not college football's commissioner. He works for the SEC, not the Playoff, not College Football, Inc. And so it's worth remembering this quote, uttered just last month:

“You've seen a lot of commentary from a number of my colleagues about expansion. I've been really consistent about the four-team playoff has worked, is working and continued to work, has met the objectives."

Sankey goes on to say his ear is open to new proposals -- he's actually on the 4-man subcommittee tasked with exploring new models, along with Bowlsby, the Mountain West's Craig Thompson and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick -- but the subtext is clear. The SEC isn't voting for a proposal that doesn't benefit the SEC. 

Remember, back in 2012 when the original Playoff structure was being hammered out, the 4-team model was universally agreed upon but the method of getting to four was not. Jim Delany, then the Big Ten's commissioner, argued the CFP should take the four best conference champions and Slive argued it should be the top four teams, period. We all know how that ended up.

Here's a look at how 2019 season, the most recent full season we have, would look in a number of different formats:

(1) LSU vs. (2) Ohio State

College Football Playoff
(1) LSU vs. (4) Oklahoma; (2) Ohio State vs. (3) Clemson

8-team Playoff -- 6 auto bids, 2 at-larges
(1) LSU vs. (8) Memphis
(4) Oklahoma vs. (5) Georgia

(2) Ohio State vs. (7) Baylor
(3) Clemson vs. (6) Oregon

Memphis makes the field as the selection committee's 17th-ranked team, while No. 8 Wisconsin is the first team out. 

12-team Playoff -- 6 auto bids, 6 at-larges
(1) LSU
(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) Florida

(4) Oklahoma
(5) Georgia vs. (12) Memphis

(2) Ohio State
(7) Baylor vs. (10) Penn State

(3) Clemson
(6) Oregon vs. (11) Utah

A selection committee likely jumbles seeding to prevent an immediate Pac-12 Championship rematch, but the only impact of Oregon's upset of No. 5 Utah means that not only do all five Power 5 champs get in, four of the Power 5 runners-up do, too. Baylor gets in without beating a top-25 team, and Florida gets in by beating one -- Auburn, the last team out in this field. 

Memphis, by the way, went 12-1 and beat three ranked teams. 

12-team Playoff -- 12 at-larges
(1) LSU
(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) Florida

(4) Oklahoma
(5) Georgia vs. (12) Auburn

(2) Ohio State
(7) Baylor vs. (10) Penn State

(3) Clemson
(6) Oregon vs. (11) Utah

Again, a selection committee likely flips Auburn and Utah, but either way a third of the 12-team comes from the SEC. The major turning points here are Oregon's upset of Utah and Auburn's Iron Bowl win knocking Alabama out of the field, likely for the only time ever. 

Instead of Memphis, we now get 9-3 Auburn. Those Tigers beat No. 11 Oregon, No. 17 Texas A&M and No. 5 Alabama, but also lost to No. 10 Florida, No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Georgia. No one left that season thinking Auburn was one of the best teams in the country that season. Good team, not one of the best in the country, but a fourth SEC team in the field. 

And now we go back to CBS:

"There will be a lawsuit if they don't [give the Group of Five an automatic berth]," one Group of Five AD said.

"To me that's a non-starter," said MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. "If [a guaranteed spot is] not there, why are we doing it? We've set up a rather anti-competitive system."

That Auburn team, and others like them, could be the crux of the entire debate here. If we're taking the 12 best teams in the country, who chooses the 12 and how do they define "best" -- most talented or most deserving? 

We know how that debate was settled in the last go-round. Will this time be different?