The College Football Playoff management committee will consider expanding the current four-team field to a 12-team format when it meets in Chicago next week, marking the first step in what could be another historic change for the sport’s postseason.
The proposal does not include guarantees for conference champions. Instead, it calls for the bracket to include the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked other teams as determined by the CFP’s selection committee. There would be no limit on the number of participants from a conference, and no league would qualify automatically.
“This proposal at its heart was created to provide more participation, for more players and more schools,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “In a nutshell, that is the working group’s message.”
The proposal, which was written by a subcommittee comprised of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, was presented to the entire group of FBS commissioners Thursday morning.
In addition to providing an opportunity to a larger field and increasing participation, Bowlsby was candid about another issue that factored into the willingness to consider expansion: the sting of being left out.
“We probably underestimated — ‘we’ being the A5 commissioners — how difficult it was to be on the outside looking in on a four-team playoff,” Bowlsby said. “I think that was a factor. There was certainly lots of consternation around those of us that were left out at one time or another, so I think that was an element of it.”
The 10 FBS commissioners and Swarbrick must agree on a format when they meet next Thursday and Friday to discuss the topic in person for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic. While the four members of the working group spent the past two years researching the possibilities to ultimately conclude that 12 teams provide the best opportunity, it’s still possible the seven other members of their group might support another format or take issue with the recommendation.
When asked what roadblocks might prevent the commissioners from agreeing on the 12-team proposal next week, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told ESPN he thinks “it has a really good chance of developing a consensus.”
“I think it’s hard to attack it,” said Aresco. “I think it’s a well-thought-out plan. I really like the equalization concept, that all FBS have a shot. … I don’t think in that sense it has any flaws or weaknesses that would come to mind.”
Under the proposal for a 12-team format, the four highest-ranked conference champions would be seeded 1-4 and receive a first-round bye. Teams 5-12 would play each other in the first round on the home field of the higher-ranked team. The quarterfinals and semifinals would be played in bowl games and the national championship game would remain at a neutral site.
Also under this proposal: Even if Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country, it cannot receive a bye or be seeded higher than No. 5. The selection committee’s top 25 is different from the seeding because the top four seeds go to the highest-ranked conference champions.
“The practical effect of this will be that with four or five weeks to go in the season, there will be 25 or 30 teams that have a legitimate claim and practical opportunity to participate,” Bowlsby said. “That should make for an extraordinarily good October and November.”
The first-round games would take place on campus sometime during the two-week period following conference championship games. The quarterfinals would be played on Jan. 1 — or Jan. 2 when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday — and on an adjacent day.
This model allows for the possibility of teams competing in 17 games, but Swarbrick said it’s “highly unlikely.” He pointed out that in order for that to happen, a team seeded No. 5-12 would have to play in a conference championship game, qualify for a first-round game and then run the table.
“The route to get to 17 in this model isn’t impossible,” Swarbrick said, “but there have been a lot of things built in to make that highly unlikely.”
The four members of the working group were made available to reporters on a teleconference Thursday afternoon, and they agreed that many of the same questions posed by reporters would also be raised next weekend by their peers in Chicago.
One of the issues they were pressed on was the lack of a home-field advantage beyond the opening round — when the top four conference champions would receive byes. As long as the playoff is operating under the current contract, it has to honor its agreements with the New Year’s Six Bowls, unless everyone involved in those contracts agrees to change them.
The working group didn’t include which bowls might be a part of the CFP in the future, but it did recommend that if “traditional bowls” host games, teams would be assigned to their traditional bowls for quarterfinal games with the priority going to the higher-seeded team.
“I would add I think this model, in conjunction with the bowls, gives college football an opportunity to reassert ownership of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a really powerful way,” Swarbrick said. “That’s such an important part of the tradition of college football, and this allows us to reassert that.”
“We chose intentionally to honor that,” Bowlsby said.
While the dates of the semifinal games and championship game aren’t determined, the report stated that the semifinals likely would not be played as a doubleheader. The CFP bracket would follow the selection committee’s rankings, with no changes to avoid rematches of teams that might have played during the regular season or are from the same conference.
One of the other quirks of the proposed model is that Notre Dame and other independents can’t receive a bye because they don’t have the opportunity to win a conference championship. When asked about it on Thursday, Swarbrick said dryly, “I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game or don’t have a conference championship.”
If the group agrees on a model, it will present the plan to the 11 presidents and chancellors who comprise the CFP’s board of managers at a meeting in Dallas on June 22. If the board of managers approves the plan, the commissioners and Swarbrick will use the summer to figure out how to implement it — and when. Another meeting is scheduled for September, and any changes to the format would ultimately be made by the presidents and chancellors.
“It’s the first step in a long process that won’t end before September,” Hancock said.
Hancock has said the playoff will not expand this year or next. The current, 12-year agreement runs through the 2025-26 season. The working group did not include any potential dates for implementation in its recommendation.
“The timing of the implementation will be decided by the presidents later,” Hancock said. “There are existing contracts for the 12 years that would have to be reviewed. The management committee has to endorse this, and the presidents have to authorize further research.”
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