What started last summer with the enthusiastic unveiling of a plan for a 12-team College Football Playoff has come to a halt with the cold, hard reality that expansion will not happen until at least 2026 – if at all.
The CFP is set to remain a four-team format through the 2025 season after the administrators who manage the postseason failed to agree on a plan to expand before the current contracts run out.
“I’m disappointed we couldn’t get something in place,” American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco told The Associated Press on Friday. “Time was running out. The disappointment also stems from the fact that I think we will eventually get there and I think 12-team is still the most likely scenario.”
The CFP management committee, comprised of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, met by video conference earlier this week.
Aresco, who released a letter Monday detailing the obstacles to expansion, said the purpose of the call was to determine if anyone’s position had changed.
“Positions hadn’t changed. So at that point, I guess the implications were clear,” he said.
Unable to break an impasse, the commissioners decided to abandon efforts to implement a 12-team format for the 2024 season and recommended staying with the current model to the presidents who oversee the playoff.
The Board of Managers accepted the recommendation Thursday and directed the commissioners to continue discussions on a new format to go into effect for the 2026 season.
“I don’t think it becomes any easier,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “In fact, I think it becomes more complicated.”
As Aresco said: “After 2025 there is no playoff.”
The decision to shelve early expansion comes as no surprise. The commissioners left their last in-person meetings in early January gridlocked and unable to produce the unanimous consensus needed to move forward with a 12-team proposal they had been haggling over since June.
The presidents did not fully close the door on early expansion after that meeting, but hope for an agreement was clearly fading.
A few days after the meetings in Indianapolis, Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips took the strongest public stance yet against early expansion, saying a new CFP format should not be a priority with so much uncertainty throughout college sports.
On Friday, the commissioners finally signaled they have given up on on trying to implement expansion for the final two years of the CFP’s 12-year deal with ESPN – a failure that will cost the conferences an estimated $450 million in additional revenue.
Now they will focus their attention on building a new model for beyond the 2026 season when there are no agreements in place.
The road to expansion appeared to be much smoother eight months ago, when the CFP publicly unveiled the 12-team plan. Even with details still be worked out, there was hope agreement could be reached by the fall and a new format could be in place by the 2024 season.
About a month later, it was revealed the SEC was in talks with Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 and join the powerhouse league that has produced 12 of the last 17 national champions.
Sankey had been part of the four-person subcommittee that worked on the 12-team proposal for more than two years. The plan called for the field to be comprised of the six highest ranked conference champions in FBS and six at-large teams determined by selection committee rankings.
Relatively new commissioners in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC, already leery of a process that started before they were involved with the CFP, became even more disillusioned after the SEC’s expansion plan became public.
Since then the process has stalled, despite more than half a dozen in-person meetings with the commissioners. All agree the playoff should expand, but they disagree on how and when.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has said he favors automatic bids for the champions of the Power Five leagues, instead of the six best champs regardless of conference. The commissioners of the non-Power Five conferences, the so-called Group of Five, are against that – with Aresco the most vocal opponent.
Phillips continued to push for a smaller expansion to eight, if any at all.
Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said his conference, which has only placed a team in two of eight playoffs, supports any number of formats involving eight or 12 teams. But he was asking for the Rose Bowl to retain its traditional New Year’s Day time slot in a new format and the most of the others were not on board.
“I share the disappointment felt by many college football fans today,” Kliavkoff said in a Twitter post. “I look forward to working collaboratively with other Commissioners to deliver a football playoff format that is more inclusive and balanced.”
Meanwhile, the majority of the group remained steadfast in support of the initial 12-team proposal crafted by Sankey, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick.
Sankey has said the SEC already made a concession by agreeing to expand from a playoff format in which the conference has never failed to place at least one team. But he acknowledged that allowing more teams to participate could boost interest in the sport nationally.
Sankey made clear: The choices for the remainder of the current agreement were 12 teams or four. Now, he said there is no guarantee the SEC will remain supportive of expanding beyond four when it comes to what comes next.
“From our perspective, we’ve given. We’re going to have to go and rethink our position based on how others have approached the conversation that, really, they initiated,” Sankey said. “And I don’t expect that to get any easier.”