College Football Playoff expansion on shaky ground as conferences seem unable to get on same page


An expanded College Football Playoff made total sense. Remember those days? It was needed, wanted and provided opportunity to almost everyone who deserved one.

The SEC would get more teams. The Pac-12 would at least get a team. The top Group of Five champion would be virtually guaranteed a spot. The Group of Five might even get two in semi-frequently. And Notre Dame would only need to finish in the top 12.

More teams, more money, more interest.

Remember?

That was five long months ago when CFP executive director Bill Hancock shocked the world by dropping language of a possible expanded bracket in the 17th paragraph of a press release.

Ever since, the migration of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC set off another round of realignment that has not so much destabilized the sport as it has CFP expansion. The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 responded by forming, well, it’s not quite clear what they formed. They joined together for some sort of “alliance” without a contract or clear objective except to jam a stick in the spokes of the wheel of SEC world domination.

The CFP CEOs, who a few months ago looked like they were going to rubber stamp expansion at a much anticipated meeting this Tuesday in Chicago, will now meet with commissioners via Zoom.

There is no point to meeting in person with this much divisiveness, and there is no point to holding a vote because there is no consensus. Far from it.  

There is a now creeping dread that the stakeholders who put this thing together will watch it fall apart.

Maybe it’s just a feeling. Maybe a 12-team playoff is inevitable. It’s certainly another screaming example that college football needs a commissioner, someone to get in the room and actively create consensus instead of the sport hoping these raging wildfires of self-interest put themselves out.

We’ve discovered the NCAA isn’t the only shareholder with a leadership void. The CFP expansion endeavor is trending toward the calamity that was the uneven response to COVID-19 when the Power Five seemingly split in five different directions.

The expansion process to this point has become damn annoying for fans, media, even players, some of whom in the future are going to be asked to play up to 17 games, same as a current NFL schedule (before that expands). That particular issue has yet to be meaningfully addressed, at least publicly. To this point, the expansion roll out seems like a meal served undercooked.

“You don’t want to take anything but a fully-baked proposal to the presidents,” said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, a member of the four-person subcommittee that took two years formulating expansion.  

By now, everyone’s got an angle or a demand or a complaint. The timing certainly wasn’t the best. The official 12-team proposal to the presidents came June 22, the day after Alston vs. NCAA upended college athletics. A month later, Texas and Oklahoma left for the SEC, beginning realignment.

How can you expand a playoff when you don’t know how many conferences there are going to be or who is going to be in them?

“Sans pandemic, we might have been doing this a year ago,” Thompson said.

Might as well add COVID-19, then, to the list of playoff complications.

Contributing to the uncertainty, the conferences have suddenly become extremely self-aware of their leverage in expansion. The vote to expand has to be unanimous. That means one vote can sink the whole enterprise. Suddenly, there is buzz about backpedaling to an eight-team bracket … or worse, staying at four.

“We can keep the four best teams,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Sports Illustrated. “As I’ve said repeatedly, consistently, vocally, four has worked just as it was intended.”

Yeah, but after the tease of 12 teams, staying with four would be a gut punch.

This is a process that needs an arbitrator, not another press release.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 are still putting up a fight over the Rose Bowl continuing to be played on Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET. Never has there been so much agitation over a parade and a gorgeous sunset. The Jan. 1 date allows the Rose Parade to proceed as traditionally scheduled that morning. The game naturally follows in what has been a seamless transition between the San Gabriel Mountains, sunny Southern California, and yes, the sun setting over the Granddaddy of ’em All on national TV.

More than that, though, the conferences would prefer a Rose Bowl populated with the traditional Big Ten and Pac-12 teams. That is virtually impossible in an expanded playoff unless, somehow, the game is played outside the CFP with a second game at the Rose Bowl possibly played inside the playoff bracket.

That’s a longshot. The easy answer is allowing the Rose Bowl its date and time in the quarterfinals. That would be after the four first-round play-in games. But the Rose would get the teams it would get.

Will the Big Ten and Pac-12 hold out until they get their way?

“People are going to have to compromise, let’s leave it at that,” Thompson said specifically of the Rose Bowl situation. He could have been speaking of the expansion process in general.  

Same for one unnamed conference which sources say is in favor of ESPN retaining the rights to the CFP. The overwhelming preference is for the next contract to be bid out to multiple networks to drive up the price. Those multiple networks would televise the CFP much the same way the NFL sells its playoff rounds to different rightsholders.

Seems like good business, right? Sources tell CBS Sports there is potentially a holdout conference out there that, in theory, could — with its vote — squash a lucrative new contract while theoretically blocking an efficient end to this gridlock.

Whether to host early playoff games at campus sites or bowl sites has become a huge issue. As proposed, the four first-round play-in games would be on campus. Presumably, the existing New Year’s Six bowls would host the quarterfinals and semifinals.

But why should four of the 12 teams — who don’t get a bye — be given a home game and no one else? There has been talk of those campus sites being utilized in the quarterfinals to reward the top four seeds.

Then there’s the Group of Five, which needs its piece. Is there an incentive from the other leagues to award those conferences with anything more than the 22% of the revenue they currently split?

Let’s not forget West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee, in August, summarizing the upheaval, proclaiming an expanded playoff was “on life support”. The colorful Gee is likely to say anything at any time, but his words carry meaning because he has a vote.

The one thing we know for sure: Eventually, it will be ironed out. There is too much money in it for it not to be.

The other thing we know for sure: There is too much money up for grabs to be argued over.

The current CFP deal has five years left to run. The way it was presented, expansion could have debuted as soon as 2023. Why, then, is there this gnawing sense of foreboding whether it will happen at all?



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