The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College Football Playoff expansion at an impasse as conferences can’t agree

The four-team College Football Playoff system is set to run until 2026, but there have been talks about expanding the playoff. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The coast-to-coast puzzle of College Football Playoff expansion has proved indecipherable, with a series of committee meetings exemplifying the complexity the sport has hauled around since the 1800s.

The ACC views timing as the hurdle to expanding from four teams to either eight or 12. The Big Ten has stressed that the champions of the top five conferences should receive playoff bids automatically, a feature not included in some playoff models. The Pac-12 has touted itself as the lone league supporting all six different expansion proposals but then beyond that decision would have concerns about the Rose Bowl, the country’s eldest bowl game, a concern long involved.

The SEC and the Big 12 commissioners both have expressed support for expansion to 12 teams, with both having served on a four-man panel that recommended a 12-team playoff in June.

College football can’t ruin the magic of college football, no matter how hard it tries

Meetings across the ensuing seven months have resulted in impasse, the latest coming last weekend in Indianapolis during the run-up to the College Football Playoff national championship game. The current four-team system is set to expire after its 12th season, which would be in early 2026. For any change preceding that, approval would have to come unanimously from the 11-member College Football Playoff management committee, which features 10 conference commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and the 11-member presidential oversight committee, featuring 10 university presidents and chancellors from each football conference, plus Notre Dame.

“Before you negotiate any other element, you have to agree on a format,” Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said in a phone conversation. “It’s become very clear to me that we don’t have the unanimous consent required to amend the current format in the 12-year term today.”

ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips spoke Friday in a conference call with reporters, describing his conference membership as “very much aligned in its position that now is not the time to expand the College Football Playoff.” He referred to the turbulence in a sport with newfound realities such as NIL rights, the bustling transfer portal for players and the remaking of the NCAA constitution, a key topic for the NCAA convention coming next week, also in Indianapolis. He wondered aloud about excessive season duration. He saw “a college athletics problem before we have a college football problem,” and noted the changes coming with “a 21st-century governance structure” and “reasonable guardrails around NIL and transfer portal.”

“In that room, there hasn’t been agreement on a bunch of things,” Phillips said. He said, “There are issues everyone has.” He said the notion his conference has withheld its approval as leverage for Notre Dame to join was “absolutely, positively not true.”

He also said, “In Year 13 [2026], we’ll have a new model, I’m sure.”

In a statement this week, the Pac-12 characterized itself as “strongly in favor” of expansion and in support of “all of the six most-discussed expansion models” — three of which propose 12 teams, and three of which propose eight.

“It is clear none of the six most-discussed expansion models has unanimous consent,” the conference stated, “with most having considerable opposition, and every conference other than the Pac-12 has indicated that they would be against at least one of the proposed models.” Among the voluminous details to decipher would be the role of the Rose Bowl within a large-playoff context.

The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 all have new or somewhat new commissioners, with Phillips taking the ACC lead in February 2021 after 13 years as athletic director at Northwestern, Kevin Warren starting at the Big Ten helm in January 2020 after five years as the chief operating officer of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, and Kliavkoff starting with the Pac-12 on July 1 after a varied career in entertainment, sports and resorts. Warren and Kliavkoff have law degrees from Notre Dame and Virginia, respectively. The three commissioners replaced longtime predecessors in John Swofford, Jim Delany and Larry Scott.

In remarks to reporters in Indianapolis days ago, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby expressed frustration with the impasse and deployed a “Groundhog Day” reference about the meetings, and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said the four-team concept hurls no burden upon his dominant league but that the sport ails when regions of the country go omitted from its showcase.

His league has snared 10 of the 32 berths in the eight-year-old concept, twice placing both Georgia and Alabama among the four teams (and then the final two). The SEC is the only “autonomy five” league — the top kingdoms of the sport — that has placed at least one team in all eight playoffs. The ACC has missed out once (this past season), the Big Ten twice, the Big 12 four times and the Pac-12 six times out of eight.

Kirby Smart finally vanquished Nick Saban, and now college football feels different

Proponents of the 12-team models tout the ending of such omissions. There are models for having the highest-ranked 12 teams; the highest-ranked six conference champions plus six at-large bids; or with automatic bids for the champions of the big five conferences, plus one for a conference champion from the second-tier Group of Five, plus six at-large bids.

The distinction between those last two has concerned the Big Ten, with Warren emphasizing the need for automatic Power Five-champion qualifications during an interview in December with College Sports on SiriusXM. His league tends to land its conference champion within the top six conference champions in the rankings, including every year of the current playoff system. The trouble would come if a team won the Big Ten championship game from a ranking below those of the top six conference champions.

That happened thrice under the old BCS system, including in 2012, when Wisconsin won the championship game but remained unranked with a record of 8-5. Ahead of Wisconsin then stood the other top conference champions plus No. 15 Northern Illinois, the Mid-American Conference champion; No. 19 Boise State, the co-Mountain West champion; and No. 22 Utah State, the Western Athletic Conference champion.

What you need to read about college football

Scores | Rankings | Standings | Stats

Conference shakeup: The ground beneath college sports took its most disfiguring shake to date as Southern California and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

Jerry Brewer: As college sports change, coaches must stop whining and amplify new voices.

Name, image and likeness: As NIL money keeps rising for players, coaches like Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban are lobbing accusations at each other while most Americans are still enjoying college sports, a Post-UMD poll finds. The NCAA has issued guidelines for schools, but boosters like Miami’s John Ruiz aren’t worried.

USC’s fever dream: At the Trojans’ spring game, minds long addled with college football might struggle to remember where all of the players and coaches used to be.

Season wrap-up: College football can’t ruin the magic of college football, no matter how hard it tries.

Barry Svrluga: Kirby Smart finally vanquished Nick Saban, and now college football feels different.

John Feinstein: Don’t underestimate Deion Sanders — and don’t take your eyes off him.