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College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams as early as 2024

The College Football Playoff is set to expand from four to 12 teams. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that there would be eight first-round games at campus sites. There will be four first-round games at campus sites. The article has been corrected.

The stew and slew of committee meetings about potential College Football Playoff expansion found its way to a milestone Friday, when the 11-member board of managers that oversees the event agreed unanimously to a long-discussed widening of playoff slots from four to 12 no later than the 2026 season.

The board, composed of 11 university presidents or chancellors from within the 10 major conferences plus Notre Dame, voted in a virtual meeting held Friday. It favored a model of a four-round playoff featuring the six conference champions ranked highest by the College Football Playoff selection committee, then six at-large teams with the highest rankings other than those conference champions.

The method would rid the annual selection process of some of its most aching omissions, including the odd-man-out conference winners from the Power Five who miss the four-team playoff, and the so-named Group of Five schools beneath the Power Five, whose best teams have struggled for playoff spots with oft-unbeaten records hampered by weaker schedules.

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“Great day,” Mike Aresco, the commissioner of one of those Group of Five leagues, the American Athletic Conference, wrote in a text message, noting that “12-team, 6-6 is the model we wanted. Gives us access if we earn it.”

Under the four-team concept across eight seasons, the ACC has missed out altogether just once (in 2021), the Big Ten twice, the Big 12 four times and the Pac-12 six times out of eight. The SEC has reached all eight playoffs, including twice with two teams.

The new format is set to begin in 2026, once the current 12-year contract runs out, but allows another committee, the College Football Management Committee, to explore expansion for either the 2024 or 2025 seasons. That committee is composed of the 10 conference commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Under the model the board of managers issued, the four top-ranked conference champions would receive a first-round bye. That will make for four first-round games at campus sites in December, with the higher seed in each game serving as host. The quarterfinals and semifinals would take place at the sites of renowned bowl games, carrying those names, while the final would occur at a chosen neutral site, as happens now with the four-team format.

“This is an historic and exciting day for college football,” Mark Keenum, the president at Mississippi State and the Board of Managers chairman, said in a statement.

It came 15 months after a four-man panel had recommended a 12-team playoff similar to the method approved Friday, eight months after three conference commissioners had expressed misgivings about expansion at the time and seven months after an 8-3 vote had left the concept stalled. Even in January amid impasse and frustration over the impasse, commissioners George Kliavkoff of the Pac-12 and Jim Phillips of the ACC reckoned publicly that an agreement would come. Kliavkoff stressed that decision-makers had time. Phillips said, “In year 13 [2026], we’ll have an agreement, I’m sure.”

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They joined commissioner Kevin Warren of the Big Ten in opposing the go-ahead, and their reasoning varied. The ACC found the timing hectic amid other changes in the sport such as NIL, the transfer portal and the remaking of the NCAA constitution in January. The Pac-12 fretted about keeping within any framework the eminence of the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten wanted a method in which all conference champions would qualify automatically, even if they had a number of losses typically disqualifying for the four-team playoff, which has never featured a team with more than one loss.

The idea of playoff expansion has generated chatter since pretty much 15 minutes — or maybe 14 — after the inception of the current system in 2014, when the long-ragged system of determining champions finally budged from one championship game to the four-team bracket. Expansion got a kick-start in June 2021, when the four-man working group advocated a 12-team method made of six conference champions and six at-large teams. The four men, who had studied the possibilities on and off for two years, were Bob Bowlsby, then the commissioner of the Big 12; Greg Sankey, then and now the commissioner of the SEC; Craig Thompson, then and now the commissioner of the Mountain West; and Swarbrick of Notre Dame. It did not include any of the three conferences that would balk in meetings the following winter, and it released its ideas publicly, perhaps rankling some others.

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All along, the Pac-12 stated it favored all six of the models being weighed last winter. By Friday, it pronounced itself “strongly in favor of CFP expansion” because of its provision of “increased access and excitement” and looked “forward to working with our fellow conferences to finalize the important elements of an expanded CFP in order to launch as soon as practicable.”

The ACC stated it “has been clear from the start that it supports expansion” and called the Board of Managers decision “welcomed” while stating, “Our collaboration of the last six months will serve us well as we address the important specifics for the premier event in college football.”

The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 announced an alliance of common interests in August 2021, but by June 2022, the Big Ten had poached Southern California and UCLA from the Pac-12 to bring its membership to 16 schools coast-to-coast as realignment continues to factor into which teams might represent the conferences.