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CFP Committee Opens Door to Playoff Expansion

The College Football Playoff Trophy
© Kimberly P. Mitchell/USA TODAY SPORTS

In a recent development first reported by Heather Dinich of ESPN, the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame formally expanded the College Football Playoff for the second time in two years on Friday. A signed memorandum of understanding between the schools expands the CFP field to 12 teams beginning in 2026. However, the conferences had been talking about further expanding the playoff even before it expanded to 12 teams and appear to prefer a 14-team playoff. This is its first step in that further expansion, but does it do enough to help out schools in the Big 12 Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, Independents, and the Group of 5?

CFP Expansion: The Details

As mentioned above, the field will expand to 12 teams beginning in 2026 with the agreement, but the format has yet be finalized according to sources. As of now, the CFP will have at least 12 teams in 2026, but a 14-team playoff could include the five highest-ranked conference champions and the next nine highest-ranked teams.

The understanding also guarantees the conference champions from the ACC, Big Ten Conference, Southeastern Conference and Big 12 and the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion would earn playoff berths. The commissioners and Notre Dame agreed to guaranteed protections for the Fighting Irish no matter the format of the CFP.

The expansion was all but imminent given the recent developments of Big 12 and ACC presidents agreeing on a deal with Big Ten and SEC presidents to develop a new revenue-sharing model and concepts for developing the CFP further. The 12-team playoff expansion would come right as the new media deal with ESPN would take effect and will also include multiple automatic bids for the Power Four conferences, maximizing the opportunity for revenue for all major parties involved. Originally, automatic bids and byes were discussed as being reserved for Big Ten and SEC programs, but the idea got the axe after massive backlash from the public as well as the Big 12 and ACC administrations.

Many are concerned with how the Big 12, ACC, Group of 5 and other non-Power Four schools would fare monetarily regarding the new model. Initial revenue distribution models for this new-look 14-team playoff have Big Ten and SEC schools with bigger distributions at 29 percent of base revenue, while Big 12 and ACC programs share 17.1 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively, and Group of 5 schools get 9 percent. Notre Dame, Connecticut, Oregon State and Washington State all get around 1 percent of the base revenue share, per Ross Dellinger. This allows the Group of 5 and these other schools to still have a stake in the game and not be left out, which was a huge point of emphasis by both the CFP committee and the general public. While it still seems that the Big Ten and SEC will be the driving forces behind any change, these other conferences still, at least for now, have a say and a share in the revenue as shown by these moves, especially if they can win and expand further.

What Does the Future Look Like Now?

With the expansion, the FBS has already made good on one promise to further expand the CFP. Four teams were widely agreed upon as being far too few and even 12 teams also seemed a bit too exclusive, or even inclusive, especially if these bigger conferences would yield the lion's share of bids given things such as strength of schedule and general media popularity being drivers toward selection. Depending on who you ask, this 14-team playoff could allow for a bit more stake in the game for schools from the Big 12, ACC and Group of 5, which were worried about potential collapse should things have carried on the way they were going. While still not necessarily ideal for their situation, this alleviates a lot of pressure on conference administrations. That's just it though, while it makes things better, some believe it still doesn't suffice, which is why CFP administrators have left the door open for even further expansion of the playoff and further expansion of conferences. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark has already hinted at expanding the Big 12 and has been in talks with the CFP committee about putting in a "look-in clause" to oversee conference realignment. But does Yormack speak for the other conferences? Perhaps, but he may also just be speaking for the Big 12. If he does though and there is a "look-in provision" that oversees further conference realignment, then that could mean a better system of checks and balances that keeps these conferences alive.

Brett Yormark

However, if these provisions and expansions don't happen and only drive the point home of the Big Ten and SEC having a massive, unchecked sphere of influence, what happens?

This goes back to the point made in the previous section. These new conferences will likely have to expand either way to have a bigger share in revenue, which is the driving force behind success in college football, but likely could still not see an increase in revenue share. Money is king and has been for a while, and it has already led to these smaller, less revenue-producing schools and conferences to get the axe whether we like it or not given the Big Ten and SEC's grip on influence. For example, a middle-of-the-road SEC team could have more of a chance to make the playoff and earn more revenue than a top Group of 5 or even a top Big 12 team solely based on that conference having more pull. It may be too little, too late from the CFP committee if they intended on being more inclusive toward non-Big Ten and SEC schools, as by the looks of it it still favors the Big Ten and SEC heavily given the revenue and selection structure. The power struggle between these two conferences and the NCAA/CFP committee, between money and traditional college athletics values, may already have a winner, and that's the Big Ten and SEC. You can read more about that from College Football Dawgs writer Mike Germanese.

Would Even Further Expansion Help?

There's also been wide debate about expanding the playoff even further than 14 to try and further mitigate this, but once again, does that solve the problem of the Big Ten and SEC still having that revenue pull and sphere of influence? Does that stop the move toward college football becoming more like the NFL in that there are two conferences and everyone else just sits on the sideline if they do not have the money or success (which mind you, is driven by money) to join the club? The answer is likely no. Many drastic changes have been proposed by the general public to potentially mitigate the issue, including a relegation-type league as well as conferences being based on geography and geography alone, but those changes simply aren't practical at this point. As Germanese points out in his article, college football is based solely on the dollar now, and the powers that be will not change that if it means they still garner revenue. Expanding further will likely do nothing for that.

The Inevitable

There's likely no stopping the inevitable. College football is going to base its decisions around what maximizes its revenue the most. The 14-team playoff certainly does that and is the CFP committee's best attempt that they could make at keeping these conferences alive and well. While that still may be the case—other than a complete collapse—these conferences will likely look very different in the coming years. It's simply the nature of the beast, though that beast depends on, now more than ever before, the dollar and what it dictates.

Like it or not, it's happening. College football is going through significant changes. The 14-team playoff at least gives more of a chance at school-by-school parity, not seeing the same four schools practically every year, but the days of conferences being geographically based and on relatively equal footing are over. That much is true.


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