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How College Football Playoff expansion will affect realignment, job security and the future of the sport

How College Football Playoff expansion will affect realignment, job security and the future of the sport

The College Football Playoff CEOs took control. As they should. As they hadn’t to this point. In this case, the presidents and chancellors who run the game were upset with their own conference commissioners who had let the expansion process devolve into petty, territorial infighting.

There was plenty of money available in the CFP, just not enough opportunity. Lots of folks talked about the nation’s second-most popular sport shrinking into regional play.

The SEC has won 12 of the last 16 national championships. It sucked in the Big 12’s two best teams (Texas and Oklahoma) in what became a movement about movement. The Big Ten followed, snagging USC and UCLA from the Pac-12.

Consolidation. Never in the history of the game have the game’s best brands and programs been concentrated in such small spaces (two conferences at the top of the game). The SEC and Big Ten were not only monopolizing the money, viewers and talent, they were monopolizing the game.

Ultimately, that wasn’t good. Finally, the presidents decided all of it wasn’t good enough.

Those 11 CFP presidents acted decisively Friday by voting unanimously to expand the four-team bracket to 12 teams beginning in 2026 at the latest.  They did what the commissioners failed to do: agree.

“What motivated the presidents, me as well, is that we need to have an opportunity for more participation for our nation’s national championship tournament,” said CFP Board of Managers chairman Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State. “Having only four teams, we felt like that’s not fair to our student-athletes.”

It also wasn’t fair to fans for the commissioners to continue dragging out the process. Four of the five Power Five commissioner posts have new nameplates since 2020. Three of them — ACC’s Jim Phillips, Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff, Big Ten’s Kevin Warren – put their stake in the ground voting “no” on expansion in January because they were concerned about the SEC’s growing influence.

Then Warren put his Big Ten on its own high-priced island with a monster TV deal that left everyone further behind. With the “alliance” dissolved after the Big Ten went after two Pac-12 powers, It became easy to change those remaining no votes when the big boys were threatening to keep it the field at four.

The strength of the NCAA Tournament is its national appeal. With 68 spots and automatic qualifiers contested into the final week of the regular season, encompasses the entire country and sprinkles in Cinderella teams that can make deep runs. The CFP needed national appeal.

The presidents decided the game could not endure the riches (concentrated in two conferences), realignment and relegation of the rest of the country’s college football. The West Coast was excluded (largely the Pac-12’s own fault). Half the sport (Group of Five) was a virtual afterthought. There had been enough covert team-stealing knee cappings, peer-on-peer commissioner crime.

Revenue sharing is coming. Perhaps even unionization. Name, image and likeness already rules the sport. The public didn’t understand it. The CEOs became fed up with it.

“It’s [the Power Two] and everyone else,” said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco in reference to the SEC and Big Ten. “That’s evident.”

If the presidents didn’t slow it down and create more playoff access, Congress may have begun sniffing at a monopoly. So, here we are with three times more teams in the national championship chase. The playoffs themselves go from three games to 11.

For the first time, FBS postseason games will be played on campuses. The once-threatened Rose Bowl looks like it will fit in nicely in the 12-team field. God bless former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who predicted long ago that, with 12 teams, there would still be 30-35 teams in competition for playoff berths at the beginning of each November as opposed to one-third that number or less.

That boosts interest. That unites a country. It was time for college football to come together.

“It strengthens the value of the whole regular season,” Keenum said. “I have complete confidence in our commissioners to work together. I believe they needed some direction from the board. Now they have it.”

Here’s how expanding the CFP field to 12 teams alters the future of the sport.

Revenue distribution 

This is the next-biggest task for conference commissioners and university presidents to tackle, several sources told CBS Sports. It must be determined what fair compensation looks like for the conferences, a task last undertaken when CFP started in 2014.

Basically, whatever kind of weight the SEC and Big Ten throw around the room will be a huge factor. In expansion, those conferences are trading money for access. They’ll get their money, but the remaining eight conferences get a better shot at the playoff. That will be a first.

That access — tripling the field — keeps the feds away from collusion or antitrust accusations from the smaller conferences. Those lesser leagues now have more access than ever. That in itself smothers any talk of a monopoly.

“The playoff is the key,” Aresco said. “If you have access to that, I think you’ll stay relevant. Your donors will care. Your fans will care. The schools will make the investment because they have a chance to compete. … That’s going to be the key to everything.”

In 2021, the Power Five conferences each got $74 million annually from the CFP for, well, being Power Five conferences. The Group of Five split $95 million, about 20% of the total annual net distribution. Back when the CFP was formed, that percentage was basically agreed upon as a number that would keep the Group of Five from suing. With access going from four to 12, that reinforces the unlikely prospect of any legal action.

Going forward, here’s one educated guess on the future distribution assuming a doubling of the annual revenue brought in by the CFP from $600 million (four teams) to $1.2 billion per year (12):

  • SEC and Big Ten combine to get half the total, $600 million ($300 million each). That’s an additional $16.7 million per year for each of those leagues’ schools.
  • ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 (depending on membership) split 30% of the pot, $360 million ($120 million each). That’s approximately $10 million more per year for those schools. Another consideration: Perhaps the ACC, given the strength of some of its programs, sits on a tier of its own earning a sum between the Power Two and the Big 12 and Pac-12.
  • Group of Five conferences split the remaining 20% of the pot, $240 million ($48 million each). That’s an additional $3.9 million per year for each school in the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt.

These projections do not include deductions for revenue distribution to FBS independents, FCS and NCAA Divisions II and III.

Two-loss factor

Minnesota in 1960 and LSU in 2007 remain the only two-loss teams to win national championships. That’s it. In the history of the game.

In expansion, there will regularly be two-loss — even three-loss — teams in the playoff field. At that point, it might become a situation of who is hot at the end of the season, not who is necessarily the best all year. What does that sound like? You guessed it, March Madness.

Using last year’s CFP Rankings to seed a bracket, seven of the 12 teams would have been in the playoff with at least two losses, including Big 12 champion Baylor (11-2) in the top four! Utah (10-3) would have gotten in as Pac-12 champion.

Still, you’re way ahead of things if you’ve surmised two-loss teams from the SEC and Big Ten will get preferential consideration. Here’s how a 12-team bracket would have looked based last season:

Byes (Highest-ranked conference champions)
1. Alabama (12-1)
2. Michigan (12-1)
3. Cincinnati (12-0)
4. Baylor (11-2)

First-round games
No. 12 Pittsburgh (11-2)* at No. 5 Georgia (12-1) — winner vs. No. 4 Baylor
No. 11 Utah (10-3)* at No. 6 Notre Dame (11-1) — winner vs. No. 3 Cincinnati
No 10 Michigan State (10-2) at No. 7 Ohio State (10-2) — winner vs. No. 2 Michigan
No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-1) at No. 8 Ole Miss (10-2) — winner vs. No. 1 Alabama

*Conference champion

Will realignment slow?

That remains to be determined. Realignment certainly got the presidents motivated for the good of the game. This change comes while Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren continues to push his university presidents to add four more teams from the Pac-12. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark has declared his conference “open for business.” ESPN and Fox have interests what the Big 12 and Pac-12 look like in the future.

In the end, there will be more emphasis on conference success determined by how many teams a league can have in the 12. Simple math would tell you: The more quality teams a league has overall, the better.

Plug that philosophy into realignment, and the Big 12 and Pac-12 beefing up their membership makes total sense.

Cinderella factor

Major-college football has almost never had it. The Cinderella charm that brings “madness” to the NCAA Tournament has been lacking in the game’s history. It’s been a giant hole in college football. Same old, same old. The stretch between BYU winning in 1984 and Cincinnati making the CFP in 2021 was 37 years. That’s it. That’s your list of glass slippers in the history of the game.

The opportunities in a 12-team field will be there annually for non-traditional types. If expansion was in place in 2021, first-round games would have included Utah, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss. No. 13 BYU would have finished just out of the playoff.

That’s not exactly Saint Peter’s beating Kentucky in hoops, but the possibility of legitimate upsets now exists. Wait for a couple of shockers that turn on the whole nation. In the end, the best teams are likely to rise to the top — as they do in the Final Four — but it’s about the access. College football will become a better product.

Job security

In some small way, coaches will be more protected. There have been mid-major basketball coaches able to keep their jobs for 20 years by being able to hang five banners that celebrate just making the NCAA Tournament.

Those participation trophies now factor into college football. A Sun Belt team getting in will be able to sustain that coach, program and conference for years. If an AAC team makes a run, same thing. Even Power Five coaches could get longer leashes. If a 12-team playoff had existed from the beginning, Florida would have made the field three straight years from 2018-20. Would Dan Mullen still be on the sidelines instead of behind a desk at ESPN?

A banner reading, “College Football Playoff participant” will be gold in some outposts. The idea was open up America’s Game to America. The presidents took charge. It just took a while.