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College Football Playoff: Could an 8 or 12-team field be in its future?

FBS commissioners will meet next week, where a subcommittee will present analysis of the current four-team model and discuss possible options for the future

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood hold the College Football Playoff championship trophy.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood hold the trophy after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Could the College Football Playoff be expanding in the future?
Chris O’Meara, Associated Press

Virtual water cooler discussions are a lifeblood in the sports world, whether it’s talking about expanding the College Football Playoffs, debating the effectiveness of advanced analytics or making a case whether a league MVP should come from the best player on the best team.

Let the chatter heat up again.

Both Yahoo Sports and CBS Sports reported this week that CFP expansion is expected at this point, with the possibilities of an eight- or 12-team field in the future among the most likely possibilities.

That comes ahead of a meeting next week of FBS commissioners, along with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, where a subcommittee will present analysis of the current four-team model, per ESPN, while also discussing potential future changes for the playoff.

In April, the CFP said the subcommittee — a working group of four that includes Swarbrick, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey — had reviewed “63 possibilities for change,” among them increasing the CFP to 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 16-team options, with a variety of different scenarios.

“We were asked to look at the elements of the presentation of the games, what we did in the venues, and what we did around the venues, particularly the championship game,” Bowlsby told ESPN. “We were also supposed to take a look at structure, with no preconceived notions as to what should happen. Clearly the four-team playoff is superior to all predecessor formats, but we were asked to take a look at strengths and weaknesses and present a report.”

Key College Football Playoff dates to remember

The coming weeks could bring about key changes to the CFP, which is headed into its eighth year of a 12-year contractual agreement.

  • The FBS commissioners and Swarbick, who constitute the CFP management committee, will meet June 17-18 in Chicago, and the subcommittee’s report will be a part of their discussion. ESPN reported that the commissioners could receive a copy of the report before the meetings, though it’s not been released to the entire group yet.
  • The CFP’s board of managers (presidents and chancellors) are scheduled to meet June 22 in Dallas, and any changes agreed upon could be presented at this meeting, ESPN reported.
  • The commissioners and board of managers are scheduled to meet again in September, per CBS Sports, where a final decision could be made on expansion and/or how CFP participants are chosen.
  • The earliest the College Football Playoff could expand is 2023, CBS Sports reported.

Why expand the College Football Playoff?

There are several factors to consider when talking about expanding the playoff.

As CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd explains, a major driving force in these discussions is money. Dodd reported that an expanded playoff — depending on the size of the field — could be two or even three times more lucrative than the $7.2 billion deal ESPN is currently paying the CFP. Depending on the source, national outlets Yahoo Sports and CBS Sports have reported the average annual payout of the CFP’s current deal is between $470 and $475 million.

Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel points to other key considerations. “While the commissioners will stick to their ‘student-athlete welfare’ soliloquies publicly, the conversations about expansion can be distilled into another pair of eternal themes — money and safety,” Thamel wrote. “The safety piece will be a vocal debate, one that presidents are cautious about. Also, perhaps the notion the athletes can leverage their name, image and likeness on this stage would provide an incentive.”

Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde addressed the regular season and player safety, particularly how an expanded playoff field would add games, and time away, during the postseason. “Specifically, take one game off the schedule. Don’t steal what little time football athletes now have in December to breathe, to heal, to maybe even pursue the quaint notion of focusing on finals for a week,” Forde wrote.

What about Group of Five access?

Dodd stressed how access for Group of Five conferences could be a tipping point in these discussions, as the nonpower conferences have thus far been excluded from the playoff.

Right now, the highest ranked Group of Five team is only guaranteed a spot in a New York’s Six bowl. They must finish in the top four to make the playoff, and no Group of Five team has come nearly close enough — Cincinnati (2020) and UCF (2018) both finished No. 8, the highest a Group of Five team has ever finished in the CFP rankings.

“There will be a lawsuit if they don’t (give the Group of Five an automatic berth),” one Group of Five athletic director told Dodd.

8? 12? How many teams could the College Football Playoff expand to

Among the most popular expansion possibilities include an eight- or 12-team field, with the 12-team scenario gaining the most support, both Thamel and Dodd reported.

Thamel laid out how an eight-team field could be decided — in a majority of the models projected for eight teams, he said, there would be five or six automatic bids, with fewer at-large bids than the current model. But there’s the potential, as Thamel and Dodd explained, that with so few at-large spots, multiple top 10 teams could be on the outside looking while lower ranked teams fill an automatic bid, a scenario that may be the eight-team model’s undoing.

That’s where a 12-team model could gain popularity. The basic idea Thamel shared for determining a 12-team field would include automatic bids for the sport’s five major conferences and another for the highest ranked Group of Five champion. The other six spots would be filled with at-large bids.

“A 12-team version would answer a lot of the immediate looming issues with the College Football Playoff — lack of diversity of programs, access for Group of Five and the erosion of the importance of supposed top-tier bowl games outside the CFP thanks to player opt-outs,” Thamel wrote.

Dodd indicated the SEC, the sport’s premier conference, would benefit ever greater from a 12-team field, as one athletic director told him, “The SEC wants more at-larges.”

“While the SEC might not be overtly driving the discussion for 12 teams, such a structure would likely benefit the game’s most powerful conference,” Dodd wrote. “In an eight-team bracket, the SEC would all but be guaranteed two spots annually. In a 12-team bracket, that number could be three or four teams given the current strength of the league and how well it performs in the CFP rankings.”