College Football Playoff Expansion Helps Drive New Conference Chaos

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The Big Ten dropped a bombshell on the college sports landscape last week when it announced USC and UCLA will be joining the conference in 2024. The B1G’s move to pick off the LA schools from the Pac-12 is widely expected to accelerate the latest round of realignment. But unlike the last major round (circa 2011), which was largely motivated by the conferences’ desire to add brand power and TV homes in order to grow their footprint, and subscribers to existing conference networks, this time around it’s about all of the above—as well as a power move by the most powerful of the Power Five. A connected college football insider said, “This is the first step towards real separation and work being done to corner as many slots as possible in the College Football Playoff.”

The thinking is the more high profile brands a conference has in addition to the major market eyeballs, the more likely it is that conference will be able to secure more slots in the expanded College Football Playoff. “Once the CFP expands, which will likely happen in the next 12-24 months, then the conference with guaranteed access and the prospect of multiple participants can turn around and negotiate its media rights for more revenue, because it will have guaranteed access to the postseason,” a former AD explained. The existing four-team CFP format is set to remain in place through the 2025 season, but it’s clear there is a universal desire to expand, with the major obstacle being whether automatic conference qualifiers will be a component.

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JWS’ Take: One of the reasons CFP expansion talks were halted earlier this year was lack of consensus on automatic qualifiers. The hesitancy by certain conferences to lock themselves into a new playoff format before this round of conference realignment shook out was also a factor. Remember, the SEC announced during the summer of ’21 it would be increasing membership to 16 teams with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma in 2025.

It is widely expected the CFP will expand in time for the ’26 season. The former Power Five AD shared that he believes the most equitable format is a 16-team playoff field that allows for power leagues to have an automatic bid and the opportunity to “get multiple teams in,” while other conferences have “at-large access—which right now, they [largely] don’t.”

The SEC opposes the idea of automatic bids. In theory, if no conference is guaranteed a spot, there are potentially more for its schools to claim based on CFP rankings.

Despite the optics that the SEC and the B1G are the driving force together, the B1G continues to push hard for an automatic qualifier, as do the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC, which view having a guaranteed playoff berth as essential for a seat at the table. “If you don’t have an AQ and you’re entering media negotiations, it will have a detrimental effect on regular season football and the value of these rights. A lot of the value in local and regular-season football rights is your guaranteed access to the postseason. [Without it], your media rights could look very, very different,” the former AD said.

The question is how many power leagues will be left when the CFP finally does expand. With USC and UCLA, the B1G will have 16 teams, on par with the SEC. But speculation exists that neither conference plans to stop there. “The likelihood is that those two leagues could get to 20,” the former AD said. The B1G reportedly has set its sights on adding Notre Dame next.

While 20-team (or more) mega-conferences may be the next step, the move towards them seems unlikely to occur overnight. There has already been a lot of debate about whether there are any other schools capable of generating enough additional revenue to warrant further expansion.

In the interim, three or four power conferences will reign supreme. “There will not be five,” one current Power Five AD predicted.

If the B1G and SEC remain at 16 teams, there is seemingly room for four conferences to survive. “If [those two conferences] go up to 20 apiece, there’s really only room for three conferences,” the current AD said. That would be the Big Ten, the SEC and a new conference comprised of some mashup of Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC schools.

The remaining Pac-12 schools have issued a joint statement declaring their “unwavering commitment” to keeping the band together. Even without the LA schools, the member institutions feel as if the Conference of Champions remains the third best conference.

Unless Oregon and Washington bolt for the B1G, the conference should remain one of the power conferences. Reports that Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Washington are in “deep negotiations” with the Big 12 are false, according to the current AD. “There is some leverage sometimes in these [rumors], and you just let them ride out,” the AD said.

The Pac-12 actually believes if the remaining 10 members stick together, it can add some schools and be in a better economic situation than before USC and UCLA decided to leave. The prospect of a coast-to-coast league that included some schools from the ACC, and perhaps Oklahoma State, Texas Christian University or Baylor from the Big 12, was mentioned.

It is not clear how the Pac-12 could add ACC schools, considering the ACC’s grant of rights runs through 2036. Then again, the ACC’s member institutions likely recognize they need to do something drastic or watch the revenue gap increase exponentially over the next 13-plus years.

Should Oregon and Washington depart, the Pac-12 is in trouble. At that point, it could make sense for the remaining schools to pursue a merger with the Big 12. While the collective would lack brand value, with 20 teams it would be ahead of the curve and perhaps have a chance at an automatic bid in the expanded CFP. Of course, that assumes the Big-12 still exists.

The current conference shakeout will inevitably lead to the formation of a super league. The former AD said: “This may be headed for an association of 40 or 50 schools that have the power, the revenue, the eyeballs and the access to the postseason. Many could be left on the outside looking in.” The next round of media rights negotiations or a determination on the CFT format could be the catalyst for further change.

The format of the expanded CFP, and how its media rights are distributed, will have a lot to do with how many schools are ultimately included. Conferences may give way to an association where the top brands and most competitive programs separate from everyone else.

Considering the footholds being built and the egos in the room, it is hard to envision the B1G or SEC evaporating. But there is nothing preventing either of them from reconstituting their membership. In other words, the 28 programs currently in those two conferences are not assured to be a part of an eventual super league. While trying to drop schools would certainly be messy—and costly—those without valuable football brands could find themselves on the outside looking in (think: Maryland, Mississippi State, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, etc…).

If the conference structure were to remain intact, the former AD said the CFP could become the governing body of college football. But that does not mean the NCAA would become extinct. “There is plenty to do between running the NCAA Tournament, the other NCAA championships, enforcement, and legislation. It’s time for the separation of college football,” he said.

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