With College Football Playoff change looming, a 12-team model leads the way

The inevitability of the College Football Playoff expanding has been embraced around every corner of the sport. From the academic ivory towers to the athletic departments to the locker room, an evolution of some type has long been an expectation.

The next three weeks offer a critical period in charting what the future of the College Football Playoff will look like. A pair of CFP meetings are expected to decide a specific recommendation, with a final decision, details and television contract determined later in the fall.

Yahoo Sports spoke to more than a dozen stakeholders Monday on every side of the playoff decision – university officials, athletic directors, media executives and others around college sports. Amid those conversations, a surprise emerged — officials on campuses, in conference offices and in the television world have expressed an openness toward a 12-team playoff as the most likely result.

While it’s unfair to say momentum has built toward a 12-team playoff before models have been presented to the commissioners or presidents, the 12-team model has emerged as the favored outcome over the eight-team playoff within the industry.

“The reason that you go to 12 is because you can develop the road of least resistance toward a good result,” said a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the process.

Officials familiar with the CFP process stress that an entire process still needs to play out. The first step will come in Chicago on July 17 and 18 when the four-member working group, tasked for nearly the past two years with exploring expansion, reports its findings to the CFP management committee. The four-member working group will present the finding to a group made up of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson.

The two days of discussion by the management committee are expected to yield a singular recommendation for the following week. That’s when the CFP board of managers, a group of 11 presidents and chancellors from the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame, will examine what’s put forward and likely determine the potential shape — although not the final details — of the playoff's future.

A general view of the CFP logo before the title game between Alabama and Ohio State on Jan. 11. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Could the CFP field expand from four to 12? (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Multiple sources cautioned against predicting a definitive outcome. The complications that come with group dynamics and varying agendas are real. Also, there are no plans to present or discuss any specifics of what the financial ramifications would be from a new television deal that would come with an expanded playoff. TV discussions, which are critical, would come in upcoming months.

In other words, even if a potential model is picked later this month, there’d still be months of hand-wringing, planning and negotiations before a news release announces a formal deal. With all that said, the acknowledgement that a 12-team playoff is the current favorite came from all corners Monday

“I do believe they’ve looked at all kinds of different things,” said an industry source. “But I haven’t even heard an option B discussed in any detail.”

Why a 12-team field has more juice than 8 schools

How has a 12-team model become the presumptive favorite? Well, its potential emergence winds through the complex layers and varied agendas that cover a world that spans from Alabama to Troy and Ohio State to UTEP.

Let’s start with at-large bids. In the current four-team College Football Playoff model, all four teams are at-large. In a majority of the eight-team models that have been projected, there’d likely be either five or six automatic bids. That means a decrease in at-large bids, which would not be of much interest to the SEC — or even Notre Dame — which could perceive the expanded playoff as having less access. (The Pac-12 and entire Group of Five, to counter, would likely not be interested in expansion without some type of automatic bids).

Another snag that makes some uncomfortable with eight teams is who'd get left out. If there are six automatic bids, for example, a team ranked No. 4 or No. 5 could theoretically be left out and a team ranked No. 18, for example, makes the field. That scenario makes some uncomfortable

The issues are complex, but essentially, there are enough stakeholders who’d prefer to stay at four because of the advantages it gives them over growing to eight. Therefore, the likelihood of a 12-team version — there will even be some chatter about a 10-team tournament as a compromise — has bubbled up.

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.

How would 12 teams work? The basic thought is automatic bids for the five major conferences — which also juices up their league title games as play-in games — and one for the highest ranked Group of Five champion. The other six spots would be at-large bids. That gives automatic bids to some of the have-nots and more potential spots for the more powerful leagues, and compromise is important in a vote where consensus is needed.

The details of how those 11 games in a 12-team system would unfold will still need to be worked out in upcoming months. But the thought is that the first four teams would get a bye and teams No. 5 to No. 8 would host teams No. 9 through 12 at home sites. (This could, of course, irk teams that finished higher and don’t get the big gate, memorable experience and home-field advantage of a playoff game.)

Then the bowl system could potentially fill in from there, with the expectation being that many of the high-end bowls in the system now would remain. A few sources brought up former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s consulting role with the Rose Bowl — half jokingly — as a potential road block to playoff expansion.

Delany was a longtime playoff obstructionist and famously helped orchestrate a Rose Bowl deal with ESPN before the CFP was put together that blocked the sport’s best windows from the highest-profile games. The thought, for now, is that the bowls will still be part of the system in some form, and it would make sense for the Rose Bowl to be part of that if it’s more flexible. (It's important to remember that the New Year’s Six Bowls are grouped in that contract along with the playoffs.) How Delany will work to maximize the Rose Bowl’s history and tradition behind the scenes is fascinating theater for the Inside Baseball crowd.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 19: Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide fist bumps Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey after the victory over the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 19, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban fist bumps SEC commissioner Greg Sankey after the Tide's victory over Florida in the conference title game in Atlanta in 2020. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

How TV, powerful commissioners can shape pumped up CFP

In the room, there are three new commissioner faces in the power leagues — the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, the ACC’s Jim Phillips and the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff. An industry source long-versed in college athletics politics said: “I’d say Sankey is head and shoulders the most powerful voice in the room. He probably has more power than the three new guys combined.”

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. 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.

It’s far too early to declare what the TV deal could look like, other than that it will be much bigger than the current one that reportedly averages a $470 million annual payout. The current deal is seven years through a 12-year contract with ESPN, which presumably gives it exclusive negotiating rights in the near future. (It’s important to remember that the New Year’s Six Bowls along with the playoffs, so the potential 12-team playoff would both juice up current high-profile games along with creating more inventory.)

The two biggest market drivers for television contracts in recent years have been the combination of multiple TV networks and, most recently, the lure of sports to promote a direct-to-consumer streaming product. Those will collide with what the industry is expecting of ESPN's preferences, which is an exploitation of its exclusive negotiating window to keep the new version of the CFP on the linear World Wide Leader. Of all the variables going forward, how TV would work ranks among the biggest unknowns.

One of the few certainties is that the 2021 and 2022 seasons will look the same, as CFP officials have said there will be no changes to the CFP for two years.

The next three weeks will go a long way toward determining the viability and look of change beyond that time. While there are myriad variables that could shape the process, the early leader heading into a potentially transformative month is the 12-team model.

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