What will the CFP format look like after Pac-12's demise? 'We need to really make a decision this fall'

ROSEMONT, Ill. — One by one, College Football Playoff decision-makers entered Big Ten headquarters on Tuesday morning, walked up the two flights of stairs and gathered in a room to, potentially, decide the future of the industry’s postseason.

The CFP Management Committee — the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick — is expected to further explore this week a change to the expanded playoff model, a concept approved last year and scheduled for implementation in 2024.

In the wake of the latest wave of realignment, officials are considering adjustments to the approved 12-team format, described as a 6+6 model as it grants automatic qualifiers to the six highest-ranked conference champions and at-large bids to the next six highest-ranked teams. While plenty of other topics are expected to be discussed over the next two days in suburban Chicago — a new television deal, the revenue-sharing model and weighted voting structure — the format looms as the most urgent and impactful matter.

Commissioners emerged from their last meeting in Dallas four weeks ago with an alignment around a 5+7 model, which would eliminate an automatic qualifying spot and add an at-large berth.

“We need to really make a decision this fall,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “We are going to be inside of a year as it relates to the playing season of 2024. I do believe there has to be some reward for being a conference champion. That needs to be placed in whatever model we decide, whether that’s 6+6 or 5+7. Maybe it’s the same format that we’ve agreed upon or talked about before what happened to the Pac-12. Maybe it’s the top five conferences or top five ranked teams or the champions of the four conferences and best Group of Five.”

How much will the College Football Playoff change in the coming years?  (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
How much will the College Football Playoff change in the coming years? (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Commissioners delayed serious examination of a format change until this week’s gathering to allow for the latest realignment to settle. Two days after their meeting last month, the ACC expanded to add Cal, Stanford and SMU in what seems like the final, significant stroke in a realignment cascade that began in the summer of 2021 with Texas and Oklahoma's decision to leave the Big 12.

Phillips believes major realignment at the Power Four level is complete. It’s time now to make decisions.

“We had healthy conversations [last month in Dallas]. We talked about format and access,” he said. “Everybody felt we should start those conversations but pick those up in September. I think [the ACC expansion] creates some stability and allows for some decisions to be made.”

The goal from these meetings is quite clear: exit with, at the very least, a decision on a format.

However, there are hurdles to any change. For one, it must be unanimous. Last September, the CFP Board of Managers, made up of a school president from each of the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame, unanimously voted for the 12-team, 6+6 format for the 2024 and 2025 seasons (there is no contract beyond 2025). The Board of Managers is the top CFP governance body and must unanimously approve what commissioners decide, if anything, here this week around a format.

“I hope it’s as simple as the 5+7,” one CFP official told Yahoo Sports in August before predicting, “but it could be a fight.”

The CFP is quite accustomed to those. Animosity and dissension has lingered in the CFP commissioner room for years now, both over realignment and over the original development of the 6+6 expansion model, which was introduced in June 2021. Officials squabbled for 16 months only to approve the very same model that was introduced, a delay mostly from members of the Alliance, a verbal agreement between the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten that unceremoniously ended when the Big Ten acquired USC and UCLA.

A year later, another realignment shift left a power conference in ruin and has triggered another debate around a format.

In an interview last month, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told Yahoo Sports that he’d “fight” any adjustment from the 6+6 but he understands why the discussion is necessary.

“Our 65 in our grouping have to have access,” Aresco said of the Group of Five, a term he avoids using. “You want this to be a national tournament. I’d like to keep it at six (automatic qualifiers), but I understand that you have to have a discussion. It’s really key to keep the automatics.”

A 5+7 format preserves at least one spot for a Group of Five champion and honors what MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher describes as the “bedrock principle” of the expanded playoff: the value of conference champions.

Applying a 5+7 format over the previous decade produces interesting results. The SEC and Big Ten dominate the field. Between them, they would have accounted for 73 of the 120 spots (61%) in a 5+7, 12-team playoff. However, that logic has its flaws. Those calculations were made assuming there was no Pac-12. Pac-12 teams were counted as part of their new leagues.

For instance, last year, Utah and USC were counted as at-large teams for the leagues in which they are moving, the Big 12 and Big Ten, respectively. The same goes for the three programs that moved from the American to the Big 12. In 2021, Cincinnati, higher ranked than any Big 12 team that season, was counted as getting the Big 12 auto bid.

This left a weakened Group of Five. In four of the 10 years, the Group of Five auto bid went to a team ranked No. 19 or worse.

Here's how many teams from each conference would've made the College Football Playoff over the last 10 years with the new format. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Here's how many teams from each conference would've made the College Football Playoff over the last 10 years with the new format. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Here in Rosemont, CFP discussions are scheduled to wrap up Wednesday afternoon. Maybe a format decision doesn’t come at all this week. The Pac-12’s lingering situation creates uncertainty.

Washington State and Oregon State, the last remaining members of the league, have not yet determined a course of action. Officials at both schools are even exploring the possibility of rebuilding the league by either making additions, merging with the Mountain West under the Pac-12 banner or remaining as a two-team conference in the short term. There is even some support for what seems like a long-shot idea involving relegation and promotion.

The NCAA requires eight member schools to be recognized as an FBS conference, but allows a two-year grace period. According to NCAA bylaw, a conference shall continue to be considered an FBS league for two years after it drops below the eight-team threshold.

“It’s given us some optionality,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said. “That one grace period provides some options.”

Rebuilding the Pac-12 would potentially retain the league’s brand and its assets as well, most notably the Autonomy Five legislative status, impending NCAA tournament basketball revenue shares, bowl contracts and revenue from the CFP as a Power Five league — a sensitive topic that could be addressed this week.

How a two-school conference impacts a CFP format change is unclear. But it casts further ambiguity on the decision-making process.

Commissioner George Kliavkoff continues to remain on the CFP Management Committee, and WSU president Kirk Schulz is the Pac-12 representative on the CFP Board of Managers — a powerful position with the ability to block decisions around format and revenue-sharing changes.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports last month, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said all three facets of the CFP should be re-examined in light of realignment: the weighted decision-making process, revenue distribution model and format.

For certain CFP decisions, the group uses a weighted voting system that grants more authority to the Power Five/Notre Dame (80%) than the Group of Five (20%) by using assigned units. How the Pac-12’s units will be distributed is in question. Does the Pac-2, if it remains together, retain the units?

CFP officials agreed earlier this year to change the revenue distribution model for the last two years of the contract with ESPN to reflect a league’s number of member schools. The Big Ten and Big 12 expanded by four schools, the ACC by three and the SEC by two. How would a two-school conference be distributed revenue?

There are plenty of questions. Will there be answers this week? Maybe. But either way, said one commissioner, there could be more changes starting with a new contract in 2026.

“Whatever we do (with format) wouldn’t preclude us to see what happens and maybe you make a change,” Phillips said. “It provides a test pilot for what [2026] and beyond would look like.”