College Football Playoff buzz: Further expansion? More SEC/Big Ten power?

The College Football Playoff management committee is meeting in Dallas on Monday and Tuesday to work on the details of implementing the 12-team playoff for this fall. While no major decisions are expected to be made, weighty questions — thanks to drastic changes in conference realignment — surround the future of the sport’s postseason.

The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick comprise the CFP’s management committee, but the power within the room has never been equal and never will be — a direct reflection of the leagues themselves. That divide continues to shift as the Big Ten has swelled to 18 teams and the SEC to 16.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey have developed a close working relationship — moreso than their predecessors, as evidenced by their new working group. While the playoff format is expected to be set for the next eight years — the expected length of the newest TV contracts with two additional years on the current one and six years on the new one — the conversations about money and access are only growing louder.

With a 12-team playoff that is currently structured to reward conference champions, the most likely model to be approved is automatic bids for the five highest-ranked conference champions plus the next seven highest-ranked teams (5+7). But as the so-called Power 2 leagues are positioned to pull away because of a resource gap, is that model destined for controversy?

The next two seasons will be the litmus test for how well it works — and the TV contract should provide stability — but conversations about how large the playoff field should be, who ultimately makes it and how they share the hundreds of millions in revenue have already begun.

Will 12 teams be the right number?

The last CFP deal lasted 10 years of a 12-year contract before a format change arrived. And while there’s no imminent format change beyond the new 12-team field, simple math would hint toward one being considered seriously before the eight years is up. One source called it “the elephant in the room,” as the Big Ten has grown to 18 teams and the SEC is at 16. That’s 34 programs, many of which were at the top of their former leagues.

In a meeting earlier this fall, Petitti initiated a discussion about a 16-team format, a source told ESPN. There’s no indication anything will change in the short term. Petitti’s perspective makes sense from a pure math and access standpoint, as he’s now in charge of 18 teams, many of whom harbor legitimate playoff expectations.

There’s a lot to sort out for the CFP before any format changes, and growth comes with complications.

CFP leaders will likely want the TV contract to include a clause or some language that addresses the possibility of the field expanding beyond 12 teams. Although ESPN is considering paying the hefty price tag of about $1.3 billion, a field larger than 12 teams would lead to increased costs, and at some point, diminishing returns. CFP sources have indicated the commissioners, presidents and chancellors want full control of how large the field is.

Why does access loom as a compelling topic?

Whether the playoff has four, 12, 16 or 100 teams, there will be fights over the final few spots. In an era of super conferences, the criteria for making the expanded field will be closely watched. Will those rules — and the people making them — change over time?

Currently, changes to the existing contract, structure and finances have to be unanimously approved by the 11 presidents and chancellors who have the ultimate authority over the playoff.

Should the Sun Belt have the same say as the SEC? Should the Big Ten have similar power to the MAC?

Those are questions being asked, and concerns being raised as this contract heads toward the finish line. Especially with unanimous approval needed on the 5+7 model, the revenue that will (or won’t) be allocated to new incoming ACC member SMU, and voting power being given to the remaining Pac-12 schools, Oregon State and Washington State.

Entering the last CFP contract nearly a decade ago, there was always going to be controversy over four teams being picked when there’s five major conferences (plus Notre Dame). This version’s inherent controversy will be rooted in the bye for conference champions that wouldn’t normally be ranked in the top four. (In 2022, for example, the model would have given ACC winner Clemson and Pac-12 winner Utah byes and bumped out TCU and Ohio State from the Top 4. Clemson and Utah finished No. 7 and No. 8 in the final CFP rankings.)

So while the Big Ten and SEC champs would be virtually guaranteed a bye as one of the highest ranked conference champions, there’s going to be increased tension as the SEC and Big Ten have both added significant brands and weakened other leagues. The 12-team model was set in motion before the moves of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC and USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon took off for the Big Ten. Is the SEC No. 3 better than the ACC No. 2? Is the Big Ten No. 3 better than the Big 12 No. 2?

Those are the debates as we adjust to a system where multiple losses are going to become an accepted playoff résumé. Will the Big Ten and SEC push for a model with more guaranteed spots? Or does a model that just chooses the 12 highest ranked teams favor them more?

How will the revenue be distributed?

The College Football Playoff and ESPN are in midst of negotiations to keep the network as the sole rights holder of the event for the next eight years. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be pouring in, and CFP leaders are debating how it will be divided amongst the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame in the next contract (Year 13). Should the SEC and Big Ten get even more, as they will be the largest leagues and boast some of the most successful brands in the sport? Will SMU, which made the leap from Group of 5 to the Power 5 by joining the ACC, get a share of the CFP payout after taking limited money from the ACC? Or will the CFP deny the program Power 5 funding for the next two years and set a new precedent that accompanies future realignment?

Here’s what we know: Teams that reach the 12-team playoff will have the potential to earn a total of $20 million for their conference. Each team in the field will receive $4 million. Each team in the quarterfinals receives another $4 million. And another $6 million for each team in the semifinals. An additional $6 million will go to each team in the championship game — all revenue that goes to the league.

There is already a glaring CFP revenue gap between the Power 5 (Pac-12, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten) and the Group of 5 (Conference-USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and American Athletic Conference). Currently, about 80% of the CFP revenue goes to the Power 5, while 20% is allocated to the Group of 5. Now the commissioners have to determine how it will be shared amongst the “Power 4,” as the Pac-12 is on the verge of extinction following defections to other leagues.

For the 2023-24 academic year, the Big 12 (Texas), Pac-12 (Washington), SEC (Alabama) and Big Ten (Michigan) each received $6 million for having a team selected for a semifinal. Conferences also received $4 million for each team that competed in a New Year’s Six bowl that didn’t host a semifinal.

According to the most recent data from the CFP, each of the Power 5 conferences received $79.41 million in the spring of 2023 (almost $400 million total). The Group of 5 conferences shared $102.77 million. Notre Dame received a payment of $3.89 million by meeting the NCAA’s APR standard, while the other six independents shared $1.89 million.

In the past, the revenue was allocated based on contracts with the Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls — bowl bids reserved for the champions of Power 5 conferences. In the new CFP contract, though, it’s possible the commissioners do away with the historical bowl tie-ins.

Pete Thamel contributed to this report.

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