As NCAA Division I athletics embarks on transformational changes in the coming weeks and months, and as the College Football Playoff (“CFP”) leadership looks to the future, we have a unique opportunity to reshape college football with a modern postseason format that will profoundly enhance the national stature of the sport. Recognizing that the current four-team playoff excludes worthy teams, the CFP Working Group (SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson, and Notre Dame Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick) submitted a proposal for a 12-team playoff in June 2021 that is an enormous step in the right direction and remedies the shortcomings that have historically and recently affected FBS postseason football. The proposal is fair, thoughtful, forward-focused, opportunity-embracing, and practical in its approach. In addition to numerous meetings of the CFP Management Committee (the group of ten FBS commissioners and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick) since June of 2021, each conference and Notre Dame also vetted the Working Group’s proposal with their constituencies, including their student-athletes, over the summer of 2021. This has not been a rushed process. A firm majority, including some “Power 5” commissioners, has consistently favored a 12-team playoff containing the 6–6 model, i.e., the top six conference champions and six at-large teams comprising the field.
The Working Group’s proposal was the product of two years of research, analysis and debate. It was presented after careful examination of many different formats and chosen because it best addresses the longstanding issues while providing a logical and exciting path to a national championship for teams that truly will have earned the right to participate. Notwithstanding the financial benefits inherent in such an expansion, the proposal further adds interest and importance to far more regular-season games and to conference championship games, and, at its core, is grounded in basic tenets of fairness and common sense. Collegiate constituencies, fans, the media and the general public have welcomed this plan. However, in recent months the process has slowed, several obstacles have emerged, and there is considerable doubt that an expanded playoff format can be adopted and implemented as early as the 2024 season, or perhaps at all in the future.
One misconception should be clarified at the outset. The charge given to the CFP Management Committee by the CFP Board of Managers (the ten presidents and chancellors of the FBS conferences and the president of Notre Dame), who are the ultimate decision-makers, was to develop a plan to expand the College Football Playoff in 2026 and beyond, as the current 12-year playoff format expires after the 2025 season. If a plan can be agreed upon by the commissioners and ratified by the Board, the hope is that it can then be implemented before 2026, although logistical issues prevent starting a new plan earlier than the 2024 season. There was never a notion that the commissioners would reach agreement on an expanded playoff for 2024 and 2025 and then start all over in 2026.
In our view, there are two main issues. One is the ACC’s publicly-registered opposition to expanding the playoff at the current time, citing health and safety concerns as well as the uncertainty and instability of the current college sports landscape. The other is a proposal advanced relatively recently by a few conferences for a 5+1 format, which would award automatic qualification (“AQ”) to the five current NCAA autonomy conferences (“A5”), the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, PAC 12, and which would award one slot to the top-rated so-called Group of Five champion. Other issues include the position of contract bowls, including the Rose Bowl, in an expanded playoff, revenue distribution under a new plan, and the location of first and second-round games (home sites or in bowls), but there is reason to believe these other issues can be successfully addressed.