A 14-team field … already? CFP is fixing something that isn’t broken

It was too good to be true. It always is in this sport.

On June 10, 2021, a College Football Playoff working group formally proposed moving from a four-team event to a 12-team Playoff, replete with a refreshingly meritocratic format. First-round byes for the top four conference champs, with at least one reserved spot for a Group of 5 team. If Sun Belt champ Coastal Carolina finished above ACC champ North Carolina for the fourth spot, so be it.

“I really feel like everybody that was in the room was looking at this from the standpoint of what is best for college football,” then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said at the time.

This fall, we will finally see the first incarnation of that event. But the powers-that-be couldn’t wait that long to begin mucking up their own creation.

That spirit of goodwill Bowlsby described went kaput long ago. It is now buried amidst the carnage from three years of realignment back-stabbing and money-grabbing. The SEC took the top two brands from Bowlsby’s conference, the Big Ten’s old commissioner annexed Los Angeles, the Big 12 and Big Ten’s new commissioners went scorched earth on the Pac-12 and the ACC picked up their leftovers.

Many of those same folks convened in Dallas on Wednesday to begin determining what the CFP will look like in 2026 and beyond. Suffice it to say, “what is best for college football” is no longer their driving factor.

At this point, it’s mostly what’s best for the Big Ten and SEC.

Hence why the commissioners came out of the meeting to report they are now discussing a potential 14- or 16-team field when the CFP’s current contract expires in two years. The Big Ten, having ballooned from 14 to 18 teams, and the SEC, now at 16, want possibly three or even four automatic berths for themselves, and the ACC, Big 12, etc., have zero leverage with which to push back.


CFP officials discuss expanding to 14 or 16 teams for 2026 onward

None of this is an improvement on the format they’d already devised.

There was a symmetry to the 12-team model that just made sense. Everyone was playing for something up through the final weekend of the regular season — either a first-round bye (the No. 1 through 4 seeds), home-field advantage in the first round (Nos. 5-8) or just getting into the field (Nos. 9-12).

A 14-team version is just … weird. Yes, it’s the same number as the NFL, but the NFL is split over two conferences. It makes sense for the No. 1 seed in both the AFC and NFC to receive byes while everyone else plays on wild-card weekend.

In college, presumably the top two (as determined by a selection committee) would get byes, with the others playing in six first-round games. Guess which two leagues’ champs will get those byes almost every single year? Meanwhile, a Big 12 champ that plays and wins a 13th game but finishes No. 3 instead of No. 2 has to play four more to win the trophy. That’s one hell of a grind for a non-professional athlete.

But the strangest thing about 14 teams is they’d just be delaying the inevitable next move to the nice, round number 16. At which point the only teams getting an extra week of rest will be the lower-seeded teams that didn’t reach their conference title game. Pretty much the exact opposite of how the 12-team format incentivizes conference champions.

Also: When the heck are they going to play four additional first-round games? The schedule this December includes one on Friday and three on Saturday. They’re not going to dare go up against the NFL on Sundays. This means they’ll probably put most or all of them on that one Saturday in mid-December, across competing channels.

If one of the goals of this boondoggle is to make even bigger gobs of money, this won’t accomplish that. The Athletic’s Andrew Marchand has reported ESPN values the next two years’ first-round games at around $25 million apiece. Adding competing broadcasts would reduce the value for both those games and the new ones.



As CFP meetings resume, the battle for control of the sport’s future persists

Speaking of TV money — didn’t the CFP do this process backward? As previously reported, ESPN has already agreed to a six-year extension for the 12-team CFP worth $1.3 billion annually. The network believed it was waiting on a simple rubber stamp from the CFP board to seal the deal. Turns out the commissioners were still formulating what exactly it was they were selling.

ESPN is under no obligation to pay more money for more teams. And no other network has made the CFP a competing offer.

So why go through all this trouble of reinventing the wheel?

The answer to all your questions is money.



Mandel’s Mailbag: What does the CFP-ESPN deal mean? Did UCLA make the right move?

For the past 10 years, the SEC and Big Ten have taken home the same share of the CFP revenue as the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Last year that number was $79.4 million. Post-realignment, there is zero chance the Power 2 will sign a similar agreement. Especially since unanimous votes are no longer necessary once the current contract expires.

If the Big Ten winds up guaranteed four of the 16 Playoff berths, it would then have grounds to demand at least 25 percent of the revenue. Which is around double the slice it gets now. Here’s guessing revenue distribution will be the thorniest aspect of the negotiations to come.

So that’s where we are.

That original working group of Bowlsby, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, then-Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick spent two years devising the model that wound up being the 12-team Playoff.

Now, Sankey, Tony Pettiti, Brett Yormark and Jim Phillips will spend about a month coming up with a fix to a system that hasn’t even played yet, much less broken.

(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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