After Pac-12’s implosion, College Football Playoff format set for another shakeup

On Aug. 30 in Dallas, leaders of the College Football Playoff were scheduled to finalize minutiae of the expanded postseason format set to begin in 2024.

Items on the agenda included things like ticket distribution, team lodging and other important but tedious matters around the first-round games on campus.

Now, after another realignment wave shook the college sports landscape, the meeting is expected to take a different tone. The CFP’s governance structure, revenue distribution model and, most notably, playoff format are all up for re-examination after last week’s realignment shift, several college leaders say.

The Pac-12’s impending dissolution is expected to re-open debate among conference commissioners on the 12-team playoff model — a decision that took them more than 18 months to reach. The collapse of a Power Five conference is unprecedented in the playoff era, leaving many CFP officials with questions of their own, such as…

• Will Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff show up at the meeting, and if so, how much of an impact is his vote if the league doesn’t exist in 10 months?

• If the Pac-12 no longer exists, how is the league’s CFP revenue divided among the other nine FBS conferences, or perhaps, is it distributed only to the four power conferences?

• If the Pac-12 rebuilds, will it be considered a power conference and entitled to such revenues that those leagues receive?

• And finally, with or without a rebuilt Pac-12, how will the playoff format change?

“It’s too soon to say,” said Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director who recently announced that he’ll retire after the 2024 season.

Others are more assertive.

The format should be “reconsidered,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said on “The Paul Finebaum Show” last week. In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Sankey said all three facets of the CFP should be re-examined: the weighted decision-making process, revenue-distribution model and format.

While many commissioners expect and understand that such a conversation should happen, one of them disagrees with any change to the agreed-upon 12-team format. The format — described as a 6+6 model — includes automatic access for the six highest-ranked conference champions (6 AQs) and at-large spots to the next six highest-ranked teams (6 at-larges).

“We’d fight the adjustment. We’d be against it, but we do understand it would have to come up,” said Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, historically the most successful of the Group of Five leagues.

Multiple CFP decision-makers — university presidents as well as commissioners — spoke to Yahoo Sports in an attempt to answer some of the vexing questions produced by the latest wave of realignment. And while the most interesting potential change is around that format, it is far from the only impact of a dissolved or at least severely diminished Pac-12.

In meetings recently, SEC presidents have explored and plan to continue examining the CFP situation, and the league’s athletic directors are expected to discuss the subject during annual meetings this week in Asheville, North Carolina.

As the country’s most dominant football power, the SEC and its commissioner loom large in the CFP room. That goes for the Big Ten as well, which became the first league to reach 18 members with the addition of Oregon and Washington.

With one fewer power conference and a combined 34 teams, the Big Ten and SEC are expected to now hold even more clout in the CFP room, where the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick control most decision-making. The commissioner group (Management Committee) reports to the Board of Managers, an 11-person group of university presidents and chancellors representing each of the 10 conferences and Notre Dame.

Most expect the SEC and Big Ten to want…

• a change in the revenue-distribution model to reflect a league’s number of member schools. For instance, the Big Ten would have two more schools than the SEC and Big 12, which will have two more schools than the ACC. In years past, the CFP has distributed an even amount to each Power Five league, which meant that schools in leagues with fewer members received more of a cut than schools in leagues with more members.

• a change in the weighted-voting system. 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. One CFP decision-maker suggested that the Big Ten and SEC will want the majority of the units, creating more of a distinction between them and the ACC, Big 12 and Notre Dame.

• a change in the 12-team format, which, it is believed, will require unanimity. “The Big Ten and SEC are not standing at 6+6,” said one CFP decision-maker. “Both are probably going to say, ‘Let’s just look to the rankings with all at-larges.’”

At the center of the format argument is a familiar discussion point: automatic qualifiers or not?

Eliminating automatic qualifiers is a certain way to trigger backlash from Group of Five commissioners as well as congressional lawmakers, both from states without a Power Five school and those closely connected to G5 programs. (Keep in mind that the NCAA and Power Five commissioners have been lobbying lawmakers for congressional NIL legislation.)

“Our 65 in our grouping have to have access,” Aresco said of the Group of Five, a term in which 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.

“The CFP is one of the ways that the sport is going to remain nationally relevant. When you have all the marquee teams concentrated in two conferences, even they have an interest in remaining a national sport.”

According to decision-makers, two formats loom as the most likely discussion topics:

• 5+7: The number of teams remains 12, but automatic qualifiers drop from six to five and at-large spots increase from six to seven. The five highest-ranked conference champions get AQs and the seven next highest-ranked teams receive at-large spots. This still guarantees that one Group of 5 champion earns a bid into the playoff. With nine conferences, a 6+6 model would guarantee at least two Group of Five champions receive a bid.

• Best 12: In this scenario, the top 12 teams are seeded into a playoff in a similar way that the four-team playoff now operates. There are no automatic qualifiers. Last fall, the chair of the CFP Board of Managers, Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, proposed a Best 12 model, but it did not garner enough support to pass.

“I hope it’s as simple as the 5+7,” says one CFP official, “but it could be a fight.”

A fight, you say?

The CFP is quite accustomed to those. Animosity and dissension has lingered in the CFP commissioner room for years now. A trio of new commissioners — Kevin Warren (then-Big Ten), Kliavkoff (Pac-12) and Jim Phillips (ACC) — disagreed in a process by which a subcommittee of different CFP commissioners developed the 6+6 expansion model.

The latest realignment wave, triggered by Oklahoma’s and Texas’ departure to the SEC, further divided the room and led to the formation 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, a more significant realignment shift left a power conference in ruin.

On Aug. 30, the commissioners will gather in person for the first time since that event. Will it be cordial? Friendly? Will they quickly and easily make the necessary adjustments to the format?

“Easy?!” asked one CFP insider. “No. Not for this group.”