College Football Playoff isn't expanding now, but it still could

While changes to the current College Football Playoff format are unlikely to come anytime soon, commissioners are beginning to at least listen to other options. Steve Jacobson/IOS/AP Photo

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In a second-floor ballroom of the Fairmont San Jose Hotel‎, just hours before kickoff of the national championship game last Monday, the most powerful people in college football met behind closed doors to discuss the future of the four-team College Football Playoff.

For the first time in the five years since the CFP began, this annual meeting of the sport's power brokers drew increased interest, as there was a swell of public speculation about expanding the playoff. While most who follow the sport agreed that No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson deserved their spots, some questioned the Big Ten champion's exclusion for the third straight year and another perceived snub for undefeated UCF.

"There's a growing amount of conversation away from the meetings that probably is a little different than it was a couple of years ago," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. Conversation, though, doesn't necessarily mean change is imminent.

"As far as expanding the number of teams in the playoff, it's way too soon -- much too soon -- to know if that is even a possibility," Mississippi State University president Mark Keenum, who is the chair of the CFP's board of managers, said at the Fairmont last Monday. "It's fair to say the speculation about expansion has outdistanced the reality of what the commissioners and the presidents have discussed."

ESPN.com polled all 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and the only two who were willing to favor some form of expansion at this point are Mike Aresco of the American Athletic Conference and Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, who will retire following the expiration of his contract in June. Aresco said a system that gives more weight to conference championship games would increase interest nationally, while Benson said he would vote for a performance-based, eight-team model that would give an undefeated Group of 5 team a legitimate chance.

The other three Group of 5 commissioners -- Craig Thompson of the Mountain West, Judy MacLeod of Conference USA and Jon Steinbrecher of the MAC -- were undecided because they weren't sure how expanding the playoff would benefit them.

"It depends on what the expansion is," Thompson said. "It needs to be discussed. Is it six? Is it eight? We fought hard just to get this access point. Am I in favor? If it's five autonomous champions, the highest-selected Group of 5 champion and two at-larges, I think that would be something we would have interest in pursuing."

Two main issues have heightened the debates: the improbable path for the Group of 5 teams, who have watched UCF go undefeated for two straight seasons without getting any top-four consideration by the 13-member selection committee; and the absence of the Big Ten champion in each of the past three seasons. While Ohio State was selected in 2016, Big Ten champion Penn State was not that year.

Among the lingering topics members of the CFP's management committee raised during interviews with ESPN:

  • The value of winning a conference title. By leaving out conference champions, and choosing teams that didn't win their league, does that unintentionally devalue the importance of the regular season -- the very thing the commissioners desperately didn't want to do?

  • Strength of schedule. How can it be further defined, or is there already too much emphasis on it? The commissioners intentionally didn't want an RPI-type metric to dominate the discussions.

  • Notre Dame. How is Notre Dame's 12-game résumé measured against conference champions that have won 13 games?

  • Group of 5. What, if anything, can the Group of 5 do to get top-four consideration?

  • Expansion. Is it possible to expand the playoff without unraveling the entire sport to its detriment, and if so, how?

"Nobody has the perfect solution," Thompson said.

The current selection committee protocol, which is used to determine the top four teams, requires that when "teams are comparable" the committee must consider championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and comparative outcomes of common opponents. None of that criteria is weighted. No specific concerns about the selection process were brought up in last week's meeting, but it's clearly not the end of the discussions.

"At some point down the road, as part of our regular review of all matters pertaining to the playoff, the management committee will meet, and it will consider all aspects of the playoff, as it routinely does," Keenum said. "When that discussion happens, I advise observers not to read too much into it. We have a 12-year contract we are very happy with."

While the majority of Power 5 commissioners and Notre Dame's Swarbrick told ESPN they still believe four is the right number, they all agreed they are open to deeper discussions at the individual conference level and possibly at the annual April CFP spring meetings in Dallas.

"Nobody has the perfect solution." Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson on playoff expansion

The potential roadblocks, though, could cause a serious upheaval to the sport.

Where and when the first round is played is difficult to fit into the current bowl system, and could impact when the entire season begins. The first three weeks of December are typically exams, and it's not just the players who are taking them, but their classmates who would like to go to the games.

None of the commissioners seem willing to surrender their conference championship games, particularly the SEC's Greg Sankey, and Larry Scott of the Pac-12 noted a contractual agreement with his. Aresco has instead called for title games to be used "almost as a launch point" in an expanded playoff.

"Every championship game will have huge ramifications," he said. "If you have the six champions -- which I think we've reached that point, but that's me -- and you had some at-larges, think of all the people you're including in this. You're making it almost a 12- or 14-team playoff without doing anything. You're not adding any games. I've heard that floated, and I think it's at least worth exploring."

Playoff expansion also would likely impact the New Year's Six bowls, possibly leaving a top-tier contract bowl with a third-place team. The Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls are contractually guaranteed Power 5 conference champions unless those teams are in semifinal games.

When the playoff was first agreed upon, Benson represented the Group of 5 conferences at the table with former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who represented the Power 5 conferences.

"We got the price tag, and then the big issue was how to divide the money, and what portion was the Group of 5 going to get?" Benson said. "The two of us worked together to try to get to a number that was a fair number. People forget that pot pre-CFP for the Group of 5 ... was about $20 million and it's now $90 million. We've benefited greatly."

They're not alone.

According to CFP executive director Bill Hancock, each Power 5 conference will receive an estimated $62 million base payout from the CFP, including $300,000 for each team that meets the NCAA's APR for participation in a postseason football game. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC each will receive $6 million for their teams' having participated in the semifinals. Notre Dame also will receive $6 million. Each conference will receive an additional $4 million for its team having played in the Fiesta and Peach Bowls (American, Big Ten and SEC times two).

Each team that participated in the championship game, semifinals, Fiesta or Peach also will receive approximately $2.34 million to cover expenses for each game. Changing the playoff, as Steinbrecher said, would "affect the entire operation of the game."

"What's the metric by which we're saying it's worth it?" Steinbrecher said. "Is it a more robust championship if you expand it? Is it a more valuable championship from a revenue generator in light of all it's going to do to your other things? I think all of us are bullish on the fact that we don't want to do anything to devalue the regular season. Does it make our regular season more valuable, less valuable or no impact? It's not a simple answer. It will affect the entire calendar of college football.

"I don't think this is a short discussion."

Which is why it's unlikely to change significantly anytime soon.

"It depends on what we're looking at as to how long it may or may not take," Keenum said.

It took nearly four years to land on the four-team format the first time around.

"We all took a format, and whether we believed in it or not, we presented it as an advocate," Swarbrick said. "It was a really fun planning exercise. It exposes the real limitations we're up against as far as the academic calendar, health and safety issues, the entrenched business interests, our desire in protecting the bowl system. When you try and accommodate all of those, that's why it took us three and a half years."

For better or worse, the sport's imperfect method of crowning a champion is truly unlike any other. There were fans who abhorred the BCS computers, and fans who don't trust the selection committee. Many of the debates outside the boardroom reflect those that occur within it -- most importantly the value of conference champions and the enigma that is strength of schedule.

Scott said that while his league is still in favor of four, it is "very open to examining everything." Scott said his conference "would absolutely prefer" that winning a conference championship be a requirement for the playoff -- a stance the league took in the initial discussions when the playoff was formed.

"We'd prefer all conferences play nine conference games and have the strength of schedule that our schools have put themselves up against, but that's not the structure," Scott said after the meeting last Monday. "We accepted that."

When asked directly if he still favors the four-team format, Bowlsby said he hasn't made up his mind.

"The devil is always in the details," he said. "There were a lot of compromises that went into getting us to where we have gotten to. There's a lot right about it. I think we need to be thoughtful in how we go forward."

While the playoff isn't changing -- yet -- it appears the willingness to at least put it under a microscope has.