SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN on Thursday that the expected move of Big 12 co-founders Oklahoma and Texas to his league shouldn't impact the consideration of a 12-team College Football Playoff. Sankey also expects to continue working with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby on the CFP's management committee in spite of what has become an obviously fractured relationship.
Bowlsby and Sankey were two of the four members of the CFP subcommittee who spent the past two years working closely together on developing the proposal for a 12-team format, along with Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
"Let's look back at history at the ability of people to work together through challenging circumstances," Sankey said. "In 2010 there was movement, 2011 dating back to movement around the Big East and the ACC. There were moments, but we all have a responsibility. I do think there's a level of respect that's present and will remain going forward. There are tough times, but those who have been in leadership positions have always been able to work through those elements of our relationships and our work."
In spite of the constant communication between the working group about the playoff and navigating their respective conferences through a 2020 season ravaged by the pandemic, the Big 12 leader has said publicly he and the rest of the conference had no idea of the SEC's discussions with OU and Texas for months.
"Today's SEC announcement reaffirms that these plans have been in the works with ongoing discussions between the parties and television partner for some time," Bowlsby said in a prepared statement on Thursday, just hours after the SEC presidents and chancellors unanimously voted to extend a formal invitation to Oklahoma and Texas, effective July 1, 2025. "We are disappointed these discussions went as far as they did without notice to, or inclusion of, other Big 12 members."
While the monumental news will alter the entire collegiate landscape, the playoff's current timeline hasn't changed, as this summer is a window for a feasibility study to determine exactly how a 12-team field would be implemented and when -- an opportunity for the 10 FBS commissioners to solicit feedback from their coaches, athletic directors and players before reporting the results of their studies in late September to the 11 university presidents and chancellors who have the ultimate authority to change the playoff.
Their conversations now include the uncertainty of who might be in what conference by the time any change is implemented, and the reality that the remaining eight Big 12 teams could scatter to other leagues. The 12-team proposal doesn't include guarantees for conference champions, but it does include the six highest-ranked conference champions, along with the other six highest-ranked teams as determined by the selection committee.
While the 22 power brokers are still on track to meet on Sept. 28, several of them told ESPN they think the potential realignment could ultimately slow an expanded playoff but not necessarily derail it.
"It's unfortunately likely to delay approval of a CFP expansion plan," first-year Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told ESPN on Thursday. "I think there's going to be realignment fallout we have to get through before we understand what format for an expanded CFP works best for all of college football."
On Wednesday, Kliavkoff told The Athletic there was "some concern about the way the 12-team proposal was constructed, with a limited number of folks in the room and imperfect information between the people who were in the room," he said. "The proper process is: Everybody who has a say should have a say, and everybody should be operating with the same information."
Sankey said "the full set of principles and priorities that led to the 12-team proposal have nothing to do with any of the recent moves," but he would be happy to explain that if asked.
"The 12-team playoff format was a concept the working group was charged to figure out what's the most appropriate format for consideration by the management committee and the board of managers," Sankey said. "I still think that collaborative effort produced a format that deserves consideration. If there's not unanimity on that movement, I think we all expected that to be possible regardless of the circumstances. Then we'll have to all collaborate and figure out what is a better approach.
"As I've said repeatedly before the review began with the working group, during the working group's activities and even after, we still believe a four-team playoff can work. We need not lose sight of what informed the way four works to come to this point. I'm certainly hopeful people will give the format a full consideration and I'll certainly be open to their thoughts and perspectives, but I don't think it's appropriate for some individuals who don't know the full perspective of why we went through this review to be making statements when they've not called and asked about the background of the decision-making."
While some have assumed that the proposed format would be approved in September, Sankey cautioned in June in Dallas after they last met that might not be the case. He reiterated that point on Thursday, but not because of the partnership with OU and Texas. He said the same obstacles still exist, namely the details of the 12-year contract that runs through 2025.
"I have been very intentional to say that I would not set expectations for any early adjustment," he said, "but regardless of the emerging environment, the challenges to move early have been clearly present six months ago, a year ago. I expect some of those will be present in the months ahead, and to assign one reason for those challenges I think misses the bigger picture that caused me to not put a lot of weight in we're going to move really early to change this.
"In other words you have bowl connections, agreements between conferences and bowl games, the bowl and CFP, the bowl and ESPN," he said. "There are any number of layers in a set of decisions made way back in 2012-13, leading into the '14 season that included 12-year contracts or two sets of six-year contracts. Those are primary limiting factors on making an early adjustment. No one knows if we can actually work through those, separate from any other activity."
Sankey continued to reiterate that the SEC wasn't leading the charge on playoff expansion, and he has said repeatedly he is happy with a four-team field.
"That decision hasn't changed," he said. "Twelve was built around a set of principles and realities that I think have been present and will remain present in college football. Others may feel differently, so they have a format in which they can react. That was the charge of the working group. I'll be curious to hear their feedback."
One high-ranking official involved in the process told ESPN he expects a "serious mixed range of views" when the 22 commissioners and presidents convene in September.
"It's probably going to be a slightly tense meeting because of a little bit of a lack of trust," the source said. "It's an environment right now where I think it's fair to say not everybody trusts everybody else because there are a lot of moving parts."