For more than eight months, leaders of the College Football Playoff have been unable to unanimously agree on what the future format of the sport's postseason should look like. This week, they finally agreed to disagree, recommitting to the four-team format for the next four years. Friday's news ended all speculation about whether the playoff would expand before the current contract expires following the 2025 season.
That the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick were unable to agree to the specifics of a 12-team format was not surprising, considering that's exactly what has happened during their past nine in-person meetings. (That includes three straight days of meetings before the national championship game in January.) Nothing changed Wednesday afternoon, when they had a critical videoconference to determine whether it was worth continuing to try to push forward in spite of their differences.
"Positions really had not changed, and we had time to think about it," American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told ESPN on Friday. "It wasn't a lengthy call, but we talked it over, and if positions hadn't changed, it was going to be a tough sell."
On Thursday, the 11 school presidents and chancellors who have the authority to change the playoff approved a recommendation from the 10 FBS commissioners and Swarbrick to remain at four teams for the remainder of the 12-year contract, which runs through the 2025 season. Because there are still two years remaining on the current deal, the vote to make any changes had to be unanimous. CFP executive director Bill Hancock joined this week's discussions from Beijing, China, where he is a volunteer for the Winter Olympics.
Most people involved in the CFP expansion discussions who spoke to ESPN have described the process and its outcome as frustrating and disappointing -- a 180-degree turn from when the original proposal was made public on June 10. The 12-team format was initially applauded by many fans, coaches, media members and others who follow the sport and have long clamored for a more expansive CFP system.
"There are 1,000 football players roughly from eight teams that could have been part of a national championship, and I think they all would hunger for that opportunity," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN, "yet they won't be."
How this evolved from celebration to stalemate can be traced back to arguably the most tumultuous summer in the history of college athletics. Only within the past few months, though, have other issues that slowed and ultimately derailed the plan been raised.
ESPN spoke with several commissioners and Hancock over the past two months to explain how it ended with the status quo:
How the 12-team proposal originated
The annual CFP meetings in January 2019 in Santa Clara, California, were different.
While publicly downplaying rumblings of expansion, the presidents and chancellors discreetly directed the commissioners and Swarbrick to study the possibility and report back in a year. It was the midpoint of the 12-year deal, and while there wasn't any glaring issue with the current format, the presidents had agreed it was a good time to evaluate if it could be better. That June, the CFP organized the working group of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Sankey, Swarbrick and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson.
At the behest of the presidents, they began digging into "some 63 possibilities for change," including models with six, eight, 10, 12 and 16 teams -- each with a variety of scenarios. To settle on the 12-team plan they would ultimately unveil, concessions had to be made. Swarbrick agreed to a system in which Notre Dame as an independent would never get a first-round bye that was awarded only to conference champions. And yet, he said the relationships among the four participants "was as positive as any committee I'd ever served on."
Two years after the working group formed, it presented a 12-team model that would include the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams. When the subcommittee members explained it to the other seven commissioners for the first time, Thompson said, "There was great acceptance."
Why the 12-team proposal was released on June 10, 2021
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who began in his role on July 1, 2021, hadn't technically started when he shadowed former commissioner Larry Scott at the first playoff expansion meeting in Dallas. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips had been on the job for a mere five months.
When the proposal was initially announced, there was no guarantee it would be rubber-stamped -- rather, those involved cautioned repeatedly it was "the first step in a long process" -- but the release was interpreted by many as an encouraging sign that a 12-team playoff would happen eventually.
For Kliavkoff, that was part of the problem. He told ESPN in January he had "absolutely no issues with the process or the work that the subcommittee did," but that the public reveal might have impacted its chances of passing.
"My issue with what happened was, never in the history of college athletics has there been an announcement of a model that everyone that needed to agree to that model on had not yet agreed to," he said. "When you announce the model before everyone who needs to agree to it agrees to it, you create an assumption that it's a done deal and just needs a rubber stamp.
"I wish we would have not shared that with the public until everyone that had to agree to it had had the opportunity to work through the few issues we had. I think we would've been done already."
Hancock told ESPN in January the CFP has always operated with subcommittees who present their work to a larger group, and has repeatedly said the organization has no regrets about publicizing the 12-team format before it was approved. Multiple commissioners have said there was concern about misinformation being leaked.
"The fact is, the intent was the proposal be presented to people on campus -- dozens of people on campus -- and we thought it would be best to announce it so everybody had the same information," Hancock said.
The plan was to use the summer to solicit feedback in each conference from university presidents, athletic directors, coaches and athletes. There was a sense that when they met again in September, there was a good chance the presidents would give the commissioners the green light to figure out how and when to actually implement a new system. At the very least, there was positive momentum.
Instead, it never got to a vote.
When sentiment started to change
The public release of the plan was the first bombshell of a 2021 summer filled with an unprecedented amount of change in college athletics -- drastic decisions that have altered the entire landscape since 2019, when the working group was first formed. Some have surmised expansion would have been agreed to in 2020, had COVID-19 not handed the commissioners an entirely separate, all-consuming daily challenge.
The implementation of name, image and likeness (NIL), a landmark Supreme Court decision and conference realignment shook the sport, and their impact continues to be felt today. The NCAA recently approved a new constitution that will go into effect Aug. 1. The combination of those events is a major reason the ACC has put the brakes on expansion.
Phillips, who served on the NCAA's constitution committee and transformation committee -- both tasked with restructuring the organization's governance -- stated publicly in mid-January that his conference was united in its stance that "this is not the right time for expansion."
"We have significant concerns surrounding a proposed expansion model, though we'd be supportive of future expansion once and if these concerns are addressed," he said. "The membership believes that we have a responsibility in looking at the CFP and college football from a holistic perspective and not just whether to add more teams to a playoff. Collectively, we have much larger issues facing us than whether to expand the CFP early by two years."
New leaders in three of the five most powerful conferences in the country have changed the discussion -- and the chemistry in the meetings.
"We had people who were coming into the room with very new ways of thinking," Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren told ESPN last month. "You know, just different backgrounds. Great ideas. ... So it just seems like when we started meeting in June, we were still formulating the individuals in the room who had some very forward-thinking ideas that definitely needed to be heard."
Last August, Kliavkoff, Phillips and Warren formed "The Alliance," which at the time was meant to form scheduling partnerships, bring together like-minded academic institutions and stabilize a landscape that was again uncertain with another round of realignment -- none more drastic than Big 12 co-founders Oklahoma and Texas announcing their intent to eventually bolt to the SEC. That move set the stage for the already-dominant league to become the Power 5's first 16-team superconference.
Sankey, whose dual roles in conference realignment and playoff expansion have been questioned by some, has repeatedly pointed out his conference never advocated for a bigger playoff. On the contrary, he described the league's willingness to even engage in a conversation considering expansion "an enormous give." Scott, the former leader in the Pac-12, and former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany initially made the biggest push for expansion.
Nobody will forget, though, the day Oklahoma and Texas decided to join the SEC.
"There was an initial burst of enthusiasm and support when it came out," Aresco told ESPN last month. "But I think the expansion, the realignment -- the realignment definitely threw a wrench into it. I don't think it should have in the end because I think it's a good plan and I think we need it for college football. But I do think that paused it to some extent."
Few, if any, expected the pause to last into 2022.
"This is my 35th year as a Division I commissioner," Thompson, the most senior conference leader in the room, said in January. "I've been on the [Division I] Council twice, the men's basketball committee twice. I've been in a lot of meeting rooms with a lot of peers. I have never seen the hardened positions and, 'We're not going to budge, not going to give, don't want to talk about compromise.' I've never seen that in intercollegiate athletics."
Why it fell apart
There are multiple reasons -- and it's unfair and inaccurate to pin it on one conference or person -- but the most glaring are the ACC's stance that now is not the right time to expand, and the Big Ten's public push for automatic qualifiers. The Big Ten did favor expansion during the current contract, but also shared concerns in the room about revenue distribution and the Rose Bowl's relationships with the Pac-12, Big Ten and CFP.
"To be very clear, the Big Ten Conference supports expansion of the College Football Playoff system -- for our student-athletes, member institutions and fans," Warren said in a statement Friday. "Expansion provides increased opportunities, exposure and value for our member institutions, student-athletes, coaches, football teams and athletic programs. I trust that we will continue to collectively address the unresolved matters and move forward with expansion for the greater good of college football."
Phillips pointed to three main reasons for the league's reluctance: too many unanswered questions as it relates to the health and safety of the athletes; the "overall disruption in college athletics," including the new NCAA constitution and a desperate plea for federal legislation as it relates to NIL; and a 365-day "holistic review" of policy as it relates to the sport.
Even though the ACC champion, No. 12 Pitt, would have qualified for a 12-team playoff had it existed this year, Phillips said his coaches are unanimous in their opinion that "this isn't the right time."
"We've tried to get feedback from [our athletes] and for us, it's been Clemson," he said in January. "They don't want to play any more games. They don't."
What was the vote?
Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN the vote was 8-3, with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC voting against expansion. Keenum's decision to tell several media outlets the vote on Friday reignited a mistrust within the room that has been smoldering since the summer.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group, "I am disheartened that the trust built in the CFP room is being injured by the disclosure of incomplete and therefore inaccurate information about the voting issues that kept the CFP group from agreeing on expansion."
The motion that was brought to the table for the commissioners to vote on didn't split playoff expansion into the current contract and another vote for Year 13 and beyond. Instead, it was one yes or no vote on expanding the playoff under the originally proposed 12-team model with the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams.
While the three commissioners who voted against it formed "The Alliance," their reasons for their votes weren't exactly aligned.
The ACC had made its position clear -- both publicly and privately -- so that vote wasn't a surprise. Nor was the fact the Big Ten and Pac-12 felt there were lingering unanswered issues, particularly with the Rose Bowl and the unknown revenue distribution in Year 13. Without knowing the TV contract, the CFP could not answer how the revenue would be shared beyond the current term.
"I've asked to have a discussion about what the revenue splits look like beyond Year 12 if we're going to agree to extend," Kliavkoff said recently on "The Paul Finebaum Show." "I've never signed a contract agreement in my life where I don't know the financial terms, but I've agreed to extend the contract."
The Rose Bowl continues to be a major sticking point in the room. While some feel it's an issue that can be resolved, those involved in the contract with the Rose Bowl share concerns about it becoming devalued. Traditionally, the Rose Bowl pits the Big Ten champion against the Pac-12 champion, but if those teams are in the CFP -- as they have been at times during the current playoff format -- the Rose Bowl takes the next highest-ranked teams from those leagues. In an expanded the playoff, a normal Rose Bowl would likely be getting the third-best team from the Pac-12 and the maybe the fourth-best from the Big Ten, on average, as the top teams would almost assuredly be ranked in the top 12.
The Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl don't want to have a semifinal competing against the bowl game in the same traditional New Year's Day three-hour TV window. The request would also be a protection for the other bowls that have contracts with Power 5 conferences, the Sugar and Orange Bowls.
"What we're asking for for the Rose Bowl is a tiny little ask," Kliavkoff told Finebaum. "We've asked for three hours every three years to be protected against having to compete against a CFP quarterfinal. ... Not a big ask. It's difficult to expand the College Football Playoff and also hold onto the great traditions we have in the bowl games. We're trying to do that. It's a difficult balance."
What people in the sport are saying about this decision
While many are obviously frustrated with a lack of progress toward expansion, Swarbrick told ESPN on Friday that when the members of the committee developed the proposal, they realized it would be difficult to pass because the vote had to be unanimous if changes were going to be made before the contract expires.
"In a situation where you're requiring a unanimous vote," Swarbrick said, "everybody has 100 percent leverage.
"I think people in the long term operated against their broader self-interest," Swarbrick said. "That's always an odd circumstance and it is frustrating. The things that got in the way were things that were important to people. Sometimes it's hard to figure out the balance between those issues and the larger benefits. Everybody has their own view."
Hancock, who spoke to ESPN on Friday from China, said he's been around long enough "to know that setbacks are sometimes temporary." Hancock said he still believes an expanded field is possible in the next contract.
"I know because I've heard the management committee and the board talk about it that they would all like to see the CFP expand, but for Years 11 and 12 there were just several things that stood in the way," he said. "Not just one thing, but several."
Sankey said that throughout the process, the SEC has made "concessions that in our view were pretty substantial."
"Alabama and Georgia did not need to play another game to prove they were the two best teams in the country and that Georgia was the national champion," he said. "Yet we were willing to adapt to modern expectations to create opportunities. Others weren't willing to adapt to create those opportunities. So we'll have to rethink our views if at some point this process reengages."
Aresco told ESPN on Friday that "it's unfortunate" and "he's disappointed," but the focus now needs to be on 2026.
"I think people have honest differences and I'm not going to take shots at anyone," he said. "I think people have honest differences of opinion on this, and I have tremendous respect for everyone on the committee. We're all friends, we just haven't been able to get there. I wish kids would have the opportunity in '24, '25 because I do think it's likely to happen down the road anyway."
The commissioners and Swarbrick need to determine what the playoff will look like in 2026 and beyond. It's currently a blank slate, though Swarbrick told ESPN on Friday he still believes the format will eventually expand.
"Absolutely," Swarbrick said. "It will. In our discussions, everybody in the room reiterated their interest in expansion. No one ever said no expansion. It will expand. I think we're probably 30 days, 45 days past when the real deadline was. If you're going to go early, there's stuff you had to do. We just couldn't get there in time."
Hancock told ESPN in January that in Year 13, they need a majority of the management committee to agree to it -- including three of the Power 5 commissioners. Everyone else at that point can choose whether they want to participate in the playoff.
When asked what the next step is, Sankey said, "Well, I just spent three years trying to contribute to that process. So we'll see."
One thing the commissioners do agree on is opening the conversation to multiple television partners. ESPN is the exclusive playoff rights holder in the current agreement.
"Our negotiating window with ESPN begins in October of 2024, so obviously we'll work back from that because we know it will take some time to create a format we will want to pitch to television," Hancock said. "We don't know how long. We don't have a date set. There's more than enough time to get this right for the '26-27 season."
Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, the chair of the CFP's board of managers and the lone public voice of the school presidents, told ESPN they are all willing to continue working toward expanding the playoff -- but it's on the commissioners to resolve their issues.
"The immediacy of the pressure of trying to get something done has been relieved, but nonetheless, we don't want to procrastinate," he said. "There's unanimity among the presidents on this."
Keenum said they need to come to a decision in the next 24 to 30 months, and he acknowledged much will continue to change within that span. Oklahoma and Texas have said they would join the SEC starting with the 2025-26 academic year. The Big Ten's media rights deal expires in 2023, the Pac-12 follows in 2024 and the Big 12's deal with Fox and ESPN expires in 2025. Keenum said that ongoing and/or upcoming media rights deals for those leagues will be a "huge" part of future playoff discussions.
"The media rights that are being negotiated by the respective conferences, that's going to be a big factor going forward," he said. "I don't see the additions of Texas and Oklahoma having that big of an impact on the format issue -- I just don't see that -- but I know the negotiations coming up, they'll have an impact."
The CFP also has yet to officially announce the host cities for the final two seasons of the current contract, though ESPN has previously reported the playoff is considering Las Vegas and Miami.
"We will get to that as soon as we can," Hancock said.
The 2023 national title game will be held Jan. 9 in Los Angeles, California, followed by Houston on Jan. 8, 2024.