Ohio State AD Gene Smith says 'you can't ignore' persistent talk of a 16-team College Football Playoff

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Big Ten Conference was one of three leagues that voted against expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams last year.

As part of an alliance with the ACC and Pac-12, the Big Ten's vote spoke more to the way that the expansion process was handled than the actual notion of an expanded playoff.

But as the Big Ten kicked off its conference media days Tuesday, it still loomed as an unlikely setting for bullish chatter about College Football Playoff expansion.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN on Tuesday that the talk around a potential 16-team College Football Playoff is growing.

"Sixteen just seems to be out there," Smith said. "You can't ignore it."

Smith clarified that this notion hasn't been discussed formally, but added that it has come up consistently in the discourse about the CFP. Smith is the most powerful athletic director in the Big Ten, and it's notable that OSU president Kristina M. Johnson is on the CFP's board of managers.

No decision on a format is imminent and could take years to decide. The current four-team format expires in four seasons, and the new one will begin in the 2026 season, which means the format will be heavily discussed the next two years.

On Tuesday, CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN: "No reasonable options will be ruled out."

Former Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who is the Big Ten's special adviser for football, pointed out that a 16-team playoff offers greater access. While the notion of how the access is granted will be debated, the presence of more at-large bids would clearly favor the two 16-team leagues.

The Big Ten recently added USC and UCLA, who will enter in 2024. The SEC added Oklahoma and Texas last summer, and both those programs are expected to start in that league in 2025. That has shifted the power of the sport more distinctly to those two leagues, who are also at a significant financial advantage.

"I can live with 12, I can live with 16 -- I just think we need to expand," Alvarez told ESPN. "I think access is important. I can live with 16."

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who argued strongly about automatic qualification being part of the failed 12-team model, also spoke openly about CFP expansion on Tuesday. In his remarks to the media, Warren said he's "100% supportive" of playoff expansion.

"It's heavy on my radar. Someone had raised it to me probably about six months ago, and then it seems like over the last couple weeks, it's been raised a lot," Warren told ESPN. "Yes, it's been coming up a lot lately, but that's why I think going through this stage of conference realignment and expansion, it'd be interesting to see where all that lands. I don't know what the right number is, but it's this interesting the people have raised it to me, it has been an interesting proposal."

Warren said he remains in support of some form of an automatic qualifier to an explained playoff.

"I'm a big believer that you have to get some credit for winning your conference championship," Warren told ESPN. "Because otherwise, if you don't give individuals credit for winning their conference championship, you have basically watered down the regular season, right? Whatever we call it, I don't know the right deal, but I will say I've softened my stance on kind of what that automatic qualifier lists look like. I just want to make sure that the whole construct of the College Football Playoff is not dictated and governed by some third-party committee who decides who goes into it, that there has to be some credit given for winning your conference championship."

Warren also pointed out that having multiple media partners is going to be a priority. The current four-team model is televised solely by ESPN, and the Big Ten's most significant media partnership is with Fox.

"What is that right number?" he asked. "We'll figure it out. I'm confident we'll get College Football Playoff expansion resolved. I feel very strongly that we need to open it up to have multiple media partners, that we need to have from the college football standpoint. We need to take a holistic view."

It's unlikely that the next iteration of the College Football Playoff will have only one television partner, following the model of the NFL. ESPN and Fox would be considered the favorites in bidding for the CFP. A 16-team model would mean 15 games of CFP inventory -- significantly more than the three playoff games in the four-team model -- could be divided up between the networks.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey acknowledged to ESPN at the SEC media days that he'd heard increased chatter about 16 teams becoming a discussion point. Sankey pointed out that a lot of compromise resulted in the proposed 12-team model that ultimately ended up being taken off the table in February.

"People rejected that, not me," Sankey told ESPN in Atlanta last week. "And so now, as I look at the future, I was clear at that time trying to take a step back, because we weren't unanimous for the format. That's my responsibility to move people along. And I give our membership a lot of credit. I heard from others that they were unanimously against. I mean, I'll stop my commentary there."

ESPN's Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.