The College Football Playoff is finally set to expand.
On Thursday, a sub-group of the CFP management committee formally recommended expanding the playoff field from four to 12 teams. The proposal is the first step in a process that “will not conclude before this fall,” according to a CFP release.
The four-person sub-group — which was appointed by the management committee and has met over a two-year period to discuss possible new formats — consists of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
The proposed 12-team playoff would consist of the top six conference champions, as well as six at-large teams. The top four conference champions would earn first-round byes, and the other eight teams would play first-round games on the campuses of the next four highest-ranked teams. The quarterfinals and semifinals would be played as bowl games, while the championship would continue to be played at a neutral site.
In this proposed format, first-round games would take place during a two-week period following conference championship games, while quarterfinals would be played on Jan. 1 (or Jan. 2 when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday) and an adjacent day. The bracket would be built off College Football Playoff rankings and would not allow for reseeding.
“The four-team format has been very popular and is a big success,” the members of the working group said in a statement. “But it’s important that we consider the opportunity for more teams and more student-athletes to participate in the playoff. After reviewing numerous options, we believe this proposal is the best option to increase participation, enhance the regular season and grow the national excitement of college football.”
The recommendation will be reviewed and possibly endorsed next week at a previously scheduled meeting of the management committee — which includes 10 FBS commissioners as well as Swarbrick — on June 17-18. Upon approval, it would then be forwarded to the CFP Board of Managers — comprising presidents and chancellors from the 10 FBS conferences, as well as Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins — which will meet in Dallas on June 22.
The CFP Board of Managers, which will ultimately make any decisions on possible format changes, would potentially meet again in September if the proposal continues to move forward.
“Now that the working group has presented its proposal, the management committee will solicit input from university presidents, coaches, athletic directors, student-athletes and others,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the CFP, in a statement. “That input will help inform what the management committee recommends to the ultimate decision-makers — the presidents and chancellors who serve on the board of managers.
“I do want to remind you that the final decision will be made by the board of managers, and that decision will not come before this fall.”
The four-team College Football Playoff replaced the Bowl Championship Series in 2014. There are five years remaining on the CFP’s current contract with ESPN, and it’s unclear how quickly an expansion — if approved — would be formally implemented. An implementation date was not included in the working group’s proposal, though Hancock stated that the CFP format will not change this year or next year.
While any expansion could be considered a win for the Pac-12, which has not been represented in the CFP since Washington finished 12-2 in 2016-17, it’s noteworthy that the proposed model does not automatically invite all Power Five conference champions. If the six highest ranked conference champions earned berths in the 2020-21 season, the Pac-12 would have been shut out again — with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina snagging those automatic spots. And since the highest ranked Pac-12 team was No. 17 USC, the conference would not have earned an at-large bid, either.
If we retroactively apply the proposed 12-team playoff model to the Chris Petersen Era at Washington (which coincides with the four-team CFP Era), the Pac-12 champion Huskies would have accepted automatic bids in 2016 and 2018, and at No. 12 they would have narrowly earned an at-large bid in 2017 as well. The Pac-12, meanwhile, would have had 11 playoff teams in that six-year span and at least one representative each season.
Last October, UW head coach Jimmy Lake publicly proposed a six-team playoff featuring the Power Five conference champions and one at-large entrant.
“I think that way you take all the subjectivity out of it, all the politics, the East Coast (bias), all of that,” Lake said at the time. “Let the champions move on. Let the teams play, and we’ll see who the best team is at the end of the year.”
When he was introduced as the Pac-12’s next commissioner last month, George Kliavkoff also strongly asserted his support for an expanded playoff.
“I take a lesson from this year’s men’s basketball tournament,” he said. “Elite Eight teams included six-seed USC, 11-seed UCLA and 12-seed Oregon State. We just need chances.”
And while it’s unlikely any model will satisfy everyone, a 12-team CFP would certainly give Washington — and the Pac-12 at large — more chances.
At which point, the challenge would be to actually win.