College Football Playoff expansion: What you need to know

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Friday, December 2, 2022


A process that began with a news release on June 10, 2021, came to a resolution this week when the College Football Playoff announced Thursday it will expand the sport's postseason to 12 teams in time for the 2024 and 2025 seasons.

A whole new set of challenges began this fall, when the 11 presidents and chancellors who comprise the CFP's board of managers took control of the process and voted in early September to expand the field to 12 teams in 2026. Since then, the presidents urged the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to figure out a way to do in time for the 2024 season.

This week, it all hinged on the Rose Bowl -- the most storied and traditional bowl -- relinquishing its request that the CFP guarantee the bowl its traditional New Year's Day time slot at 2 p.m. PT in the next contract, which begins in 2026.

"It's no secret that we were down to the final minutes of the fourth quarter," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. "And there was no overtime. And if we hadn't reached an agreement, there's no question in my mind that we would've continued the four-team playoff through the 2024 and 2025 seasons. No question in my mind. But we're here to celebrate the fact we did reach an agreement. I feel a little bit like every coach who says we're going to celebrate this for 24 hours and we'll get started on next week. That's what will happen here. There are lots of details to put together for [2024], but I'm delighted we get the opportunity to put those details together."

How did they finally come to an agreement with the Rose Bowl? Who benefits the most from the new deal? And what comes next?

Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Pete Thamel break it all down.

What is the Rose Bowl's role in all of this?

In order for the CFP to expand before the current contract expires following the 2025 season, all parties had to unanimously agree to it. The Rose Bowl was the last to join the party. The discussion centered around one of the most lucrative television windows in college sports. The Rose Bowl wants to maintain its exclusive broadcast window on Jan. 1 at 2 p.m. PT in years that it would also host a CFP semifinal.

The Rose Bowl was willing to temporarily concede its relationship with the Big Ten and Pac-12 to host a quarterfinal game in 2024 and 2025, but in return, it wanted assurances about its time slot in the new contract.

Laura Farber, chair of the Rose Bowl management committee, told ESPN on Thursday the committee never had any intentions of preventing early expansion and "relinquished that ask."

"In our negotiations, we had initially asked for an exclusive window around the Rose Bowl Game's historic time slot at 2 p.m. PT on Jan. 1," she said. "While we relinquished that ask, the Tournament of Roses is going to continue to work with the CFP Board of Managers on how we will fit into that CFP playoff rotation. It's our intent to keep the Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1, but we'll remain flexible on scheduling as needed."

The CFP didn't want to make any promises -- and it still doesn't.

"There are no guarantees for 2026 and beyond," Hancock said. "Nothing is locked in. We will address all the bowls on the same basis when that time comes."

The Rose Bowl will host the quarterfinals in 2024 and 2025 in its same historical time window and its existing television contract. Hancock said there hasn't been much discussion about the next contract, which will begin in 2026, and they will "address all the bowls on the same basis."

"I would say that it would be in everyone's best interest for any CFP that happens in the Rose Bowl to kick off around 2 p.m. PT," he said. -- Dinich

How does this impact the regular-season schedule?

For now, there aren't any plans to move the season or start at Week 0 in the current contract, but Hancock said conversations about it will continue. It's less a CFP issue than it is a wholistic look at the sport's calendar, which is something that would be discussed at the level of the commissioners.

"No one is very far down the road on that," he said.

Hancock said he doesn't think a 12-team field will have any significant changes on the regular season, other than more meaningful games in November.

"The regular season has become more important," he said. "The game of college football is certainly very healthy. Look at the viewership. Look at the number of people in the stands. I think this 12-team tournament will only enhance that."

With the six highest-ranked conference champions guaranteed a spot in the 12-team field, it's possible athletic directors are more inclined to take risks in the nonconference schedule and add high-quality Power 5 opponents to the slate. There will be less pressure to finish undefeated or with one loss in the new format. -- Dinich

What is the format?

The new format would start with the 2024 season, so we'll have two more playoffs under the current format -- this year and next year.

The field will comprise the selection committee's six highest-ranked conference champions and its next six highest-ranked teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn the top seeds and a first-round bye. The other eight teams will play in the first round, with the higher seeds hosting the lower seeds on campus or at another site of their choice.

The first round of the playoff in 2024 will take place the week of Dec. 21, likely late in that week. The specific dates will be announced later.

For the 2024 and 2025 seasons, the four quarterfinal games and two semifinal games will be played in bowls on a rotating basis. The 2024 quarterfinals will take place in the Fiesta Bowl, Peach Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, while the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl will host the semifinals. The 2025 quarterfinals will take place in the Cotton, Orange, Rose and Sugar, while the Fiesta and Peach will host the semifinals.

The national championship games will be played Jan. 20, 2025, in Atlanta, and Jan. 19, 2026, in Miami. -- Dinich

How a 12-team playoff would look today

Championship week games and the final playoff rankings for this year are still to come, but based on the current CFP rankings, an expanded playoff would look like this:

Seeds with byes

1. Georgia

2. Michigan

3. TCU

4. USC

Remaining seeds

(conference champs in bold)

5. Ohio State

6. Alabama

7. Tennessee

8. Penn State

9. Clemson

10. Kansas State

11. Utah

12. Tulane

First-round games

No. 12 Tulane at No. 5 Ohio State

No. 11 Utah at No. 6 Alabama

No. 10 Kansas State at No. 7 Tennessee

No. 9 Clemson at No. 8 Penn State

Quarterfinal games

No. 9 Clemson-No. 8 Penn State winner vs. No. 1 Georgia

No. 10 Kansas State-No. 7 Tennessee winner vs. No. 2 Michigan

No. 11 Utah-No. 6 Alabama winner vs. No. 3 TCU

No. 12 Tulane-No. 5 Ohio State winner vs. No. 4 USC

How did they end up at 12 over 8 or 16?

There has always been strong support at both the presidential and commissioner level for 12 teams, and part of it is because they like the first-round byes for the top four seeds, but also because of the workable logistics in the overall college football calendar. While there were some who at least wanted to consider the possibility of a 16-team format, there simply wasn't enough interest.

"You start getting down into some of the details and logistics ... and then somebody said, 'Well, why can't we think about other options?'" Mississippi State president and CFP board chair Mark Keenum said in September. "Well, I'll say this, all of the presidents believe that the 12-team format is the right thing to do, for this time, at this moment." -- Dinich

How does this affect future conference realignment?

The biggest reverberation is that the six at-large bids will serve as a lure to keep Notre Dame independent in the immediate future. With clear playoff access and NBC appearing motivated to keep Notre Dame now that it has a slice of the Big Ten, the two biggest tentpoles to Irish independence appear set for the immediate future.

As for the rest of college football, this is a fascinating question. The money gap between the Big Ten and SEC and the rest of the leagues remains large. There will always be motivated schools jockeying to join those leagues. But the fact that there will be automatic bids for the top six conference champions adds a layer of certainty to leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12 that have been hurt by recent defections. Holistically, it helps the sport. Realignment would happen unrelated to playoff access. -- Thamel

Who benefits most from an expanded playoff? Does it hurt anyone?

The SEC has had the most appearances (10), wins (14) and championships (five) during the CFP era, and likely will enhance its share of the field with up to seven available slots. Although commissioner Greg Sankey repeatedly stated the league was fine with a four-team playoff, the number of CFP-capable programs in his league, plus the additions of Oklahoma and Texas, increased the need for access. The Big Ten also stands to benefit, as the league has packed the top 12 of the final CFP standings but has had only six total appearances by three teams in the four-team model.

The model also marks a significant win for the Group of 5 conferences, which produced their first CFP participant in the four-team system last year (Cincinnati) and unanimously supported the 12-team proposal. At least one Group of 5 program will make the 12-team playoff annually, and the improved profiles of leagues such as the AAC and Sun Belt increase the chances of two Group of 5 participants in some years. Although Group of 5 participants likely will be road teams playing in first-round matchups, they finally have a true seat at the table.

The vote is good news for Notre Dame, which will have six access points instead of four. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick was part of the four-man working group that in June 2021 presented the 12-team model, which was later adopted. He remained an ardent supporter and ally to Sankey and others during the tense commissioner meetings that followed.

There are no obvious losers in an expanded playoff, although the annual distribution of teams could reinforce the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten and the other power conferences. A model guaranteeing spots for the six highest-rated conference champions creates the possibility of leagues such as the Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC being left out entirely, which would sting in multiple ways. The Pac-12 hasn't had a CFP team since 2016, while the Big 12's only CFP participant, Oklahoma, soon will depart for the SEC. But a postseason system that triples the number of spots should, in theory, help every power league.-- Rittenberg

Is this the last time we see playoff expansion?

One of many unanswered questions is how long the next contract will be, which will help determine how committed the presidents are to this format. The current contract was 12 years, with the four-team playoff in place for 10. If there's one thing that's certain about college athletics, it's that nothing is certain for any length of time.

"Will we always be at a 12-team [format]? I can't answer that," Keenum said in September. "We continue to look for ways to further improve the playoff going forward. ... And my goodness, I have a head football coach [Mike Leach] who thinks we ought to have a 64-team playoff. I mean, that's what he believes, so my point is there's always going to be room for improvement." -- Dinich

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