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College Football Playoff Expansion Will Further Enrich Big Conferences

College Football Playoff Expansion Will Further Enrich Big Conferences


Got a theory. Hear me out.

The leaders in college sports are actually using the College Football Playoff as a giant Tibetan sand mandala. You know—those intricate, ornate, circular works of art? The ones that are then completely destroyed by their creators upon completion?

That’s the only explanation I can come up with for a commissioner group that worked for years, through significant pushback and politics, to construct a shimmering 12-team playoff that will debut this season. It will have first-round games on campuses. It will reward four conference champions with automatic bids and byes to the quarterfinals. It will retain ties to traditional bowls. It will be beautiful.

And now, before ever seeing that breakthrough advancement play out, they want to deconstruct it. Just blow all that pretty sand right off the table.

According to multiple media reports Wednesday, there is momentum among the conference commissioners toward expanding the playoff to 14 teams starting in 2026. (Eventually they’ll want 16, count on it.) The timetable for deciding on potential expansion is roughly a month, according to CFP executive director Bill Hancock. They’re on the clock.

Related: College Football Playoff Committee Looking to Tweak Tournament Size in 2026, per Report

Along the way, the richest conferences also want most favored nation status, with more automatic bids for their leagues. That’s the bigger and more troubling news. It is the latest chapter in an ongoing Big Ten/SEC power play, exactly the kind of thing we’ve seen coming as those two conferences continue their Darwinian predation.

That’s where my theory admittedly breaks down: Tibetan sand mandalas are “created to encourage healing, peace and purification,” according to WorldHistory.org. The CFP has been created—and then will be deconstructed—in pursuit of more centralized power. There is no healing, there is no peace and there sure as hell is no purity being attained here.

There is no satiating the appetite for the destruction of competitive balance. There is no pausing to actually see how the new format will work or to appreciate it in action. There is no caretaking of the overall sport. There is no concern about eventually pushing the envelope past the ripping point, the players past reasonable demands for non-professionals, the fans past what their wallets can support.

Of course, these are many of the same people who want to expand the near-perfect NCAA basketball tournament beyond 68 teams, an “advancement” that virtually nobody is clamoring for and who have expanded the richest conferences to 16 or 18 schools, in direct conflict with geography, academics and established traditions. They will always push for bigger, even when it’s not better.

Related: Forde Minutes: Emotions Run High and Don’t Mess With NCAA Tournament

What would a 14-team format look like? It likely would mimic the NFL’s 14-team playoff, which awards first-round byes to the top two seeds and has the other 12 duke it out. (For what it’s worth, a lot of people like college football because it’s not exactly like the NFL, a fact that also seems to be lost on leadership.)

Would four on-campus playoff games in the first round expand to six, with quarterfinals and semifinals still at traditional bowl sites? Given the finite number of TV broadcast windows and the amount of trepidation already expressed about going up against the NFL in December and January, when do they plan to play those extra games?

Most importantly, what would the bid distribution look like? This is where the Big Ten and SEC are likely to push for protections they shouldn’t actually need, with multiple guaranteed spots in every playoff field. There has been discussion of up to four automatic bids for each of those two leagues, according to reports.

They already have the best and richest football leagues; do they really need to put a thumb on the scale by demanding more automatic bids when those bids already can be earned? If they want an NFL-style playoff, please note that the NFC East doesn’t get three automatic bids every year. The conference champions get in and the wild cards can come in any combination thereafter—wherever the deserving teams come from that particular season.

The system is already rigged in favor of the SEC and Big Ten—one of which has earned it a whole lot more than the other—and now they want to rig it further. “Access” has been a playoff buzzword, but the access would already be there for whichever teams are good enough.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti is pushing for a larger College Football Playoff field, which could enrich his conference further. 

Robert Goddin/USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, ESPN re-upped earlier reporting “that [Big Ten commissioner Tony] Petitti discussed bigger formats for the CFP in a meeting this fall, according to sources. The reasoning is simple math—his league will have 18 teams starting next season with the addition of USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. The SEC will have 16 teams with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas.”

Having a bigger league doesn’t automatically make its members better than they were before, when the membership was 14. It simply means there are more of them, with presumably more difficult schedules and more losses to come. That’s the price of admission to a conference with 16 to 18 teams—and now they want to turn it into a tax break of sorts.

Is distrust of the College Football Playoff selection committee—a group created and empowered by the commissioners—so deep that they want to limit the number of decisions they make?

Presumably those committee appointees are smart enough to factor in strength of schedule all by their big selves, as opposed to having it legislated and mandated in the form of two to four automatic bids for the Big Ten and SEC. Those folks are dragged off to Dallas five weeks in a row to be bombarded by data, game film and “eye test” dogma, but apparently they don’t learn enough in that time to reliably select a few at-large teams to supplement a group of league champions.

The other complication that the mega-conferences have brought upon themselves is their own difficulty in objectively declaring who its best teams are. The more teams you have in a league, the harder it is to play comparable schedules. Which makes it harder to crown deserving champions.

The SEC will play an eight-game schedule this season with 16 teams. The ACC will play eight games with 17 teams. The Big Ten will play nine with 18 teams. Some will have it much easier than others, which means luck of the draw assuredly will factor into who makes those conference championship games and competes for automatic playoff bids.

Despite those complications—or, heck, because of them—it would seem extremely prudent to observe how the 12-team model works before scrapping it and going bigger. But the urgency for the power conferences to press their advantage overrides all else.

So they’re pushing toward solving a nonproblem, fixing that which isn’t broken. They’re ready to wipe a beautiful creation off the table without even pausing to appreciate it.


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