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College Football Playoff considering expansion to 12 teams

There was a time not so long ago, 2012 to be exact, when the big news in college football was conference commissioners simply using the word playoff when talking about the future of the sports’ postseason format.

Less than 10 years later, and eight years into College Football Playoff era, the number of teams that will have a chance to win a national title in the postseason is poised to triple.

The College Football Playoff announced Thursday it will consider expanding from four to 12 teams to settle the championship, with six spots reserved for the highest-ranked conference champions and the other six going to at-large selections.

“This proposal, at its heart, was created to provide more participation,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, part of the group that has been working on an expansion plan, noted that only about 4% of major college football teams reach the playoff. In most other NCAA sports, more than 20% of the competing schools participate in the championship event.

The playoff’s popularity seems to have waned as only a few teams have grabbed the majority of the spots since 2014. Alabama and Clemson have each made the playoff six times in seven years. Ohio State and Oklahoma have each been selected four times. That’s 71% of the playoff spots to just four of the 130 FBS teams.

There was concern that down the stretch of the season, the pool of teams with a legitimate chance to make the four-team playoff had become too small.

“This (proposed model) creates energy in October and November. The practical effect will be that with four to five weeks to go in the season, there will be 25-30 team with a legitimate chance,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.

The CFP’s surprising announcement outlined a detailed plan, but there are still steps to be taken and time for discussion and possible tweaks.

If the format is adopted — no earlier than this fall — there was no indication in the proposal about when an expanded playoff could be in place. The soonest would seem to be for the 2023 season. Implementation could also be as far off the 2026 season.

A selection committee would still be involved, and the proposed 12-team playoff would not limit how many teams can come from any one conference. The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive first-round byes and teams 5-12 would face each other in four games played on campus sometime during the two-week period following conference championship weekend, typically early December.

Quarterfinals would be hosted by bowl games on New Year’s Day —- unless that falls on a Sunday, in which case those games will be played Jan. 2 — and an adjacent day.

The semifinals would also be hosted by bowl games, as is the case now. The plan calls for no re-seeding of the bracket as teams advance.

Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson cited the history of the bowls in college football and the desire to keep them “relevant.”

He also added: “All these points are going to have an opportunity to be discussed these are the recommendations of four people. There are seven other commissioners that will get to weigh in next week in Chicago.”

A 12-team field with six spots reserved for conference champions would guarantee at least one team from outside the Power Five conferences would be in the playoff each season. The Group of Five — which includes the Mountain West, American Athletic, Sun Belt, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA — has never had a team crack the field of four or been particularly close.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said the large jump from four to 12 made it more palatable to create automatic access points for conference champions.

“That doesn’t work if you are reducing opportunities for those highly ranked,” Sankey said.

The proposal will be considered by the full CFP management committee during an in-person meeting at the Big Ten’s offices outside Chicago on June 17-18. The subcommittee comprised of Swarbrick, Bowlsby, Thompson and Sankey presented the proposal to the rest of conference commissioners in a Zoom meeting Thursday, but got no feedback.

The group has been working on an expansion plan for two years. It might have been put forth sooner if not for the pandemic.

The proposal includes no dates for semifinals and the championship game to be played, but did indicate the semifinals would not be played as a doubleheader on a single day.

Currently six bowl games have a three-year rotation for hosting the semifinals and the championship game site is open to bidders, similar to the what the NFL does with the Super Bowl. The current semifinal bowl rotation includes the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach bowls, now they are not guaranteed to be hosts in the proposed expansion plan.

“The process for selecting the six bowls that would rotate as hosts of the quarterfinals and semifinals (is) still to be determined,” the CFP plan said.

The full management committee will determine next week whether it will recommend expansion to university presidents who make up the CFP oversight committee. The presidents are scheduled to meet with the management committee in Dallas on June 22.

If the presidents sign off, the next step is determining over the summer whether the plan can be implemented and when. Final approval would likely come in September.

The CFP is entering year eight of a 12-year agreement with ESPN. The deal doesn’t lock in a format but an assumption has been that any changes would come after that deal expires following the 2025 season. Hancock has said no changes to the format could be made this season or in 2022.

The four-team playoff was implemented in 2014, a natural progression from the Bowl Championship Series, which matched No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the title game from 1998-2013.

Before the BCS, and its predecessor the Bowl Alliance, college football used bowls and polls for decades to determine a champion. There were some playoff proponents, but detractors warned it would ruin the drama and high-stakes of the regular season.

Now, college sports leaders have not only embraced the playoff, but they’re banking on a big one to enhance the regular season.

“Twelve keeps September important but also keeps November important,” Hancock said.