GRAPEVINE, Texas — On Wednesday morning, College Football Playoff staff members had a hotel meeting room reserved for a potentially historic news conference to announce playoff expansion — a floor-to-ceiling backdrop with the CFP logo, a two-team audio/visual staff with a sound system and a lectern and chairs for the media.
By early afternoon, it was all disassembled.
“I thought there was a chance we’d get to the end today,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “We didn’t, and there were good and appropriate reasons why we didn’t.”
The CFP’s board of managers were unable to agree on an expanded format and instead will meet again in January at the national championship game in Indianapolis. Wednesday’s meeting was the group’s sixth in-person gathering since the CFP announced on June 10 it was considering a 12-team proposal; that includes two meetings in Chicago and four more here in Texas.
Now another meeting looms in Indianapolis, where the 11 presidents and chancellors who make up the CFP’s management committee and have the ultimate authority to change the format, will also meet.
“I am prepared to head a direction,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “Others are not. … At some point we have to make decisions. I came here ready to make a decision, but I understand the need to do some more work, so I’ll respect my colleagues in that regard.”
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who is on the board of managers along with the 10 FBS commissioners, didn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting or join by Zoom because he stayed in South Bend, Indiana, to continue his search to replace former coach Brian Kelly, who is now the head coach at LSU.
If the playoff is going to expand in time for the 2024 season, CFP executive director Bill Hancock has said repeatedly that a decision needs to be made by January. There would have to be unanimous agreement to change the format under the current contract because all 11 members of the board of managers signed the current deal, along with the CFP, ESPN and the bowls.
If the playoff doesn’t expand until 2026, though, the commissioners have a blank slate and a new contractual agreement to work with that wouldn’t necessarily require unanimity.
“It’s a white board,” Thompson said.
The Catch 22 is that even without a unanimous vote, enough of the 10 FBS conferences would have to agree on it in order to have participation, and it certainly wouldn’t happen if Sankey didn’t agree to it. There simply won’t be a playoff that doesn’t include his league, which is set to become the first 16-team superconference when Texas and Oklahoma join in July 2025.
So if the commissioners can’t come to a consensus within the current contract, it could get much easier in the next one for a majority of them to force the hands of others, though nobody would ever say that publicly.
While many in the room have grown weary of the discussions, they also said they felt incremental progress continues to be made. The issue of automatic qualifiers and the entire format remain sticking points.
“I think that an eight option is still alive,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said.
“I’ll let Craig speak for himself,” Sankey said. “I was part of a group that brought forward a recommendation of six conference champions and the six best remaining teams. Or I can stay at four.”
The group discussed the potential expansion impacts from a global perspective and tried to address concerns about what a larger field could do to the entire sport. They pondered everything from potentially increased roster sizes to starting the season earlier to allow for two byes, but then wondered how that would impact the summer. There’s also consideration to start the playoff further into December to allow the players a significant break after their conference championship games. The health and safety of the athletes remains an issue, but all of those things are secondary to figuring out what the field will look like and how it should be determined.
“The biggest thing right now is format,” one source in the room said.
Concerns still linger about how the New Year’s Six bowls, particularly the Rose Bowl, would be impacted, but another issue at the heart of the debate remains pushback for a model that includes automatic bids for the Power Five conference champions plus one more champion.
“It’s no great surprise there’s probably a difference of opinion between two groups,” Thompson said.
Both Thompson and Sankey pointed out that since the 12-team proposal was unveiled in June, the Pac-12 has hired a new commissioner in George Kliavkoff and the ACC hired a new commissioner in Jim Phillips.
“It is a reality that some who suggested we need to move and move early are not there at this point,” Sankey said.
Bowlsby conceded he wished the group had finished at its meeting in September.
“College football fans probably view the issues differently depending on who they support, where they live and what conference they’re affiliated with,” he said. “The same discussions we’re having in the room are being held elsewhere. This was a hard day. All of us are tired and we came away from it with a feeling we made enough progress to keep moving forward and that the expansion of the playoff, we’re very near a consensus. We believe it ought to get larger and there are details to work out.”
When asked what gives him confidence those details will be worked out between now and January, Bowlsby said, “Good will in the room.”
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