College Football Playoff to expand to 12 teams by 2026
After 14 1/2 months of haggling over details and questioning motivations, a plan to expand the College Football Playoff from four teams to 12 was finally approved Friday to set the stage for a multibillion-dollar tournament as soon as the 2024 season.
What still needs to be determined is just how quickly the four-team model can be converted and implemented, but it will happen no later than 2026. When it does, major college football's championship tournament will triple in size.
"This was a very historic day for college football," said Mississippi State President Mark Keenum, the chairman of the CFP's Board of Managers that pressed ahead after a process that started in June 2021 with an ambitious plan was derailed for months by provincialism and mistrust.
In a unanimous vote, the 11 university leaders who make up the board approved the original 12-team proposal that calls for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large picks — as determined by a selection committee — to make the playoff.
The top four seeds would be conference champions and receive byes into the second round. First-round games would be played on campuses and the rest at bowl sites.
A 12-team, 11-game postseason system to crown a champion could be worth as much as $2 billion in media rights to the conferences that play major college football, starting in 2026.
So our plans are to begin the 12-team format for sure beginning in the 2026 football season," Keenum said. "However, we have asked our (conference) commissioners on the management committee to explore the possibility of us beginning the 12-team playoff format before the 2026 seasons, in either 2024 or 2025. We as members of the board recognize there's some pretty substantial issues that have to be resolved."
If the new format can be implemented before the current 12-year contract with ESPN expires after the 2025 season, the conferences could make an additional $450 million over the final two years. The current deal pays about $470 million per year.
Beyond 2025, there is no TV contract for a playoff. The plan is to take the new format to the open market and possibly involve multiple TV partners instead of just ESPN.
The conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director who comprise the CFP management committee are scheduled to meet Thursday in Dallas. Among the logistical hurdles that need to be cleared are dates of games, host sites, available television windows and the impact on the regular-season schedule.
The committee also needs to determine how all that new revenue will be shared and then have that approved by the presidents.
CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock announced in February that expanding for the 2024 and '25 seasons was off the table and attention would be turned to what the playoff would look like for 2026 and beyond. Last month, the CFP locked in sites for the championship games to be played after the 2024 and 2025 seasons.
But the presidents ultimately decide what happens with the playoff, and they took matters into their own hands to push expansion forward.
"It was time for us to make a decision," Keenum said.
Keenum said earlier this year the presidents planned to get more involved after the commissioners had given up on trying to expand before the end of the CFP's current contract with ESPN. Even after the February announcement, there were signs early expansion was not dead.
It actually wouldn't surprise me once we agree on the format, if it happens before the end of the current term," Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said in July.
Kliavkoff was one of three relatively new Power Five commissioners, along with the Kevin Warren (Big Ten) and Jim Phillips (ACC), whose various objections to the 12-team proposal last year stalled the process.
That 12-team plan had been worked on for more than two years by a subgroup of the management committee that included Greg Sankey of the Southeastern Conference. Skepticism rose between the new commissioners, who had not been part of a process that started in 2019, and the rest after it was revealed the SEC could be adding Texas and Oklahoma to the powerhouse conference by 2024.
Everybody is now on board.
"The Pac-12 is strongly in favor of CFP expansion and welcomes the decision of the CFP Board," Kliavkoff said in a statement. "CFP expansion will provide increased access and excitement and is the right thing for our student-athletes and fans. We look forward to working with our fellow conferences to finalize the important elements of an expanded CFP in order to launch as soon practicable."