The College Football Playoff’s board of managers unanimously voted Friday to expand the CFP to 12 teams in 2026 but is encouraging the sport’s commissioners to try to implement it as soon as 2024.
In what was described as “an historic day for college football,” the board’s 11 presidents and chancellors approved the original 12-team model, which was first made public last summer and includes the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams, the board announced.
“There are still quite a few issues that have to be resolved — some very obvious logistical issues that have to be resolved — but our hope is that we can get [the commissioners] to move on this as quickly as it is possible to do so,” said Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, chair of the CFP’s board of managers. “We have asked our commissioners, the management committee, to explore the possibility of us beginning the 12-team playoff format before the 2026 season, in either 2024 or 2025.”
The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will meet next Thursday in Irving, Texas, to begin discussions on possibly implementing the format as early as 2024.
The rankings of the teams will continue to be determined by the CFP selection committee, which will remain largely unchanged.
The four highest-ranked conference champions will be seeded one through four with each receiving a first-round bye. Teams seeded five through 12 will play each other in the first round on either the second or third weekend of December. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played in bowl games on a rotating basis, and the championship game will be at a neutral site, as under the current four-team format.
“This is an exciting day for the future of college football,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “As originally proposed, the 12-team playoff creates more access for teams and conferences across the country to compete in college football’s championship event. There is work to be done to make this format a reality, but I am pleased we are all moving in the same direction with a common purpose.”
The 12-team model was originally put together by Sankey, Swarbrick, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. It was floated publicly in June 2021 but got bogged down by conference politics. In February, the CFP announced it would not be expanding in the current contract, which expires after the 2025 season.
The major holdup had been specific objections from the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12. But after the thunderbolt of realignment this summer with USC and UCLA committing to the Big Ten and that conference signing a historic television deal, the issues from those leagues began to fade into the background.
“The Pac-12 is strongly in favor of CFP expansion and welcomes the decision of the CFP Board,” the Pac-12 said in a statement Friday. “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.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement that CFP expansion “is excellent for college football, and excellent for the Big Ten Conference.” He added that “while work remains, we are proud of what has been accomplished. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with our colleagues to actualize the 12-team format.”
When asked specifically about those three conferences now voting in favor of expansion, Keenum said it was a matter of those leagues and everyone else “doing their due diligence” and talking with each member.
“They’ve spent the time, they put the effort in to get to this point,” Keenum said. “And so I think it’s just been a cumulative effort by all of these individuals to get to the point where they feel — not just these particular conferences, but all of the conferences that are on the board — went through the same process.”
After a year of indecisiveness and mistrust among the commissioners that boiled over and sometimes played out publicly, the presidents took control of the decision-making process in recent weeks. The presidents and chancellors have the ultimate authority over the playoff, but typically the commissioners present them with a plan for approval.
Two weeks ago, the CFP board held an unannounced call, discussing expansion and the possibility of a 12-team playoff starting amid the structure of the current contract. That manifested itself Friday afternoon on the cusp of the formal start of the football season Saturday.
When asked why now, on the Friday of Labor Day weekend and the opening of the season, Keenum said, “It’s time.”
“It’s time to make a decision,” he said. “We need to give direction to our commissioners. We felt like we needed to give them a definitive, ‘This is where we are. This is where we think college football needs to be headed as far as the playoff is concerned for our national champion.’ … I do believe our commissioners, they need this direction from this board, and so I’m pleased that we were able to give it to them today.”
It might take weeks or months to work out the possibility of playing a 12-team playoff in 2024 or 2025. In mid-August, the CFP announced Atlanta will host the national championship game in 2025, followed by Miami in January 2026. While CFP officials have laid out the obstacles to such a sudden move — venues, hotels and television contracts — money can loom as a powerful motivator for change.
“We’re not naive to understand there’s added value by having an expanded playoff, but I can tell you from being part of these discussions from the very beginning, what motivated the presidents and me as well was that we needed to have an opportunity for more participation of teams in our nation’s national championship tournament,” Keenum said. “Having only four teams, we felt like that’s not fair to our student-athletes from a participation standpoint. … We do recognize the additional revenues that will be available, but that hasn’t been the driving force behind this ultimate decision. It has not been.”
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