George Kliavkoff may not have any experience working in college athletics, but the Pac-12 commissioner-elect is well-aware of one significant, big-picture issue he faces walking in the door on July 1.
There is new momentum toward expansion of the four-team College Football Playoff. It won’t happen this season, or next season, and it may not happen until after the initial 12-year agreement expires following the 2025 season, but positive change appears to be on the horizon.
That much became clearer on April 23 when the CFP issued a news release, which in part noted that a working group within its management committee discussed “some 63 possibilities for change.” Those 63 possibilities included models for six, eight, 10, 12 and 16 teams, each containing a variety of different scenarios.
With that news out there, the Pac-12 trotted out Kliavkoff for an introductory Zoom call with the media on May 13. During his initial comments, the current president of sports and entertainment for MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas said, unprovoked, that the Pac-12 is in favor of the expansion of the College Football Playoff.
Every Pac-12 athletic director and every administrator inside the Pac-12 offices should be in favor of expansion because the league has largely been an afterthought since the CFP began in 2014. In those seven seasons, the Pac-12 has had only two CFP qualifiers, and none since 2016 when Washington was blown out by Alabama in the Peach Bowl, which acted as a CFP semifinal that season.
“I will be pushing to expand the College Football Playoff,” said Kliavkoff, a former rower at Boston University. “I believe that it’s not good for college football and for the vast majority of college football fans when 20 of the 28 CFP bids, 71%, go to just four schools. Think about the fact that in almost any NCAA sport, an athlete has an 18-25% chance of participating in their sports’ postseason every year. In football, that number is 3% because of the current structure.”
The 20-of-28 figure Kliavkoff used references Alabama (six), Clemson (six), Ohio State (four) and Oklahoma (four). The Crimson Tide and Tigers have combined for six of the seven national championships in the CFP era, with LSU’s vaunted 2019 team accounting for the seventh.
The Pac-12′s lack of CFP selection means a few things. For starters, the perception of the league compared to its Power Five brethren is poor. The Pac-12 lacks exposure, it lacks the cache of the SEC, the Big Ten and even the Big 12, and there is no end to any of it unless the league becomes a more-significant factor at the top of the college football hierarchy.
The league is also missing out on big money by not appearing in the College Football Playoff. In addition to an annual $66 million base payout, each Power Five conference receives $6 million if a team plays in a semifinal, plus another $4 million if a team plays in a non-Playoff bowl under the CFP umbrella.
For example, in 2020, the Pac-12 received its $66 million base payout, plus $4 million for Oregon playing in the Fiesta Bowl. Meanwhile, the SEC’s monetary haul for 2020 included the $66 million, plus $6 million for Alabama playing in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl, and $4 million each for Florida and Georgia playing in the Cotton and Peach Bowls, respectively.
“We will do everything we can at the conference level to make our teams more competitive in revenue generating sports, especially football,” Kliavkoff said.
For what it’s worth, even before his program got to the doorstep of the CFP in 2019, University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has long been a proponent of expansion. His overarching public sentiments have been centered around money being left on the table by not adding more teams, but also that by capping the CFP at four teams, it leaves out deserving teams that have had strong seasons.
“Absolutely, more than ever I do feel that the Playoff should be expanded,” Whittingham said last fall during Pac-12 virtual media days ahead of a truncated 2020 season. “I think it’s going to happen. It’s a matter of when not if. So I believe that’s on the horizon.”
Another Pac-12 head coach, Washington’s Jimmy Lake, made some waves last fall when, during virtual media days he outlined his own plan for expansion.
Lake’s thinking could offer the path of least resistance to expansion, but may not solve everyone’s gripes. A six-team playoff, with all five Power Five champions getting an automatic bid. The sixth spot would go to a “wild card,” whether that be an independent, a Group of Five champion, or a second-place finisher in a Power Five conference.
Under Lake’s plan, the top-two seeds would get byes to the semifinals, while 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 games would highlight the first round.
Any expansion, no matter the number of teams, would yield questions, if not concerns on some level, but automatic qualification for Power Five champions would solve the Pac-12′s yearslong problem of not being able to get in.
To play devil’s advocate, a couple of things. One, what becomes of the current bowl structure if the CFP expands all the way to 16 teams? There is a lot of money in play with the current bowl structure, and to blow that up would introduce a new, intricate set of complications. Two, if the Pac-12 champion is getting an automatic bid to the CFP, that means the Pac-12 champion is not taking its traditional spot in the Rose Bowl.
The traditional Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup at the Rose Bowl has become less prevalent over the last 20 years with the rise of the BCS and now the CFP, but all Power Five conferences receiving CFP automatic bids would guarantee long-lasting changes to one of college football’s great traditions.
Kliavkoff has not yet tipped his hand in terms of a preferred format for CFP expansion. He needs to do some research, he needs to talk to people, he needs to form an opinion, but this has clearly been on his mind.
Kliavkoff was aware of what was outlined in the April 23 CFP press release. Kliavkoff referencing a potential June announcement on expansion indicates that he is aware the FBS commissioners will meet next month during the Collegiate Commissioners Association meeting in Chicago June 17-18. The FBS commissioners are slated to meet with the CFP Board of Managers the following week.
Not having a preferred method of expansion, Kliavkoff was asked on that introductory Zoom call about automatic qualification. Before the questioner could finish speaking, Oregon president and Pac-12 CEO Group chair Michael Schill, who was also on the call, was nodding his head in agreement.
Schill’s nodding should tell everyone something about what Pac-12 decision-makers want out of expansion.
“I have not done the work to be able to answer that question,” Kliavkoff said. “I haven’t had the insight necessary to give you an answer to that. It will be part of what I’m focused on, I’m sure I will start working on that even before my first day in the office, and I’ll be happy to partner with everyone on the conference who focuses on that every day, I just don’t have an answer for that today.”