College Football Playoff mulls 12-team format, but no automatic bids would not help Pac-12′s CFP futility

CFP recommendation would include six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large selections

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah players run off the field at halftime, trailing 0-20 as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.

Having worked for two years on what expansion of the College Football Playoff might look like, a working group within the organization has made a recommendation on the future of the event.

That recommendation indeed calls for expansion, but no automatic berths as some had hoped, which is not good news for the Pac-12.

A subgroup of the College Football Playoff management committee on Thursday recommend expansion to a 12-team event, which would include the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus six at-large spots. Under a 12-team format, the four highest-ranked conference champions would get first-round byes, while eight first-round games would be played at campus sites.

The next step in the process is for the 11-member management committee to review the recommendation at its upcoming meeting in Chicago, June 17-18. If the management committee endorses the 12-team proposal, or reaches consensus on an alternative model, or decides to retain the current format, it will forward a recommendation to the CFP Board of Managers, which will meet June 22 in Dallas.

CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock has previously said on numerous occasions that the earliest the CFP would expand would be 2023, meaning the current four-team format will be contested in 2021 and 2022. Under the current format, all four participants are at-large selections.

“Now that the working group has presented its proposal, the management committee will solicit input from university presidents, coaches, athletics directors, student-athletes and others,” Hancock said in a statement. “That input will help inform what the management committee recommends to the ultimate decision-makers — the presidents and chancellors who serve on the board of managers. I do want to remind you that the final decision will be made by the board of managers, and that decision will not come before this fall.”

This proposed 12-team format is a huge win for Group of Five schools, which have long railed against the current system of limited access to the CFP and New Year’s Six bowl games. Under the current system, the highest-ranked Group of Five program from The American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt is guaranteed a New Year’s Six spot. The 12-team format would put no such limit of G5 access.

No Group of Five team has ever cracked the four-team Playoff, or been particularly close to doing so.

Conversely, this 12-team recommendation not including automatic bids means that Power Five programs are technically guaranteed nothing. That said, in a normal year, all Power Five champions are virtual locks to be among the six highest-ranked conference champions, but the back end of the Power Five, which currently includes the Pac-12, could be in a precarious position in some years if a Group of Five team or two is having a strong season.

If this 12-team format were in play in 2020, the Pac-12 would have been left out entirely, but 2020 is an outlier due to the pandemic and the chaotic nature of how schedules were made and altered on the fly.

The Pac-12, which has only had two teams make the four-team Playoff, and none since 2016, would have had USC, Colorado, and Washington all get there in 2016 under a 12-team format.

In 2019, the last there was a full season, Oregon, which defeated Utah in that season’s Pac-12 championship game, would have easily made a 12-team Playoff.

During his introductory Zoom call on May 20, new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff expressed his desire for expansion.

“I will be pushing to expand the College Football Playoff,” Kliavkoff said. “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.