Last week, the commissioners of all 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences met in Dallas for one more attempt at agreement on key details of expanding the College Football Playoff as soon as 2024.
They left with some major issues still unresolved, which means the next negotiating opportunity won’t come before January. If you take their words at face value, the back-and-forth going on since this summer has left precious little time to do this before the current 12-year playoff contract expires after the 2025 season. If they don’t get this done in the next few weeks, we probably won’t see an expanded playoff until 2026.
But on Sunday, the College Football Playoff committee sent a message to every conference besides the SEC: Take the deal or expect four more years of getting lapped and left out.
Based on how the conference championship games shook out Saturday, there was no surprise or controversy about the semifinal matchups: Alabama vs. Cincinnati, Michigan vs. Georgia. As the next month unfolds, there will be plenty of opportunity to speculate about whether we’re headed for another all-SEC final, whether Jim Harbaugh’s bounce-back story will have a fairytale ending and whether underdog Cincinnati might be able to shock the world.
But for now, let’s focus on the conferences that got left out. If Sunday doesn’t scare them straight about the need for playoff expansion as soon as humanly possible, they’re only hurting themselves.
For the sixth time in eight years, the Pac-12 will not have a team in the playoff. For the fourth time, the Big 12 champion also has been snubbed. And with playoff regular Clemson having a rare down year, the ACC was all but eliminated back in September, opening the door for Cincinnati to walk through as the first team from outside the Power Five to make the playoff.
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When the four-team playoff was launched in 2014, everyone understood that one of the five conferences was going to miss out. But four times in the last five years, multiple power conferences have been excluded, which means the system isn’t working the way its founders hoped.
As SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has said many times, it’s working great for his league, which has never missed the playoff and got multiple teams in the bracket this year and in 2017. But for everyone else, how can you look at this system as anything other than a Category Five disaster?
“It's a broken system, we need to fix it," Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told reporters on Friday before his league’s championship game.
So who’s stopping you?
When the CFP publicly acknowledged in June that a subcommittee of commissioners had been working on a 12-team proposal, it seemed like a done deal. Maybe there were some issues to work out on the margins, but the bones of the plan were popular. On the surface, there was real benefit for everyone.
This year, the bracket would look something like this: (5) Georgia vs. (12) Pittsburgh; (6) Notre Dame vs. (11) Utah; (7) Ohio State vs. (10) Michigan State; (8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Oklahoma State with the winners advancing to face Alabama, Michigan, Cincinnati and Baylor, who would get first-round byes as the highest-ranked conference champions.
Who wouldn’t take that outcome? It should have sailed through the approval process.
But since the plan was revealed, some dynamics have changed. The biggest was Texas and Oklahoma deciding to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, which prompted closer cooperation between the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC in a counterbalancing alliance. Those three leagues also have new commissioners, and none of them were involved in the initial formation of the 12-team format.
You can understand why there was skepticism baked into the process, particularly because Sankey was secretly negotiating to poach Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 while also working on the playoff expansion plan. There’s no getting around it: Sankey had significant information about the future of the sport that nobody else had while also helping build what the next postseason format is going to look like.
If you’re the Pac-12, the Big Ten and the ACC, that’s a fair complaint.
At the same time, is any league going to get a better deal than the 12-team playoff that Sankey helped propose?
The Big 12 this year had a very good team win the league in Baylor, and the Bears weren’t even taken seriously as a candidate for the four-team playoff. The Pac-12’s hopes were entirely dependent on Oregon, which self-immolated twice down the stretch against Utah. The ACC hasn’t had a viable playoff contender outside of Clemson since 2014.
Those leagues desperately need a 12-team playoff. The SEC does not.
So why has this not been agreed to already? It’s a mix of ego and unwillingness, at least to this point, to compromise on certain issues for the good of the sport.
One of them, as an example, is that the Pac-12 is among a group of conferences that wants an automatic bid for its champion. The original proposal called for the six highest-ranking champions to get automatic bids along with six at-large teams.
In most years, that’s a distinction without a difference. It’s exceedingly rare that the Pac-12 champion would be ranked behind two Group of Five league champions in the first place, but if it did happen, so be it.
Conferences like the American, though, are adamantly opposed to granting automatic bids to the Power Five. If the commissioners can't come to unanimous agreement on that and other peripheral issues, the playoff won’t expand until 2026. After that, unanimity isn't required — they can write a new contract with the majority deciding.
But in the end, waiting more years for expansion would only hurt the leagues that are already getting crushed by this system. The SEC and the Big Ten would survive just fine with four teams into infinity. Everyone else better realize in the next few weeks they need this thing to go to 12 before slipping further into irrelevance.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff expansion a must for Big 12, Pac-12, ACC