An All-SEC Final Is the Latest Obstacle to Expanding the College Football Playoff
The major conferences want a bigger playoff format to generate more money. Blowout wins by Alabama and Georgia show how hard it is to find two title-worthy teams.For eight seasons, the College Football Playoff format has shown that it is usually difficult to find two elite teams who can compete closely for the national title, much less four or more.
This year is no different. New Year’s Eve blowouts in the semifinals have set up a Jan. 10 title game between Southeastern Conference powers Alabama and Georgia, a sequel to their conference championship game last month. It’s the seventh time in the eight seasons of the four-team playoff format that at least one team from the SEC has reached the biggest game, and exact repeat of the 2018 title game.
No one is satisfied with how predictable the final weeks of the college football season have become. Yet no one can agree on how to fix it. Leaders in college athletics have generally moved toward expanding the four-team playoff—yet that’s where the consensus ends.
Talks of expanding to a 12-team playoff, which gained momentum earlier this year, have recently stalled in part because of the conflicting business interests of the big conferences involved and a broadly uncertain landscape in college sports. Even proponents of the expanded playoff have seemingly shifted into neutral. "We want more teams in the playoff, [but] we’re fine with four,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in December.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey presents the MVP trophy to Alabama quarterback Bryce Young after the SEC championship.PHOTO: GARY COSBY JR./USA TODAY SPORTS
Friday’s games hardly made the case that more games are needed to get down to the two best teams. Alabama beat Cincinnati by 21 points while Georgia bested Michigan by 23. They were the 10th and 11th of the 16 semifinal games since 2014 to be decided by 17 points or more.
Through eight seasons, the semifinal round has been decided by an average of 21 points—considerably higher than the 14-point margin of victory during the 16-year Bowl Championship Series era.
The size of the playoff field has been a hot topic of debate among fans since the format’s introduction during the 2014 season. Business discussions to expand the field did not begin happening among power brokers until 2019, as the College Football Playoff neared the halfway point of its 12-year $5.6 billion broadcasting contract with ESPN. That deal expires in 2026 and pays out about $470 million annually to the College Football Playoff, which then distributes the earnings among participating conferences.
The College Football Playoff management committee—which is made up of the 10 commissioners of leagues that compete in the top tier of Division I football and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick—charged a smaller working group with evaluating the pros and cons of various expansion models. Swarbrick, Sankey, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby spent the better part of two years mulling over new postseason formats, from six teams all the way up to 16.
Last June, they proposed a 12-team playoff that would award automatic invitations to six conference champions with the highest rankings and six at-large spots for the next highest-ranked teams. The top four teams would get a first-round bye, while the rest of the field would play games on the campuses of the higher-seeded schools.
Georgia running back James Cook and offensive lineman Justin Shaffer celebrate Cook’s touchdown during the Orange Bowl.PHOTO: RHONA WISE/USA TODAY SPORTS
Such a model placated conferences that have regularly been left out of the four-team semifinal, like the Pac-12, as well as those who felt slighted in the rankings, like the American Athletic Conference, home to teams like Central Florida and Cincinnati. The model also would allow deeper leagues, most notably the SEC, to land upwards of four slots in the championship hunt.
Feedback was generally positive: more teams meant more games, and more games meant more broadcast revenue from ESPN or future broadcast partners. As stated in its current contract, ESPN will increase its payouts to the College Football Playoff should more games be added before 2026. This windfall would end up in the pockets of the participating conferences. The proposal had to get by a few more meetings and administrative hurdles, but it looked like all but a done deal.
Then Oklahoma and Texas announced in July that they planned to leave the Big 12 for the SEC—and everything got blown up. Playoff expansion was suddenly the least of everyone’s concern as a wave of rapid realignment sent commissioners into survival mode.
The Big 12’s Bowlsby accused the SEC’s Sankey of acting in bad faith during their working group sessions, which Sankey denies. Leaders of the three conferences left out of the preliminary working group—the Atlantic Coast, the Big Ten and Pac-12—became irritated and scrambled to assert their relevance by forming a loosely defined “Alliance.” Almost overnight, the power dynamic in college football shifted to the SEC vs. everybody else.
“Everyone knew there were four people involved,” Sankey said of the working group. “That was not a secret. No one complained until it [the 12-team proposal] was introduced.”
Meetings of the College Football Playoff management committee late in the summer and into the fall went nowhere. Everyone wanted a bigger postseason, but commissioners dug in their heels over the minutiae.
The working group stood by its initial 12-team recommendation. But Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren aired concerns about first-round games being held on campuses given how many schools in his conference’s northern footprint have miserably cold weather in December and January.
Warren and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff have advocated for waiting until 2026 to expand, a point at which networks other than ESPN could bid for the broadcast rights. He’s said that a television model that rotates between networks, like the one the NFL uses for the Super Bowl, could maximize profits.
“The Pac-12 is 100% in favor of expansion of the College Football Playoff, but there are issues at the margins,” Kliavkoff said in September.
Complicating matters, some football coaches, including Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, have come out against adding games to the schedule, arguing that they would put undue strain on athletes at a point in the season when injuries are especially likely.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young reacts after throwing a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl.PHOTO: TIM HEITMAN/USA TODAY SPORTS
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has urged patience. “We continue to make progress, but a variety of issues remain,” he said in a statement in December. “Given the importance of the matter and our desire to achieve as much consensus as possible, we will continue our meetings to see if the differences that exist can be narrowed.”
Any change to the playoff format must be approved by the 11-person board of managers after the management committee presents an official recommendation. The board’s next meeting takes place on Jan. 10, the morning of the title game.
The reality of another SEC-dominated final could make the path toward expansion. But it also makes one important fact clearer than ever.
“In the end, whoever wins is likely to have to beat a good SEC team,” wrote Bowlsby in a text message. “It will be true with 4, 8 or 12.”