The 12-team CFP’s to-do list for 2026 and beyond: After expansion, still much to resolve
The 12-team CFP’s to-do list for 2026 and beyond: After expansion, still much to resolve
The 2023-24 college season will be a historically notable one for many reasons, none bigger than its role as the final year of the four-team College Football Playoff. The 12-team bracket is coming, and it’s coming soon, but launching the expanded field in time for the 2024 regular season required quite a bit of effort and even more compromise.
The CFP’s current contract with its exclusive media partner ESPN and the bowls involved in the postseason runs through the 2025-26 season, which meant those contracts needed to be broken and/or amended to make this happen. But some of the solutions reached along the way were short-term ones, agreed upon for just the two seasons of the 12-team Playoff. Everyone involved knows that bigger battles are coming, as the commissioners and presidents who oversee the CFP start from scratch with a brand-new contract that will begin with the 2026 regular season.
Nothing automatically rolls over from the current contract. It’s probably safe to assume the term length will be shorter than the initial 12-year deal, to allow for flexibility within the model — some commissioners spoke out about the four-team field’s issues as early as December 2018 but couldn’t address them substantially for years — and to match the trend across the industry toward shorter deals, such as the Big Ten’s new seven-year media rights agreements.
So what do we already know about the 12-team Playoff in 2026 and beyond? And what still needs to be resolved over the next year or two? Let’s dive in.
Here’s what we know will be included in the new contract:
- A 12-team bracket, with six spots designated for the six highest-ranked conference champions and first-round byes for the top four seeds.
- Games on-campus for the first round, hosted by seeds No. 5-8.
- Games at bowls for the semifinal round and at neutral sites for the national championship.
- The size and composition of the selection committee will “remain substantially unchanged,” per the CFP, as will the method of selection.
And here are the areas that still need to be resolved for 2026 and beyond:
Could the regular season begin a week earlier than it does now? Moving the entire season up to the weekend before Labor Day weekend is very much a possibility as college football leaders explore ways to alleviate pressure on the back end of the calendar while tacking on two additional rounds of games in the expanded Playoff.
If games were to begin during what is colloquially referred to as Week 0, that would move most traditional rivalry games to the weekend before Thanksgiving and conference championship games to the weekend after the holiday. The first round of the CFP could then begin the second weekend of December, which would give college football exclusivity on that Saturday. The NFL does not begin Saturday play each year until the third week of December, and commissioners are concerned about putting too many of college football’s biggest games up against the ratings behemoth that is the NFL.
Another potential option? Playing CFP games one week after conference championship weekend, though that hasn’t received as much attention. The 12-team proposal approved by the presidents who make up the CFP Board of Managers back in September specifically stated that there would be at least 12 days between conference title games and CFP first-round games.
So that leaves the likelier option of moving the season up to Week 0, which has mostly served to whet the appetite for opening weekend in recent years. Eleven FBS games kicked off in Week 0 this past season; Nebraska and Northwestern faced off in Ireland in the only all-Power 5 matchup.
“It would give just a little more space,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said earlier this month in Las Vegas. “We’re going to have to talk about that. I don’t think you can ignore the idea of starting a week early, and then you get a jump-start on the NFL. We’ve enjoyed that on Labor Day, and this way we’d get two weeks (before the NFL kicks off its season).”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said he, too, expects conversations about Week 0 to continue and that “no one is very far down the road on that.” He added that such a major decision would need to be made among all of college football’s leadership in a setting outside of the CFP. It is a sport issue, not a postseason-specific issue. The broader calendar has been a topic of conversation among administrators throughout the FBS; Phillips spearheaded a collaborative effort among all 10 leagues that turned into the FBS 365-Day Football Calendar Working Group.
There was not enough lead time to make a drastic change like this in time for the 2024 season. But it appears doable for 2026.
New media partner(s)
We won’t know who will bid on the media rights to the expanded CFP until there is actually something to bid on. But we know that prominent commissioners — most notably, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren — have been outspoken about wanting the CFP to have multiple broadcast partners, as the NFL does for its postseason. We also know that Fox, CBS and NBC just agreed to spend more than a billion dollars per year combined for rights to Big Ten games. And that Fox and ESPN just re-upped with the Big 12. And that the streaming services (Amazon, Apple) have been pursuing more and more rights to live sports.
It will depend on the price point and how the deals are structured, but it feels possible if not likely that the CFP could sell individual games or entire postseason rounds to different partners. The NFL works with every major American sports broadcaster, and they each promote the sport year-round because they’re financially tied to the success of its postseason.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has specifically mentioned that he wants to take the games to the open market, where multiple bidders might drive up the overall price. More partners serving as rightsholders would also increase investment from a staffing and coverage standpoint.
“There is nothing more valuable in media than live sports, and the more partners that are invested in distributing and promoting college sports, the better for the industry,” Kliavkoff said last summer.
Expect quite a fight here with so much money and influence at stake. As it stands now, each Power 5 league earns roughly the same payout each year, regardless of how many teams it sends to the CFP or how far those teams advance. And not every Power 5 league has performed equally well during the CFP era, to say the least.
An expanded field, with six at-large spots, means the imbalance between the power conferences will only become more striking. If the SEC and Big Ten are sending the most teams and dominating the final rounds, should they really make the same money as, say, a Pac-12 without USC and UCLA?
The expanding SEC and Big Ten, set to grow to 16 members apiece, are expected to push for a payout formula similar to that of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, in which leagues receive payouts proportional to the number of teams they put in the field and how far those teams advance in the tournament. In September, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said it “seems a little unlikely” that the revenue distribution formula will remain the same as it’s been.
As it stands now, the Power 5 leagues receive about 80 percent of the CFP revenue and the Group of 5 leagues get 20 percent. For the 2021-22 season, Power 5 leagues received approximately $74 million each from the CFP, with the five Group of 5 leagues splitting a total of $95 million.
Under the current revenue distribution model, for example, Alabama, a team that has participated in the CFP almost every year of its existence, would receive a smaller payout per year than Washington State, which has never come all that close to participating, because a 16-team SEC will be dividing its revenue among more members than a 10- or 12-team Pac-12 will. CFP leaders have agreed to tweak the revenue distribution format for 2024 and ’25 in an attempt to reduce disparity and make the Power 5’s per-school payouts more even, regardless of the varying membership sizes of conferences.
But that tweak is only in place for 2024 and ’25. With the new contract comes an entirely new negotiation among commissioners. It could result in revenue distributions that allow the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to keep steady in a world increasingly dominated by the SEC and the Big Ten — or it could lead to a financial model that further stratifies the haves and the have-nots. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco has taken to using the term “Power 2” to describe the SEC and the Big Ten, and this negotiating arena could offer a chance for those two to throw their weight around.
Meanwhile, what will the CFP do for athletes directly? There’s going to be more money than ever paid out for a larger postseason event, but it will not be going into the pockets of the college football players playing in the game. Hancock and others have talked about doing “more” for athletes, including previously approved benefits such as paying for family members to travel to games. Hancock has said commissioners are not discussing sharing revenue with athletes directly, but there will undoubtedly be pressure to do something more substantial as the collegiate sports model is under attack from various lawsuits, the NLRB and Congress. Some administrators believe there is a real opportunity for the CFP to work proactively on this front with its new media contract, whether that comes in the form of the NIL deals lower-level bowls already make with players, extending medical coverage or some other benefit.
Location of quarterfinal games
The Board of Managers initially agreed on a model in which first-round games are played on campus, and that’s it. Quarterfinals and semifinals would be played at bowl sites, and the national championship game would be played at neutral sites throughout the country determined through a bidding process like the one that exists now.
We haven’t had a single on-campus CFP game played yet, but the calls to add more are already growing. A number of prominent athletic directors have voiced support for on-campus quarterfinals so that the top four seeds get the opportunity to play home games.
“We’re effectively starting a new tradition of having Playoff games on campuses,” Clemson AD Graham Neff told The Athletic last month. “And, gosh, the top four seeds to not have that opportunity, effectively, I know that’s something that would be missed. So the five- to eight-seeds get them. And then if you do the quarterfinals for the top four seeds, you have teams that have earned a bye and the right to have that experience on their campus.
“You know, we’re changing traditions here all the way around. So how do we look at a macro view of the staples of college football?”
On-campus quarterfinals would also create a more reasonable December for the fan bases of top teams, which will be asked to travel three times in three weeks across the country if the quarters, semis and title game are all at neutral sites.
Bowl executives continue to push for meaningful games to take place at bowl sites because they insist they’re better equipped to handle quick turnarounds, block off enough hotel rooms and handle other logistical concerns. Some have even used the recent winter storm and its freezing temperatures as a reason to avoid on-campus games in, say, Big Ten country — even though the NFL played several regular-season games outdoors in cold temperatures, as did the FCS playoffs. (Each school that earns the right to host a game on campus will also have the option to move it to an available stadium not on campus if it chooses, so cold-weather schools may opt for domes anyway.)
The location of quarterfinal games and the role of bowls both feel more up in the air than initially expected. But when the four-team CFP was first formed in 2012, the bowls were much more powerful and influential. There were no star players opting out of non-CFP semifinal Rose Bowls back then.
One major benefit? Time is on the organizers’ side. The CFP will experience on-campus games and all of the logistical challenges that go into them for two seasons before locking in anything for the new contract. It’s almost like the 2024 and 2025 postseasons can serve as trial runs.
“We will learn a lot in ’24 and ’25, there’s no doubt about that,” Hancock said. “With sites, we’re going to learn a lot. … I say, let’s get into this (with games played) on the sites and see what happens.”
The Rose Bowl issue
A more specific subset of the above issue: What happens to the Rose Bowl? The game has a long history in the sport, but it has also been the thorn in everyone’s side during previous attempts to modernize college football’s postseason. It directly delayed the formation of the four-team Playoff, and it nearly stymied efforts from commissioners and presidents to expand to 12 earlier than 2026. The Rose Bowl eventually backed down, amended its existing contracts and paved the way for early expansion.
“In our negotiations, we initially asked for an exclusive window around the Rose Bowl’s historic time slot, 2 p.m. Jan. 1,” Rose Bowl management committee chair Laura Farber told The Athletic earlier this month. “While we relinquished that ask, the Tournament of Roses is going to continue to work with the CFP Board of Managers on how we will fit into the CFP Playoff rotation, and it is our intent to keep the Rose Bowl Game on Jan 1. But we’re going to remain flexible as needed.”
Hancock said earlier this month that “there are no guarantees for 2026 and beyond. Nothing is locked in.” So the CFP did not make any promises or concessions on its side, either — which is important to note considering how frustrated many commissioners and presidents were with the Rose Bowl’s hardline stance, which it held until the 11th hour.
“It would be in everyone’s best interest for any CFP games that the Rose Bowl host to happen on New Year’s Day and their traditional window,” Hancock said.
That makes sense, especially if the entire season moves up a week and the CFP games that fall around New Year’s are semifinal games. Both games could easily be played on New Year’s Day, a day fans annually plan to spend on their couches watching college football.
But note how carefully Hancock chose his words, referring specifically to Rose Bowls that help determine the national champion — whether that is as a quarterfinal or semifinal, however the calendar falls for Jan. 1. The question will be, of course, what happens to years in which the Rose Bowl is not hosting a CFP game on that day. Will it still receive special treatment and that exclusive time slot, even as its standing in the sport has diminished when it’s not part of the CFP? As with every other issue mentioned above, the wait-and-see drama is building even before the 2022 Playoff begins.
(Top photo of CFP executive director Bill Hancock presenting Georgia coach Kirby Smart with the 2022 national championship trophy: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)
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