When Oklahoma and Texas formally announced their desire earlier this week to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC — a move that would create a seismic shift in the power structure of college athletics — college football was already on the precipice of historic change with the proposal of a 12-team College Football Playoff.
Now the two plotlines are entangled, with no definitive date for either to become a reality.
“It’s unfortunately likely to delay approval of a CFP expansion plan,” first-year Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told ESPN on Thursday. “I think there’s going to be realignment fallout we have to get through before we understand what format for an expanded CFP works best for all of college football.”
The playoff’s current timeline hasn’t changed, as this summer is a window for a feasibility study to determine exactly how a 12-team field would be implemented and when — an opportunity for the 10 FBS commissioners to solicit feedback from their coaches, athletic directors and players before reporting the results of their studies in late September to the 11 university presidents and chancellors who have the ultimate authority to change the playoff.
Those conversations now include the wild dynamic of not knowing who might be in what conference by the time any change is implemented — and the reality that the remaining eight Big 12 teams could scatter to other leagues. The 12-team proposal doesn’t include guarantees for conference champions, but it does include the six highest-ranked conference champions, along with the other six highest-ranked teams as determined by the selection committee.
“There has been movement, and we’re all kind of monitoring that,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said. “We’ll know more as we get into September, but we’re all watching it.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN on Thursday that the eventual additions of OU and Texas to his league shouldn’t impact the consideration of a 12-team format, but he realizes there might be some opposition to it for a variety of reasons.
“The 12-team playoff format was a concept the working group was charged to figure out what’s the most appropriate format for consideration by the management committee and the board of managers,” Sankey said. “I still think that collaborative effort produced a format that deserves consideration. If there’s not unanimity on that movement, I think we all expected that to be possible regardless of the circumstances. Then we’ll have to all collaborate and figure out what is a better approach.
“As I’ve said repeatedly – before the review began with the working group, during the working group’s activities and even after, we still believe a four-team playoff can work,” he said. “We need not lose sight of what informed the way four works to come to this point. I’m certainly hopeful people will give the format a full consideration and I’ll certainly be open to their thoughts and perspectives, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for some individuals who don’t know the full perspective of why we went through this review to be making statements when they’ve not called and asked about the background of the decision-making.”
Oklahoma and Texas have formally requested their membership in the SEC begin on July 1, 2025, though it could happen earlier with some legal maneuvering and 18 months’ notice, the latter per Big 12 bylaws. The CFP also has a 2025 benchmark, when its current 12-year agreement with ESPN expires. If the playoff was to expand before 2025, ESPN would have exclusive TV rights. If the CFP waits, it could take it to the open market. Some decision-makers have expressed issues with how the expansion proposal was put together.
On Wednesday, Kliavkoff told The Athletic there was “some concern about the way the 12-team proposal was constructed, with a limited number of folks in the room and imperfect information between the people who were in the room,” he said. “The proper process is: Everybody who has a say should have a say, and everybody should be operating with the same information.”
Sankey said “the full set of principles and priorities that led to the 12-team proposal have nothing to do with any of the recent moves,” but he would be happy to explain that if asked.
“I appreciate that George is new to his role, and wasn’t advantaged by the discussion two years ago that informed the working group’s conversation,” Sankey said. “I’ll be happy to explain the full set of principles and priorities that led to the 12-team proposal have nothing to do with any recent moves, but I’ve not had that outreach to ask me. I’m sure we’ll have that opportunity some day.”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock has said repeatedly the playoff won’t expand this season or in 2022, so the earliest it could expand would be ahead of the 2023 season. Hancock told ESPN on Monday the discussions are still on track toward the Sept. 28 meeting.
“The timeline hasn’t changed,” Hancock said in a brief phone interview from Tokyo, where he is volunteering for the Olympics. “The conferences are still gathering feedback from their presidents, athletic directors, coaches, faculty and players.”
While some have assumed that the proposed format would be approved in September, Sankey cautioned in June that might not be the case. He reiterated that point on Thursday, but not because of the partnership with OU and Texas. He said the same obstacles still exist – namely the details of the 12-year contract that runs through 2025.
“I have been very intentional to say that I would not set expectations for any early adjustment,” he said, “but regardless of the emerging environment, the challenges to move early have been clearly present six months ago, a year ago. I expect some of those will be present in the months ahead, and to assign one reason for those challenges I think misses the bigger picture that caused me to not put a lot of weight in we’re going to move really early to change this.
“In other words you have bowl connections, agreements between conferences and bowl games, the bowl and CFP, the bowl and ESPN,” he said. “There are any number of layers in a set of decisions made way back in 2012-13, leading into the ’14 season that included 12-year contracts or two sets of six-year contracts. Those are primary limiting factors on making an early adjustment. No one knows if we can actually work through those, separate from any other activity.” Several sources involved in the process
Several sources involved in the process agreed with Kliavkoff that the decision to officially adopt a new format could ultimately be delayed, but not derailed, because of the OU-Texas move. There’s also the added twist of the personal relationships involved. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was one of the four members of the CFP subcommittee who spent the past two years working closely alongside SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
In spite of Bowlsby’s constant communication with Sankey about the playoff and navigating their respective conferences through a 2020 season ravaged by the pandemic, the Big 12 leader has said publicly he and the rest of the conference were left in the dark about the partnership between the SEC and his league’s flagship schools.
While there is a sense of betrayal, Sankey told ESPN on Friday he expects to be able to work with Bowlsby as members of the CFP’s management committee.
“Let’s look back at history at the ability of people to work together through challenging circumstances,” Sankey said. “In 2010 there was movement, 2011 dating back to movement around the Big East and the ACC. There were moments but we all have a responsibility. I do think there’s a level of respect that’s present and will remain going forward. There are tough times, but those who have been in leadership positions have always been able to work through those elements of our relationships and our work.”
While some throughout the sport have raised concerns both privately and publicly about the possibility of an SEC-laden, 12-team field that could someday potentially include both Texas and Oklahoma, others continue to embrace the format with the belief it will provide greater opportunities to a wider range of teams.
Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said that in the current format, five teams have taken 22 of the 28 semifinal spots over the past seven years. Gill said that if the proposed 12-team model was applied to the past seven years, 39 teams would have had an opportunity to play in the playoff. Having more teams involved in the playoff, he said, outweighs any looming uncertainty about conference realignment.
“From my perspective, I think we’d still be comfortable making a decision even if there is uncertainty,” Gill told ESPN on Thursday. “Part of the reason for that is, there’s always uncertainty. A month ago we assumed there was stability and we knew where everybody was going to be. Well, do we ever know? That is really the question. If we’re waiting for some sort of signal that everything is going to be stable, and all is quiet on the Western Front, I don’t know if that really exists. It’s one of those things where we could be waiting for a long time.”
Phillips said he invited Swarbrick to formally present the 12-team proposal to ACC coaches and athletic directors at the league’s recent media days.
“That has now been taken back to campus,” Phillips said. “This is now an even more informed group of coaches and athletic directors.”
And not all of them love the idea of a 12-team playoff.
“Our team isn’t for it,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters at ACC media days. “They don’t want to play more games. And to be honest with you, I don’t know if there’s 12 teams good enough. So you’re going to play more games just to play more games. And I think the more you expand it, the less important the season becomes and the more you become the NFL, as far as all right, you’re in the playoffs? Well, you know, why play Trevor [Lawrence] in this game if you’re already in? All of a sudden you’re not in the top 12 and kids just aren’t playing.”
Earlier in July, North Carolina coach Mack Brown said his team favored an eight-team format, and players felt strongly that conference champions, in addition to the top Group of 5 champion, should get an automatic spot.
Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told ESPN on Wednesday that he is continuing to work through the communication process with his membership. While the conference doesn’t yet have an official position, Steinbrecher said the general tone has been positive.
“Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some critical eyes as we look for more details,” he said. “That will play a role undoubtedly on where our position ends up being, but overall the tone has been favorable at this point.”
When the commissioners and presidents met to discuss the playoff in June in Dallas, Mississippi State president Mark Keenum said he didn’t think “anyone in the room had a serious problem with the concept of this 12-team proposal.”
The proposal hasn’t changed — but the constitution of conferences involved in it has, and the 10 FBS commissioners and Swarbrick haven’t had an official meeting yet to discuss it.
“I look forward to when we all have the chance to compare notes,” Steinbrecher said.
One high-ranking official involved in the process told ESPN he expects a “serious mixed range of views” when the 22 commissioners and presidents convene in September.
“It’s probably going to be a slightly tense meeting because of a little bit of a lack of trust,” the source said. “It’s an environment right now where I think it’s fair to say not everybody trusts everybody else because there are a lot of moving parts.”