A few key characters standing in the way of 12-team College Football Playoff

·7-min read

Here’s the good news for those who want to see an expanded College Football Playoff — it’s expected to happen. It’s going to happen on a December timeline set in the same way that this article wasn’t sent in until the last possible moment on Friday afternoon — give someone a deadline and he or she will press until the last possible moment.

“I don’t lose any sleep over whether we’re going to expand,” said one person engaged in the process, echoing many of the people engaged in the process who Yahoo Sports spoke with this week.

There’s a chance things get tidied up in the next few weeks, and the sport’s overlords channel their inner-Coastal/BYU and the 12-team College Football Playoff happens for the 2023 season. There’s a chance that this summer of process obstinance could push things back until the 2024 season. But usually when there’s money to be made, there’s plenty of motivation to move things along.

What will linger over the final weeks is confusion over those who’ve inserted themselves in the way of the College Football Playoff expansion. This is namely the commissioners of the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC who comprise the so-called Alliance. Right now, in terms of the College Football Playoff, it appears that they’ve linked arms to step on each other’s feet.

The louder the objections from those three commissioners in the room, the less sense they make. And as this season and subsequent seasons unfold, they’re going to be drowned out by the common sense of their athletic directors, coaches and fan bases. Why fight progress?

The Alliance that began as an understandable objection to SEC/ESPN domination is starting to veer into undercutting its own self-interest. And that leaves many of its brethren — and even its own athletic directors — wondering what exactly the ACC’s Jim Phillips, the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren and the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff are doing.

It’s understandable they want to discuss issues like player safety, the calendar and, for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, posture for the Rose Bowl. But those three leagues are edging toward jeopardizing the relevancy and prosperity of their conferences without getting anything of substance in return.

Nothing illustrates this dynamic better than this season.

As we enter Week 6 of this college football season, the Big Ten is in a compelling position of strength with five teams ranked in the top 12. That’s three more than the SEC and would leave it with a legitimate shot to get four teams into a playoff if it were 12 teams this year. It’s exactly why a College Football Playoff would be a boon for the Big Ten, as the models have shown the league would have had the most participants of any league over the CFP era.

For the ACC and Pac-12, they’re both scrambling for relevance oxygen. No. 8 Oregon is the Pac-12’s only shot at the four-team playoff this year, and it’s not certain how much any remaining league games will help it. (Sorry, Arizona State.) The ACC has virtually no chance, with No. 19 Wake Forest its highest-ranked team. As these three leagues lobby about issues regarding the 12-team playoff, they are lobbying against their own relevance and financial future.

Kliavkoff may still be a novice in the room, learning the nuances of the bowls and contracts, and occasionally fumbling points. But at least it appears he’s strategically attempting to position for the Rose Bowl — which is the eternal obstacle for a sport’s progress. The issue this time around is that the Rose Bowl’s contract, which is currently separate from the College Football Playoff contract, will have to fold into the greater contract. The merger of such may require a sweetener for the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, and the notion of the Rose Bowl giving up its preferred date and time remains an issue that needs to be ironed out. (And there are also ripples for the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl and their contracts.)

Warren already has his first big strike as commissioner by fumbling the Big Ten's cancellation of the season in 2020 before scrambling to bring it back. That’s one more big loss than any key strategic win he can claim about a year-and-a-half into his tenure. He’ll ultimately be judged by the size and creativity of the Big Ten’s upcoming TV deal (and what a season to drive up the price), but not helping bring the 12-team playoff home would work against him — both among league constituents and fan bases — for years to come.

Phillips has few strategic cards to play because of the ACC’s position — for example, no Rose Bowl — but perhaps has the most to gain with an expansion to 12 teams. The ACC needs to evolve from Clemson’s one-man band, and the ACC contract that Phillips inherited equals a slow march to financial irrelevance that ends in 2036. Already handcuffed by his predecessors’ sins, the expanded CFP is one of the few ways in the next 15 years the ACC can increase revenue and add to its relevancy.

After Phillips failed to lure Texas to the ACC and the Pac-12 tried and failed to do so a decade ago, those leagues will eventually have to stop posturing about a move they’d both gladly have executed in exactly the same way.

Being a college commissioner is equal parts immensely complicated and extremely simple. It’s a job that those who’ve done it say takes about two years to adjust to. And these three new commissioners are still feeling their way around. The simple part is that you really just need a strong television deal, pray for your big brands to be good and everything else will take care of itself. The complicated part is dealing with school presidents, a group that’s a Star Wars bar filled with different personalities and agendas.

Another key part of being a commissioner is not objecting to massive decisions that will jeopardize the future of your conference and leave you vulnerable to alienating your fan base. And if The Alliance commissioners turn to full on oppositionists to these playoffs, their tenures will be trending toward those of Larry Scott and Dan Beebe.

Just imagine Kliavkoff in 2023, if there’s no expanded playoff, when the Pac-12 is shut out again after Oregon and USC finish No. 6 and No. 11. He’d be an eternal object of Pac-12 mockery, undercutting his league’s future for a sunset and a parade. Imagine the reaction to Warren in Columbus or Ann Arbor in the same scenario. Imagine an ACC team climbing to relevancy and finishing in the top 12, only to have Phillips' shortsighted leadership cut off that school’s opportunity.

The Alliance has somewhat cast ESPN as the bully and stood on the table for multiple media partners to buy into the next iteration of the playoff. But it’s understood that ESPN is likely to play ball with bringing in a second partner because it doesn’t want to lose everything when the current contract ends after the 2025 regular season. (Much like CBS did in fumbling the SEC by not playing ball in the short term and getting shut out.)

The College Football Playoff has been using two consultants to guide it through the process. The early projections for the expanded 11-game format are intriguing.

“I think, frankly, when we start taking a look at the numbers, the numbers are astronomical,” said one person involved in the process. "I think the presidents believe that we need to have an auction [for media rights]. I think it would be in our best interest to have at least two, three [or more] different groups bidding on this.”

The momentum for an eight-team playoff is dead, as the Associated Press’ Ralph Russo reported this week. The momentum for a 12-team event is coming, as soon as the crew of new commissioners stops stepping on each other’s toes and starts looking at common sense.

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