ARLINGTON, Texas – The Big 12 Conference has been at the forefront of College Football Playoff expansion talk since the first year of its inception.
In the 2014 season, one-loss Baylor and TCU teams were left out of the four-team playoff and instantly a conversation for a larger field was brought up at the start of a 12-year contract for the CFP.
Now, it’s the Big 12 – coupled with the Mountain West, Notre Dame and SEC (which has had a representative every year) – that has college football on the cusp of expansion.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was part of a sub-group along with the commissioners from the Mountain West and SEC, as well as the Notre Dame athletics director, that presented a 12-team playoff expansion proposal that is in the process of being dissected with the likelihood of being approved.
On Wednesday at the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days, Bowlsby addressed the future of the playoff that will give an automatic bid to the Power 5 Conference champions – with the top four ranking highest receiving a first-round bye.
“The first piece of feedback I got was there was a great surprise we went as large as 12, and you know, I think the short answer to that question is why not eight, was eight with the highest-ranked six conference champions included just didn’t allow enough opportunity for at-large participation,” Bowlsby said. “So that was one of the gating issues.”
Going with a double-digit playoff format would give a greater chance for a Group of 5 teams to play in the playoffs without skipping Power 5 Conference team that may not have won their conference champion but were considered worthy based on rankings.
But the format also means an increase in games for student-athletes who could find themselves reaching the total of games reserved for professional athletes. There is a possibility that a team could play 16 games if they played in their conference championship game, did not receive a first-round bye and advanced to the national title game.
“I think the expansion that’s been proposed is a great start. I commend the committee that put it together because you’ve got to put yourself out there,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who has led the Sooners to three CFP appearances in his four years as head coach. “You’ve got to start somewhere, and I think their proposal was really good in a lot of ways. I think it addressed maintaining the bowls, which are so important to the history of our game that I hope we never turn our back on.
“I think it addressed getting the conference champions in the playoff, which has needed to happen. I think it addressed a pathway for a Group of 5 members to be able to get into the playoffs, which honestly hasn’t been realistic under the current system. In my mind, those are all great things.”
The expansion could certainly benefit Power 5 Conferences – both in play and at a monetary level – depending on how the at-large bids were given out.
The past two seasons, the Big 12 likely would have sent two programs to the playoffs with a seventh-ranked Baylor in 2019 and No. 10-ranked Iowa State team last year joining the Big 12 champion Sooners.
“It’s going to be big to having those teams that could have made it, should have made it, would have made it,” Cyclones running back Breece Hall said. “Having those teams be able to compete for that is gonna be a real big deal. You may see some shocker upsets or whatever the case may be, but that’s just gonna be a real big change for college football.”
While the money with the expected expansion could prove invaluable for conferences coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic that wreaked havoc on financials due to fewer football games – impacting TV contracts – and limited attendance, Bowlsby was adamant the concept of expansion wasn’t centered around the all-mighty dollar.
“I can tell you this: The motivation for expanding the playoff is not the money. The motivation for expanding the playoff is the realization that participation could be broader and access could be more readily accomplished and more institutions could stay close to the flame,” the Big 12 commissioner said. “I think the 12-team playoff, if adopted, will be a tremendous asset for the regular season. There will be 40 schools that have a legitimate claim to a path to the playoff in mid-October, and by early November, there will still be 25, and we’re not going to be in a situation where who is in and who is out starts taking place the first week of November.
“It’s gotten fairly predictable, and that’s going to be a good thing for college football.”
However, the timing of the expansion is still up in the air.
The current contract for the College Football Playoff runs through the 2025 football season, and unless an agreement can be met by all parties involved – including TV and bowls – the 12-team format could still be five years away.
“We’re going to have discussions with our TV partners and with our bowl partners to talk with our own constituents – in our case, the presidents and chancellors and ADs in the Big 12 and other conferences are going to do the same thing through the summer,” Bowlsby said. “I’m hopeful that we will have a decision at the September board meeting, but if we’re not able to touch the necessary bases and get agreement on how it fits together, we won’t be able to do that. If we’re unable to come to some closure on it either in September or at some period of time afterward, I guess that we’ll likely wait till the end of the 12-year agreement and implement it at that time.”