CFP expansion: Pac-12 athletic directors not ready to support 12-team format

University of Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan speaks to the media.

University of Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan speaks to the media. (James Wooldridge, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

A not-so-random sampling of Pac-12 athletic directors reveals concern over swift approval of the College Football Playoff expansion proposal.

At least, there is initial concern.

Ultimately, the Pac-12 might support the move to a 12-team format as early as the 2023 season.

But more information is needed and time is short:

On Sept. 28, the 11 university presidents who oversee the CFP will meet with conference commissioners to determine the next move.

"Until there are solutions to the riddles, I'm not comfortable moving forward," Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said. "For the conference and for Utah, (expansion) seems better, but there are critical questions."

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is currently touring the campuses and engaging key administrators on a bevy of momentous issues facing college sports, including playoff expansion.

Kliavkoff plans to complete his listening tour before the CFP meeting on Sept. 28.

There are seemingly three tracks:

  1. Approve the 12-team proposal for the 2023 season.
  2. Approve the 12-team proposal for the 2026 season.
  3. Hit the brakes and allow other options — specifically an eight-team model — to be fully vetted by every conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Expansion requires a unanimous vote of the 11 presidents (one from each of the 10 FBS leagues and Notre Dame).

"It's something that's on the table, but I think we need to be thoughtful about it and make sure we get the timing right,'' Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. "That's an important piece."

The Hotline sought context on the issue from Mullens, Harlan and Colorado's Rick George for specific reasons.

  • Mullens recently served as the chair of the CFP selection committee.
  • George is currently on the selection committee. He agreed to offer a personal opinion on expansion but was not speaking as a representative of the CFP itself.
  • Harlan represents the Pac-12 on the all-important NCAA Football Oversight Committee (FOC), which shapes policy for the sport. Like George, Harlan emphasized that he was offering a personal view and not, in his case, speaking for the FOC. (The committee has no oversight of the playoff.)

"I'm a strong supporter of expansion," Harlan said. "It's a way to improve a great game and give more teams access to the championship.

"My concern, although the work (on the 12-team format) was done by people I have great respect for — and they provided a great road map — but I think there are more questions to be answered.

"What's the impact on the bowl system? Within the bowl issue is the Rose Bowl. And how would the extra games affect the student-athletes? I think we need a deeper dive."

The 12-team, four-round format was put forward in June by a four-man working group that spent two years evaluating model and crafting a proposal.

Key elements include:

  • The six highest-ranked conference champions would receive automatic bids.
  • The top four teams would have byes into the quarterfinals.
  • The opening round (No. 5 vs. No. 12, No. 6 vs. No. 11, etc.) would be played on the campus of the higher seed, with the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship at neutral sites.

An appearance in the title game for any of the No. 5 through 12 seeds would mean a 17-game season: 12 in the regular season plus the conference championship and four rounds in the playoff.

"I'm not sure 12 is the number I would choose,'' George said. "It's too many games. We're collecting information and at some point, the conference will come out with a decision. But I'm not sure 12 is right."

The 12-team model appeared inevitable when it first went public in June. But then Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC, the Pac-12 formed the alliance with the ACC and Big Ten, and the dynamics shifted.

Administrators in many conferences are leery of any steps that would grant more influence to the SEC. But ESPN's hegemony over the sport's biggest event is a greater concern.

The network currently owns the rights to the CFP through the 2025 season. Any expansion prior to that point would prevent an open-bidding process with other networks (Fox, CBS, etc) that could drive up the price.

Hence the conundrum for the Pac-12:

Its long-haul financial interests are best served by waiting for the current contract to expire: More bidders would mean more cash.

But its near-term competitive interests demand the event expand as soon as possible: Greater access would bolster recruiting and fan interest.

"The goal of the new format is more participation,'' said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the CFP.

Harlan believes an eight-team model should be fully vetted by all parties involved.

Campus officials did not see details of the 12-format until it was made public in June. At that point, the CFP allocated several months for the commissioners to discuss the plan with their constituents.

But instead of final approval being a formality at the Sept. 28 meeting, it now appears the process could stall.

"The subcommittee came up with a lot of great concepts, but when you find out the same day it goes public, you need to allow us time,'' Harlan said.

"Has eight been fully vetted? I'm intrigued by eight. Is there a more minimalistic effect on the bowls? I think we need to look at what the postseason looks like for those teams not in the CFP."

In addition to the crucial issues of timing (i.e., the ESPN exclusivity factor) and the wear and tear on players, several other elements are giving campus and conference officials pause:

  • The lack of home games for the top four seeds, which receive byes into the quarterfinals at neutral sites.
  • The fate of the Rose Bowl, which could lose its longstanding Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup.
  • The decision to grant automatic bids to the six highest-ranked conference champions (out of 10 conferences).

"Of all the things I read when the road map was laid out, that caught my attention the most, because didn't expect it,'' Harlan said.

"I think if you win a (Power Five) conference, you deserve an automatic bid. I've heard the arguments from the other side about where the conference champions would have to be ranked.

"But there are a lot of benefits to a conference knowing that if you win the championship, an automatic bid would be there."

With an automatic bid awaiting the champion regardless of its loss total, teams might be willing to play more difficult non-conference schedules that would create additional TV revenue and ticket sales.

"I don't have a preferred number," Mullens said of the various formats. "The key is making it happen the right way for all of college football."


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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