How the College Football Playoff finally decided to expand — and what comes next

  • College football reporter
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
  • Graduate of Indiana University

MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was driving to Western Michigan’s season opener at Michigan State when he received an urgent text message from University at Buffalo president Satish Tripathi.

“Call me.”

Steinbrecher pulled over so his wife could drive, got out his laptop and called Tripathi, one of 11 university presidents and chancellors whose historic, unanimous vote on Sept. 2 will expand the four-team College Football Playoff to a 12-team field in 2026 — if not sooner. Steinbrecher had already prepared the schools in his conference for the possibility of playoff expansion, but on that Friday afternoon, more than a year of speculation became reality.

During a Zoom meeting that day, which lasted just shy of an hour, the CFP’s board of managers fast-tracked a process that had sputtered and stuttered through back-to-back tumultuous summers of conference realignment and leadership changes at the highest level. Weary of waiting for the commissioners to put aside their political posturing and overcome mistrust that became prevalent with conference realignment, the 11 presidents and chancellors representing all 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame accomplished what the commissioners could not — unanimity for a 12-team format.

After learning the details over the phone from Tripathi, Steinbrecher hit send on an email to his conference schools confirming the biggest change to the sport’s postseason since the end of the BCS.

“I thought going into that meeting there was a strong likelihood they were going to approve it,” Steinbrecher said. “We’ve really not been that far apart. I think they sensed an opportunity.”

The chain of command was telling, as the near-decade history of the CFP had details hashed out by the commissioners and approved by the presidents. But much had changed since an 8-3 vote in February, when the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 said no to expanding the playoff, and the presidents and commissioners jointly stated the CFP would remain at four teams for four more years. Led by Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, the group was incentivized to move quickly by learning it might still be possible for Atlanta and Miami to host an expanded playoff as soon as 2024 — an opportunity that reopened the door to roughly $450 million in potential gross revenue.

While money can be a powerful motivator, so can change and peer pressure. The presidents met multiple times this summer with a new university president, Ohio State’s Kristina Johnson, now representing the Big Ten. Following the pending additions of USC and UCLA, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the conference “softened” its stance on automatic qualifiers, which had been a sticking point in previous discussions. With each videoconference of the summer, the consensus began to grow.

“Instead of saying, ‘It’s inevitable that we are going to do this,’ we are going to do this,” said Keenum, the chair of the board. “We are the governing board, and we’re making that decision — this is what the future of the College Football Playoff will look like, and here’s our desire to start it in 2024 if at all possible. We needed to give that message as clearly as we could to the commissioners.”

The presidents ultimately rubber-stamped the same 12-team proposal that was made public in June 2021, but pushed the grunt work back to the commissioners.

“That was jet fuel for us to be able to get around the table,” Warren said of the presidents’ vote.

The CFP’s management committee, composed of the 11 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, is meeting in person at the Big Ten offices in Rosemont, Illinois, this week — their second in-person meeting this month. They will meet again in Dallas in late October, hoping to know by then if the playoff can expand early. Five on-campus focus groups have been created to give CFP officials feedback about logistics.

That the CFP is even reconsidering 2024 and 2025 is another sharp turn in what has played out publicly as a puzzling process. Now, the remaining drama — when does the playoff actually expand? — has to overcome the same bureaucracy, conference politics and commissioner infighting that forced the presidents to hijack the process.

THE TIMELINE OF the presidents’ behind-the-scenes conversations was accelerated when the Big Ten rocked the sport in June by adding USC and UCLA for 2024. It became obvious the obstacles the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 commissioners had repeatedly outlined — automatic qualifiers, the calendar, revenue sharing — were either performative or frivolous.

“At some point,” a source said, “the bulls— starts to crumble.”

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