ROSEMONT, Ill. — In what is likely his final few months as director of the College Football Playoff, Bill Hancock is faced with one of the most vexing and unusual situations of his 18 years presiding over the industry’s postseason.
A 108-year-old power conference crumbled before his very eyes.
“Weird. Unthinkable,” he said Wednesday. “It’s totally weird, and everybody knows it.”
What might come next is even weirder: The conference’s two remaining members are rising from the Pac-12’s ashes, exploring ways to operate as a two-school conference — a move that creates a quandary for CFP leaders.
“Can you think of any precedent?” asked Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who sits on the 11-member CFP Management Committee with the 10 FBS commissioners.
For the second time in a month, CFP leaders delayed any decision — or even discussion — on a potential change to the CFP format that would correlate with the loss of a Power Five league, instead spending the past two days focused on a future media rights package. They are expected to meet again later this fall, when the format discussion will unfold, Hancock said.
Officials continue to wait for more clarity as Washington State and Oregon State explore the possibility of operating as a two-school conference for the next two years, using an NCAA grace period to do so.
“Until we know for sure how many conferences we’ll have, we can’t say how many conference champions will be in the playoff,” Hancock said.
A format change is very much still on the table, CFP executives say. In fact, a majority of the 11 members of the CFP Management Committee support a switch from a 6+6 format to a 5+7 model. The 6+6 format, approved last year, grants automatic qualifiers to the six highest-ranked conference champions and at-large berths to the next six highest-ranked teams. The format is to be used for 2024 and 2025. There is no contract beyond the 2025 season.
In light of a realignment wave that has left a power league crippled (the Pac-12), commissioners are considering subtracting one automatic qualifying spot (moving from six to five) and adding one at-large spot (from six to seven) to make a 5+7 model.
Beyond the uncertainty in the West, there are other hurdles. Notably, the change needs unanimity among the group.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco will not vote for the format change unless CFP executives present a compromise, such as a long-term guarantee for Group of Five access, he told Yahoo Sports in an interview Wednesday.
The CFP’s existence spans just two more years. There is no binding agreement after the 2025 football season for both a playoff format and a television contract. There is fear among some at the Group of Five level that they might lose automatic access to future playoffs starting in 2026.
“We’ve got to have access,” Aresco said. “That’s where we draw the line. Without five [AQs] in the future, after 2025, you’re not going to have access necessarily. I would think the Big 12 and others are concerned about that, too.
“I’d talk to my membership if there’s some compromise offered. We haven’t discussed it yet. It’s hard right now because nobody knows what’s going on with the Mountain West.”
Aresco anticipates that the two remaining Pac-12 schools will eventually, in some way, merge with the Mountain West. The lingering uncertainty is causing a delay in any deep discussion on a format.
“We need more information,” Swarbrick said. “I know it’s of public interest. There’s nobody in the room saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to have this discussion right now.’”
In fact, a discussion on a format could extend well into next year, Hancock said. He suggested that officials could wait until the middle of the 2024 season to make the change for the 2024 playoff.
Ambiguity around the Pac-12 situation has created murky waters in the CFP room.
The two schools are using an NCAA grace period in an attempt to retain the Pac-12 brand and eventually rebuild the league and keep millions of dollars in assets — from NCAA basketball tournament shares, bowl contracts and reserves. According to NCAA bylaw 20.02.9.2, a conference shall continue to be considered an FBS league for two years after it drops below the eight-team threshold.
If the Pac-12 remains a two-school league for at least the next two years, it complicates any format change. CFP officials would have to determine if a two-school conference’s champion qualifies for an automatic bid. “That is yet to be determined,” Hancock said.
Revenue-sharing is another piece entirely.
For the next two years, WSU and OSU are fighting to keep their individual school revenue distribution that the CFP allots to members of Power Five leagues, but that will be subject to “serious discussion,” Aresco said. “If you suddenly take a group of schools that weren’t around and say they are, that’s going to have to be discussed in a serious way.”
Hancock said he “suspects” the CFP would grant WSU and OSU the same grace period as the NCAA, but executives have not discussed the matter.
Making the situation even more awkward is the fact that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, being sued by his remaining two schools, continues to remain on the CFP Management Committee, and WSU president Kirk Schulz is the Pac-12 representative on the CFP Board of Managers — a powerful position with the ability to block decisions around format and revenue-sharing changes.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports last month, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said all three facets of the CFP should be reexamined in light of realignment: the weighted decision-making process, the revenue distribution model and the format.
As for a format change, a 5+7 model preserves at least one spot for a Group of Five champion and honors what MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher describes as the “bedrock principle” of the expanded playoff: the value of conference champions. Applying a 5+7 format over the previous decade produces interesting results. The SEC and Big Ten dominate the field. Between them, they would’ve accounted for 73 of the 120 spots (61%) in a 12-team playoff. The latest realignment has left a weakened Group of Five. In four of the 10 years, the Group of Five auto bid would’ve gone to a team ranked No. 19 or worse in a 5+7 model.
In a 6+6 format, an unranked Group of Five team, in many years, would get the sixth auto-bid.
“We’d like to keep the 6+6 for two years. Why wouldn’t we?” Aresco told Yahoo Sports. “We’d have two automatics for our group.”
Not everyone agrees. Aresco is the only one of the 11 to publicly speak out against an immediate change to the format.
Asked about it Wednesday, Swarbrick waved off the question.
“We have to wait ’til the Pac-12 resolves itself,” he said. “I don’t want to deal with a hypothetical.”
Some of this could have been avoided. The 6+6 expanded playoff format was introduced in June 2021. Commissioners squabbled for 16 months, only to approve the very same model that was introduced, a delay mostly from members of the Alliance, a verbal agreement among the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten that unceremoniously ended when the Big Ten acquired USC and UCLA.
If the model had been approved earlier — in January 2022, as many originally expected — this year’s postseason could’ve been a 12-team playoff, Hancock said.
“It could have been cool,” he noted.
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