Lack of leadership again stings college football as divided interests squash playoff expansion


We’re owed an apology. All of us. The fans, the public — gosh, maybe even the unwashed media who staked out countless hotel lobbies in the rush to first learn about College Football Playoff expansion. All of it netted, well, nothing. At least for now.

This long, protracted, overwrought journey to CFP expansion officially died Friday. (At least for the next few years.) But considering the way in which we were led to this point, it has largely been a waste of time — a big tease. Blame will be assigned, and it deserves to be.

Four administrators were given a good-faith task in January 2019 to explore CFP expansion beyond the current four-team format. We now know that expansion won’t happen until the fall of 2026 at the earliest. That is not necessarily their fault.

If it comes, expansion will arrive 7 ½ years after that initial assignment to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and commissioners Greg Sankey of the SEC, Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12 and Craig Thompson of the Mountain West.

In the three years since the four were given the assignment by the CFP Board of Managers (school presidents), there have been dramatic changes to the college football landscape. The Big Ten and ACC changed commissioners, Oklahoma and Texas (most notably among others) changed conferences, and the NCAA retreated to a neutral corner undone by its lack of foresight in, well, everything.

By Aug. 1, when a new NCAA constitution goes into effect, there is every reason to believe the NCAA will be nothing more than a glorified party planner each March with its basketball tournament. It will be up to the Power Five to take over what we refer to as “major-college sports”.

We need to first find out how many teams will actually be in the FBS going forward. That was part of the ACC’s stance in delaying expansion and calling for a 365-day “holistic review” of the sport. It was also what basically caused Bowlsby to storm out of the last CFP meeting last month.

But is any of that even a discussion if Oklahoma and Texas don’t place a call to the SEC last year? Of course not. When word leaked of their interest in the SEC on July 21, 2021, it marked a serendipitous anniversary.

Exactly one month before, those stakeholders proposed, in detail, their 12-team playoff. It was well-received.

We’re left with a distressing reminder about college football’s aching lack of leadership.

Forget the expansion malaise for a moment. Two years ago, we were just wading into COVID-19. Conferences couldn’t decide when or if to play, how or how much to test. In the middle of the pandemic, at least two schools — Tennessee and Arizona State — were allegedly flying in recruits thereby violating NCAA rules. If the allegations are true, those programs were certainly pushing up against ethical, moral and medical boundaries.

Blame all of them. Blame none of them. There are no apologies coming.

There are certainties that won’t go away in four years if and when the CFP gets bigger.

Expansion or not, the SEC and Big Ten run the sport. “Everything else is expendable,” one high-ranking administrator told CBS Sports. None of that is a surprise. The SEC and Big Ten have the best combination of brands on the planet this side of the NFL. The Big Ten footprint encompasses a quarter of the United States population. The SEC runs the sport any way you want to look at it.

They both have monster TV deals about to kick off. The SEC’s starts in 2024. Sports Business Journal reported this week the Big Ten might become the first league worth $1 billion a year when its new deal — yet to be negotiated — hits in 2023.

If all this nonsense isn’t solved, the SEC and Big Ten could go off on their own and crown their own national champion. Everyone else can go fish. They’ve got the best and biggest brands, and combined, they’ve won 15 of the last 19 national championships.

If fans think that dominance is going to change, it’s not. One stakeholder in the process said they wished Alabama good luck in the next four CFP National Championships. That was a snarky reference to business as usual. If you’re tired of the SEC dominating the CFP, get used to it. Status will remain quo.

The existing issues won’t go away. By 2026, athletes might be employees. Collective bargaining sessions might be covered like MLB vs. the MLBPA. Anyone for the NCAA Players Union Channel?

By that year, the CFP itself is likely to be more responsible for running the sport. With the windfall of expansion, billions will come along with more scrutiny from Congress and a possible mandate to fund postgraduate health insurance. The pressure will be there with teams possibly playing 17 games per season.

In this process, no one foresaw the ACC — with new commissioner Jim Phillips — waiting until the NCAA straightens itself out before committing to expansion. (Spoiler: The NCAA isn’t going to straighten itself out anytime soon.)

Name, image and likeness rights? Here to stay, in some form. Transfer portal? Same thing. Try to roll that sucker back, and an antitrust lawsuit is waiting to be filed.

“If we can’t make decisions because of uncertainty, we will never make decisions,” Sankey said last month.

No one foresaw a new Big Ten commissioner, Kevin Warren, as part of the expansion stonewall. Warren supports an automatic berth for his champion, which means a 9-4 Big Ten team could play for a national championship. It also means a network bidding on Big Ten rights may be whispering to Warren about the worth of his conference title game. It goes up if the winner automatically advances to the CFP. (Another spoiler: The Big Ten champion is going to be in a 12-team CFP 99% of the time.)

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is one of the smartest guys in the room as a rookie. He must also know CFP expansion is the life preserver his conference desperately needs.

By 2026, there is likely to be another lineup of administrators running the sport. Bowlsby is 70. Thompson is 65. Swarbrick is 67. CFP executive director Bill Hancock is 71. Their replacements could have a different outlook. Certainly, they will inherit a different NCAA.

The CFP has worked. Through eight years of its existence, the right teams have gotten in. There has been little to no controversy. Never mind there being way too much hand-wringing over the Tuesday night rankings reveal.

It’s not the Super Bowl, but it’s darn close.

Think of a 12-team bracket that would conceivably go from coast to coast. Think of a tournament that lasts from mid-December to late January.

Think long in the future. Sadly, none of it is coming for four more years. At least.

“I think we missed an opportunity,” a CFP source said.

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