LOS ANGELES — Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is so bullish on College Football Playoff expansion that he told ESPN on Friday he potentially sees the format changing before the current contracts ends following the 2025 season.
“I’m really confident that we’re going to expand the College Football Playoff,” Kliavkoff told ESPN. “It actually wouldn’t surprise me once we agree on the format, if it happens before the end of the current term. Once you agree to the format, why wouldn’t you?”
Kliavkoff’s comments are counter to the notion populated by the College Football Playoff board of managers in February that the format would not expand until a new format is put in place for the 2026 season. Others expressed skepticism at the timeline, considering that an expansion decision would need to be made in the upcoming months. Among the skeptics is SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who told ESPN that “it appears pretty clear to me” that the CFP format won’t change before the current contract expires.
“They had made the decision that this would not happen during the 12-year cycle and they voted that way,” Sankey said. “So it appears pretty clear to me despite what may have been said at microphones this week and last week.”
The next CFP meeting is in mid-August via Zoom, sources told ESPN, and there’s another planned a month later.
Kliavkoff’s optimism is based on the tenor of the most recent CFP meeting in Park City, Utah, last month. “[It was] the most productive CFP meeting I’ve been in. I’m incredibly optimistic that we’re actually going to get there.”
Can that lead to a new format before the end of the current contract? That would require unanimous approval, which is always tricky in a room with so many dynamics and stakeholders.
“We’re closer than we ever have been to agreeing to a format,” Kliavkoff said. “The lack of agreement about a format held us back from doing it quickly, as opposed to slowly.
“I said it back when we originally met on this. Once you agree to a format, you can shoehorn that into the existing contract. If we agree on what it looks like past the existing contract, why wouldn’t you try and do it quicker?”
In the fall, there was discussion about expanding the playoff field as early as 2024 or 2025, but the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 ultimately voted against it in January and February for various reasons. In order for it to still happen before the current, 12-year contract expires after the 2025 season, CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN, “many, many details would have to be worked out.”
“We’ll have to see,” Hancock said. “There’s a lot more talk ahead.” Hancock said the commissioners haven’t talked about playoff expansion since June and the presidents and chancellors haven’t discussed it since May.
“The board and the management committee will discuss the format when the time comes,” Hancock said. “I do feel like the commissioners were more open to change and collaborative when they met in June than they were in February.”
Sankey, when asked directly if the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC changed their minds if the SEC would be willing to vote in favor of playoff expansion, said, “I’m really interested in what people say in meeting rooms, not at media days.”
“They certainly spoke loudly and clearly, repeatedly,” Sankey said of ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and Kliavkoff. “I don’t just take statements from the past couple of weeks as clear indications of direction. Those kinds of public statements have been made before that ultimately resulted in a standstill. I’ll be interested to see how people actually approach it when we have to talk through important issues.”
Hancock said the June meeting didn’t include any talk about a potential 16-team format, and the conversation was more philosophical than it was “in the weeds” about a format. The commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick initially liked the concept of rewarding the top four teams with a bye in the 12-team format — something that would be lost with a 16-team field.
Swarbrick didn’t rule out the possibility of a sped-up timeline for a new CFP, but said it would be difficult to expand the field during the current contract.
“I think the calendar is the obstacle,” Swarbrick said. “I can see the intent being there, but it’s not easy. It’s so dependent on the size of the playoff.”
Swarbrick was one of the authors of the original 12-team proposal, along with Sankey, outgoing Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Swarbrick said the reason they favored 12 over 16 was because “we loved the byes.”
“We loved how that rewarded teams,” he said, adding that any discussions he’s been a part of regarding a 16-team field to this point have been “very conceptual.”
Sankey said he was very clear in January that if “people walked away, our views would be reconsidered and reevaluated, and that’s certainly the case.” He added that at the very least, he’s interested in his colleague’s perspectives.
“We’ll have to understand what the format is, what the elements of format are going to be — all of these little issues that caused people to take a position,” he said.
Kliavkoff noted that he hasn’t dove into the details on the impact of television contracts. One of the likely steps in the next playoff, as it evolved from four teams, will be multiple television partners. Right now, ESPN owns all the rights to the four-team playoff. Fox would be the expected favorite to join ESPN in the bidding, as the CFP aims to potentially model its postseason after the NFL’s and have multiple rights holders.
What that formally looks like still hasn’t been decided, but the notion of a potential 16-game playoff continues to be perpetuated. Kliavkoff mentioned the dynamic in the room changing now that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is expected to tamp down his demand for automatic qualifiers, one of the key stumbling blocks for the 12-team playoff. He also mentioned one of the ACC’s issues — a 365-day calendar review — is underway and likely to be resolved.
“I’m in favor of expanding the College Football Playoff,” Kliavkoff said. “I don’t have particular issues between 12 and 16. I understand the arguments for and against.”
He added: “It’ll be interesting now that I think Kevin is backing away from his demand for automatic qualifiers. I’m willing to go into the room and listen.”
That 16-team idea likely brings with it calendar issues, as Swarbrick mentioned, and the likely debate of whether leagues would potentially eliminate their conference title games in favor of that weekend being reserved for the first weekend of the playoff. That would likely require a lot of contractual gymnastics and financial accommodations for those whose league title games are worth the most money.
But the idea, for example, of Ohio State playing Michigan to close the season, then playing USC in the league title game and embarking from there on a potential four-game playoff run is a daunting one. Kliavkoff said he plans to continue to stump for the Rose Bowl, even in the wake of the Big Ten poaching two of the Pac-12’s most valuable brands. The Rose Bowl has long been a contract between the Big Ten and Pac-12.
“Three hours every three years for the Rose Bowl,” Kliavkoff said. “We’re 100 percent committed. It’s important. It’s part of the history and tradition of college athletics. When we start throwing out traditions for money, that’s when we get ourselves in trouble. It’s not a big ask.”
Kliavkoff wouldn’t respond to the quotes from Warren from Big Ten media days that the two hadn’t spoken since the Big Ten broke the Alliance between three leagues by taking two of the Pac-12’s schools.
“I’m not talking about who I talked to and who I didn’t talk to,” he said.