CFP expansion options, explained: Where leaders stand on 16-, 12- and 8-team fields

It’s time to talk College Football Playoff expansion once again.

After a brief hiatus following the breakdown of expansion talks last winter, college football commissioners are ready to wade back into the waters. They know that the current CFP deal expires at the end of the 2025-26 football season, and that any commitment to the four-team format ends at the same time. Nothing rolls over. The commissioners must come up with something in the next few years to create a meaningful postseason for teams to play in at that point.

The 10 FBS conference commissioners met in Park City, Utah, earlier this summer for what has been described by sources as a very productive meeting. (One said it was the group’s “best” meeting yet.) Some of the issues that held up expansion last winter remain — the number of automatic qualifiers vs. the number of at-large spots, the role of bowl games, etc. — but the level of cooperation needed to move forward will soon change. Breaking existing contracts to expand the Playoff prior to 2026 required unanimity among the league representatives (plus Notre Dame), but creating a new contract for 2026 and beyond does not. Essentially, the majority rules. If a league doesn’t like the CFP format, it will either have to suck it up and be part of it … or it will not be part of the marquee postseason event.

Last year’s expansion talks centered on a 12-team proposal that included spots for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large selections, with first-round byes for the top four seeds. It was recommended by a four-person working group that included SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson.

But with a clean slate comes new ideas. Conversations regarding CFP expansion have also included the possibility of a 16-team field, which would bring more games and provide greater value to potential media partners than an eight- or 12-team model. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN at SEC media days that he’d “heard increased chatter about 16 teams becoming a discussion point.”

But nothing is close to being formalized or decided yet. It doesn’t have to be.

Former Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who serves as the Big Ten’s special advisor for football, told The Athletic on Tuesday that he thinks that a 16-team model “makes sense” but that he’s open-minded as long as the format is bigger than it is now.

“It’s important that we expand and have access for more teams,” Alvarez said. “So, whether that’s eight, 12 or 16, I just think it’s important that we move forward.”

Author: Lucy Green