It’s officially official. The College Football Playoff won’t be expanding. The working group’s recommendation from the Summer of 2021 that the Playoff be expanded to twelve teams, including the top six ranked conference champions was too good to be true. Under that model, the AAC could have had a team in the CFP as often as they do in the New Year’s Six. That’s almost every year, at this point. Now, it’s not to be.
What’s shocking about the decision not to expand is that expansion is best for everyone. The PAC-12 has had two teams get in, ever. If Clemson is taking a step back in the ACC, then that conference has nobody else who is close to getting in. Expansion is in Notre Dame’s best interest. It is also, without a doubt, in the AAC and the Group of Five’s best interest to expand the Playoff to twelve teams with an auto-bid for the non-autonomous conferences.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco knows this as well as anyone. He recently made a public push for Playoff expansion. Aresco actually penned an open letter to college football on the topic, saying, “The Working Group’s proposal was the product of two years of research, analysis, and debate. It was presented after careful examination of many different formats and chosen because it best addresses the longstanding issues while providing a logical and exciting path to a national championship for teams that truly will have earned the right to participate. Notwithstanding the financial benefits inherent in such an expansion, the proposal further adds interest and importance to far more regular-season games and to conference championship games, and, at its core, is grounded in basic tenets of fairness and common sense. Collegiate constituencies, fans, the media and the general public have welcomed this plan. However, in recent months the process has slowed, several obstacles have emerged, and there is considerable doubt that an expanded playoff format can be adopted and implemented as early as the 2024 season, or perhaps at all in the future.”
That letter from Aresco tried to point out that the challenges and differences of opinion are manageable. He was trying to sound hopeful. Less than a week later, that hope is dead through 2026.
The simple truth is that once Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC, everyone lost their minds. This set off another round of realignment, which has sent shockwaves through the Group of Five. In particular, the AAC lost its three top programs and added six C-USA programs. This change really panicked the P5 commissioners outside of the SEC. They were afraid to lose influence and power, so they wanted to block expansion, simply because it was largely designed by Greg Sankey of the SEC.
So, they wanted it designed in their image. No matter what, mind you, the SEC would come out on top and have the most power and influence. No matter the design, the SEC will have the most teams in the Playoff. This year, they controlled the championship game itself, while three P5 conferences watched from home. In other words, the only reason to shoot down a good model for you, if you’re the PAC-12 for instance, is your ego got in the way. Remember, the PAC-12 has been to the Playoff twice, ever. A twelve team model guarantees them an annual slot.
The ACC also had major issues, and ultimately Jim Phillips was the only commissioner completely against expansion. He’s against expansion as Clemson is taking a step backwards and the rest of the conference is rolling in the mud. A lot of people think this is his attempt to strong arm Notre Dame into joining the ACC, which won’t work. Either way, he’s ultimately why the details of expansion can’t be worked out right now.
These P5 commissioners are hurting themselves, obviously. This decision is also devastating for the AAC. Think about what’s happened to the AAC since this summer. First, because of conference realignment, the AAC lost its three best programs, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. If you think your team is actually one of the three best, and they’re not one of those three, you’re wrong. If your team was one of the best, they’d be moving to the Big 12. In response to losing those teams, the AAC expanded to fourteen teams by adding six C-USA schools. Those schools are FAU, Charlotte, UAB, UTSA, Rice, and North Texas.
Make no mistake, the AAC just got a lot weaker. Its perception is going to be hurt. It’s also a bad time for that because the Sun Belt is getting really good right now. With Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, App State, and now an expanded field of schools, they could pass the AAC in terms of perception. That means the AAC could lose its stranglehold on the New Year’s Six soon.
At the same time, one of those teams leaving the AAC, Cincinnati, just played in the College Football Playoff. UCF, who should have made the College Football Playoff, is leaving. Houston, who had an outside shot of making the Playoff is leaving. No one else has come close in the AAC. So, if making the Playoff is still the goal, you’ve lost anyone who has shown any ability to do that.
Now, obviously, the AAC needs tons of outside help to make the CFP. They need help from failures in other conferences and they need multiple years of success in a row to do so. But, losing any team that has shown that ability is massive. Expansion would have made it easier for someone like Memphis to put themselves in position to make the CFP, but they have no shot in a four team model.
The expanded model would have set the AAC up nicely. Now, over a challenging few months to the conference’s future, the AAC has suffered another blow.