Inside the College Football Playoff expansion stalemate, and what comes next

INDIANAPOLIS -- On the eve of the College Football Playoff's national title game, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby were sitting next to each other during yet another lengthy meeting about playoff expansion, aligned in their support for the 12-team proposal that they had spent almost two years working to create. Then, before the meeting ended, Bowlsby abruptly left the room.

"I knew it wasn't a bathroom break when he took his briefcase with him," Swarbrick quipped.

Bowlsby and Swarbrick -- along with Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey -- developed the 12-team model that has been picked apart, turned upside down and pieced back together since it was made public on June 10.

"Have you seen the movie 'Groundhog's Day'?" Bowlsby asked dryly following the third straight day of meetings in Indy that totaled about 15 hours and amounted to no change to the current four-team field.

Seven months and nine in-person meetings after revealing the proposal that was initially applauded by fans, coaches, media and others who follow the sport and have long clamored for a more expansive CFP system, those who created the plan and publicized it have been unable to implement it. The entire process of expanding the playoff has been called into question, and feelings of frustration and anger have boiled over as commissioners refuse to budge on various points. They all agree the playoff should be expanded -- they just can't unanimously agree what it should look like or when it should begin.

"When everybody in the room favors expansion," Swarbrick said, "we have to be able to find a way -- at least by the next term -- to have an expansion model we can get agreement around."

How it evolved from celebration to stalemate can be traced back to arguably the most tumultuous summer in the history of college athletics. Why the bickering and second-guessing have continued for months, though, has many puzzled. Some longtime athletic administrators have said privately they've never seen anything like the pervasive amount of mistrust, or the inability to come to a consensus.

The question now is, what comes next?

If the format is going to change before the current 12-year deal expires following the 2025 season, those involved must unanimously agree to it. The ACC might have delivered the knockout blow to that early timeline on Friday, when commissioner Jim Phillips stated publicly for the first time that "now is not the right time to expand the College Football Playoff." The reality is no single person or conference has derailed expansion, though the spotlight is now on the Big Ten and ACC commissioners, who have both publicly dug their heels in on their leagues' respective playoff positions. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren remains steadfast in his belief that the Power 5 conference champions deserve a guaranteed spot in an expanded playoff -- a view vehemently opposed by many others in the room.

Some involved still haven't given up on the power of persuasion to get it done as early as the 2024 or 2025 season, though the prospects of that happening are continuously shrinking. The CFP's management committee, which is composed of the 10 FBS commissioners and Swarbrick, has met in Dallas, Chicago and Indianapolis -- and will bring it full circle again to Dallas in four to six weeks to continue the discussions.

The commissioners know time is running out.

"I think we're in a nine-overtime contest," Sankey said. "And none of us can accomplish a 2-point conversion right now. Eventually, even that game ended. So there's an opportunity here, but I think we all -- including me, including us -- will have to look circumspectly at our positions."

ESPN spoke with a majority of management committee members and CFP executive director Bill Hancock to explain how a once-celebrated plan unraveled but still remains a goal, and how it might be salvaged.

How we got here