Sources: 14-team College Football Playoff has 'momentum'

'It's awful!' Kornheiser and Wilbon hate idea of 14-team playoff (1:52)

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are not fans of a potential 14-team playoff in college football. (1:52)

The future of the College Football Playoff contract after the 2025 season remains uncertain, with executive director Bill Hancock saying last week there's a "need" for the deal to be done in the next month.

Since its inception in 2014, when it created a four-team model for a sport with five major conferences, the CFP has been unwieldy and awkward.

The only certainty has been a slow pace, turf squabbles and an unstable conference environment that has kept everything fluid.

But as Hancock's one-month deadline of mid-March looms, there's optimism and "momentum" for a 14-team playoff starting in 2026, sources told ESPN. There is an effort to come to an agreement in the coming weeks, sources said, but nothing is certain, and there are potential roadblocks and expected push back -- as evidenced by the CFP's own meandering path to a 12-team playoff.

The television side of the deal has already been agreed to in principle. Starting in 2026, ESPN is poised to spend an average of nearly $1.3 billion on the playoff for six seasons.

That leaves the CFP's two leadership groups -- the board of managers (presidents and chancellors) and management committee (commissioners and Notre Dame leadership) -- to come to a decision on the format to get the deal done.

The goal is for all the commissioners to reconvene next week via video conferencing to further discuss things, sources told ESPN.

"There's a lot of pressure to get it done or stop talking about it," one source said.

Another source summed the cautious optimism of cohesion in the group this way: "The balance in the room is how to recognize contributions of the Big Ten and SEC while also being fair and collaborative to the collective room."

There's three major issues going forward -- access through automatic qualification, division of money and how the group will be governed.

Sources caution that the discussions are ongoing and fluid, and there's still work being done on these three major issues. This is where things currently stand, with sources saying things could change.


The expected boost in automatic qualification spots so soon after the start of the five AQ spots in the 12-team playoff that starts this season is a nod to changing conference dynamics.

According to sources, the model that's earned the most discussion coming out of the CFP meeting in Dallas is one that would include three automatic qualifier spots for the Big Ten and SEC, two for the Big 12 and ACC and one for the Group of Five. That would leave three at-large spots in that 14-team model.

As for Notre Dame, sources told ESPN that the most likely option being discussed is that the Fighting Irish would earn a spot in the 14-team CFP if the selection committee ranks them in the top 14 on Selection Day.

Sources caution there are other models being discussed, and there needs to be a deeper discussion about how strength of schedule would factor into the 3/3, 2/2 ,1 and 3 model. The CFP isn't locked into that model, and still has a ways to go.

There has not been significant modeling done yet by Hancock and CFP officials as to how these models would have unfolded in the CFP era. If things change from the AQ distribution that's been most discussed, it may be because of what modeling would show the outcomes could look like in the upcoming years. Any exercise is difficult, however, because no one knows what a 16-team SEC and 18-team Big Ten are going to look like at the end of the season.

By adding strong programs and weakening other leagues, it's difficult to project what upcoming years will look like in the SEC and Big Ten. The potential of SEC and Big Ten teams being displaced from the top 14 -- as they have 34 teams and a majority of the title-contending programs -- is real and will be examined more in the upcoming weeks.

How would that work? Essentially, a team ranked No. 13 or No. 14, for example, could end up getting bumped by the Group of Five winner or second-place ACC or Big 12 team in a year when the league has a runaway winner and not a clear second choice. There is also the possibility, though, that the Big Ten and SEC's fourth-best teams -- and potentially fifth -- would find a landing spot in the CFP through one of those three at-large spots.

The modeling is tricky, as college sports remain a moving target. This ESPN deal would run through the 2031 season, and it's naïve to think the conference map will look the same as it does today. One high-ranking official involved in the discussions told ESPN on Wednesday that the presidents and chancellors in both the SEC and Big Ten are having conversations about whether to continue their NCAA membership. It's a move that would impact and could possibly derail the TV agreement.

"Those conversations are happening," the source said, adding some feel "pretty strongly about pulling away. I'd say very strongly."

ESPN reported earlier this month that Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti mentioned in a meeting this fall about the potential of an expanded playoff.

All CFP politics are local, and Petitti's chair is easy to understand. He has an 18-team league with four new teams -- USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA. Two of those four -- Oregon and Washington -- took part in the CFP as Pac-12 members in the past decade. USC has won a national title on the field since the turn of the century.

Petitti values the way that automatic qualification games could could add meaning and interest late in the regular season -- similar to the NFL. College football fans will need to be conditioned to the fact that a three-loss team with a rigorous strength of schedule can still make the playoff after generations where perfection or near-perfection was essentially required.


There's some leg work to go on the finances and how they are divided, but the picture is getting clearer if a 14-team model passes.

In the old model, about 80% of the CFP revenue went to the Power 5, while 20% has been allocated to the Group of 5. According to the most recent data from the CFP, each of the Power 5 conferences received $79.41 million -- a total of almost $400 million -- in the spring of 2023. The Group of 5 conferences shared $102.77 million. Notre Dame received a payment of $3.89 million by meeting the NCAA's APR standard, while the other six independents shared $1.89 million.

The new model promises to be more weighted toward the SEC and Big Ten.

Sources told ESPN that discussions have centered around the SEC and Big Ten earning somewhere between 25% and 30% of the CFP revenue. The ACC and Big 12 would be next, and they'd earn somewhere between 15% and 20%. That leaves a smaller chunk -- somewhere around 6% to 10% for the other leagues and nearly 1% for Notre Dame.

The math isn't clean, sources caution, as some money needs to go to expenses, and to places like the other remaining independent (UConn). But those are the general financial ballparks being discussed. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has made it clear that the SEC has delivered 40% of the teams in the playoff, and he has been one of the primary drivers behind a new revenue model.

As always with money, this isn't simple. But the ranges are refined enough where they appear to being narrowed in.


One thing CFP leaders appear unanimously in favor of is eliminating the rule that requires unanimity to make changes to the playoff. Sometimes it's the 10 FBS commissioners who can't agree. Other times, it's the 11 university presidents and chancellors who have the ultimate authority over the playoff.

Regardless, the rule has brought significant proposals to a screeching halt or caused contentious delays. In February 2022, the CFP announced it would remain a four-team playoff following an 8-3 vote in which the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 voted against expansion. It wasn't until seventh months later that the presidents and chancellors usurped the commissioners and unanimously agreed to expand the format to 12 teams.

CFP leaders want to avoid another situation like they had recently when the Pac-12 single-handedly postponed the move from a 6+6 model to 5+7 in the 12-team format. The vote had to be unanimous, and the Pac-12 had either previously abstained or asked for a delay as it worked on determining its future following sweeping realignment.

Earlier this month, Washington State president Kirk Schulz, who represents the two Pac-12 schools on the CFP board, voted in favor of the 5+7 model, finally approving the change to reward the five highest-ranked conference champions with playoff spots.

"You don't want one person holding it up," a source said, "that just doesn't work."