Ohio State AD Gene Smith says ‘you can’t ignore’ lingering talk of 16-team college football playoff
INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten Conference was one of three leagues that voted against expanding the college football playoffs to 12 teams last year.
As part of an alliance with the ACC and the Pac-12, the Big Ten vote was more about how the expansion process was handled than the very notion of an expanded playoff.
But as the Big Ten kicked off its conference media days on Tuesday, it still looked like an unlikely setting for bullish talk about expanding the college football playoffs.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN on Tuesday that talk of a possible 16-team college football playoff is growing.
“Sixteen just seems to be out there,” Smith said. “You can’t ignore it.”
Smith clarified that this notion was not discussed formally, but added that it came up regularly in the CFP discourse. Smith is the most powerful athletic director in the Big Ten, and it’s worth noting that OSU president Kristina M. Johnson is on the CFP’s board of directors.
No decision on a format is imminent and could take years to decide. The current four-team format expires in four seasons, and the new one will begin in the 2026 season, meaning the format will be heavily discussed over the next two years.
On Tuesday, CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN: “No reasonable option will be ruled out.”
Former Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who is the Big Ten’s special adviser on football, pointed out that a 16-team playoff provides better access. While the notion of how access is granted will be debated, the presence of more general offers would clearly favor both 16-team leagues.
The Big Ten recently added USC and UCLA, which will enter in 2024. The SEC added Oklahoma and Texas last summer, and both of those programs are slated to start in that league in 2025. That moved the power of the sport more distinctly towards those two leagues, which also have a significant financial advantage.
“I can live with 12, I can live with 16 – I just think we have to grow,” Alvarez told ESPN. “I think access is important. I can live with 16.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who has firmly argued that automatic qualification was part of the failed 12-team model, also spoke openly about the CFP expansion on Tuesday. In his remarks to the media, Warren said he “100% supports” the playoff expansion. The prevailing sentiment around the conference is that Warren will drop his insistence on automatic qualification in the next iteration of playoff talks.
Warren did not speculate on the number of teams, but stressed that having multiple media partners will be a priority. The current four-team model is televised only by ESPN, and the Big Ten’s most prominent media partnership is with Fox.
“What’s that good number?” ” He asked. “We’re going to find out. I’m confident that we’re going to solve the college football playoff expansion. I’m very confident that we need to open it up to have multiple media partners, which we need to have from a college football perspective. We need to take a holistic view.”
The next iteration of the college football playoffs is unlikely to have just one TV partner, following the NFL model. ESPN and Fox would be considered the favorites in the bidding for the CFP. A 16-team model would mean that 15 games of CFP inventory — significantly more than the three playoff games of the four-team model — could be split between the networks.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey admitted to ESPN during SEC Media Days that he’s been hearing more and more talk about 16 teams becoming a talking point. Sankey pointed out that many compromises resulted in the proposed 12-team model which was ultimately taken off the table in February.
“People rejected that, not me,” Sankey told ESPN in Atlanta last week. “And now, as I look to the future, I was clear at that time trying to step back, because we weren’t unanimous for the format. It’s my responsibility to move people forward And I give our members a lot of credit. I’ve heard from others that they’re unanimously against it. I mean, I’ll end my comment there.