College Football Playoff’s 14-team model could include 3 auto-bids for Big Ten, SEC

Among the models discussed in the potential 14-team College Football Playoff expansion in 2026 is at least one that would include multiple automatic qualifying spots for each Power 4 conference.

A person aware of the discussions told The Athletic a 3-3-2-2-1 model would feature three automatic spots each for the Big Ten and SEC, two each for the Big 12 and ACC and one for the Group of 5, along with three at-large spots. Yahoo Sports first reported the specific model being discussed among administrators.

The CFP management committee, made up of 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, met last week in Dallas. The group came out of the weekend feeling optimistic about finally solving key issues after the SEC and Big Ten, the richest and most powerful conferences, laid out their preferences. Among those topics, a 14-team and 16-team model were discussed, with the 14-team model getting more traction, if expansion were to happen. More automatic qualifying spots in that model were also a key point of discussion.


CFP officials discuss expanding to 14 or 16 teams for 2026 onward

“We’re just kind of looking at numbers,” Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark said of the idea of more auto-bids last week. “It was brought up. We’ll have to go through the process.”

A 3-3-2-2-1 model could be similar to the UEFA Champions League, where the top domestic soccer leagues in Europe are given more AQ spots and byes in the European tournament than lesser leagues. But one notable difference is that the soccer tournament includes far more teams (and leagues) and runs concurrently within the season, rather than after it. Another difference is that domestic European leagues don’t have postseason tournaments to determine their champion, because every team plays every other team. The standings determine their champions.

This model could create more stakes for the regular season, as schools in each Power 4 league would jockey for that last guaranteed spot like soccer, in theory. It would put more emphasis on conference standings than the controversial CFP rankings. But it would also bring into question the need for conference championship games, especially when the Big 12 and ACC champions would be longshots to earn a first-round bye, lessening the value of winning a championship. The bloated conferences could also see uneven schedule strength within their leagues play a factor in the final standings. Notre Dame may also need a threshold to guarantee a spot if the Fighting Irish are ranked above second-place teams in conferences.

“Does that destroy the usefulness of conference champions?” the person aware of the discussions said.



Mandel: Discussing 14 teams … already? CFP is fixing something that isn’t broken

The 3-3-2-2-1 model could instead be appealing to the ACC and Big 12 through the guarantees. While they would lose out on a first-round bye most years and solidify themselves as behind the Big Ten/SEC, they would have at least two spots every year. The ACC and Big 12 finished 2023 with one top-14 team each among their future memberships.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten and SEC are likely to get three teams in a 14-team model most years anyway following their upcoming expansion with additions including past CFP teams Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon and Washington.

CFP officials hope to wrap up everything for 2026 and beyond by the end of March. That includes not only potential expansion, but revenue sharing and governance voting powers, where the SEC and Big Ten are expected to receive more revenue and carry more weight. Decisions will not need to be unanimous for 2026 onward. Further CFP expansion beyond 12 would still need to be approved by the presidents on the Board of Managers. CFP executive director Bill Hancock said last week that this all needs to wrap up within a month, which also runs into basketball tournaments on the calendar.

ESPN, which The Athletic reported has agreed to terms on a six-year contract extension through 2031 with representatives for the CFP worth $1.3 billion annually on average, has been frustrated with how long the process has played out. With more expansion now being discussed, it’s also not clear how much more ESPN would be willing to pay for two additional first-round games.

After sharing updates with their members, CFP commissioners are expected to begin Zoom calls with each other to work things out in early March. The situation remains fluid. And, of course, the 12-team CFP for the next two seasons hasn’t even happened.

“At the end of the day, it’s what’s the right model for (2026) and beyond?” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said last week. “We’re continuing to listen to one another and trying to practically put something together that is good for college football, good for the conferences and Notre Dame and also the health and well-being, long-term, of college football.”

(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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