AAC commissioner pushes back against ACC objections, other obstacles to College Football Playoff expansion

In an “open letter to college football” on Monday, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco pushed back against the ACC’s reasons for not wanting to expand the four-team College Football Playoff right now, and issued rebuttals for other key obstacles that have slowed down the approval process for a 12-team format.

“There is considerable doubt that an expanded playoff format can be adopted and implemented as early as the 2024 season,” he wrote, “or perhaps at all in the future.” The current 12-year deal expires after the 2025 season.

Aresco, who is typically the most vocal commissioner in his support for a 12-team format and his campaign to eliminate the Group of 5 label, highlighted two main issues in his lengthy letter. The first, he wrote, is the ACC’s public opposition to expansion in the immediate future because of health and safety concerns, along with the instability of the overall collegiate landscape.

Under the current proposal, which was made public on June 10, it is possible a team could play 17 games to win the national title, but only if a team that didn’t receive a bye in the first round (teams ranked Nos. 5 -12) plays and wins four straight postseason games. The six highest-ranked conference champions would qualify for the playoff, along with the next six highest-ranked teams. Aresco wrote that the most likely annual scenario would feature a top-four team with a bye that would play only one additional game beyond the current 15 games it takes to win the conference, a semifinal and the national title.

According to the letter, the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick are considering a 12-day break following the conference championship game, along with how the regular season is structured. Swarbrick, along with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson, comprised the working group that spent almost two years developing the 12-team model still under consideration.

As for the ACC’s concern about the uncertainty facing college athletics amid big-picture issues such as name, image and likeness deals, the transfer portal, and the ongoing restructuring of the NCAA’s governance, Aresco wrote, “an expanded playoff is about enhancing opportunity regardless of what the future college sports landscape will look like.” He also pointed out that “these overarching issues will likely be debated long into the future” and are “unlikely to be settled in any meaningful way in the next 15 months or so when the CFP decision-makers will have to reconvene either to develop a new playoff plan for 2026 and beyond, continue with the four-team model or abandon a playoff altogether if an acceptable model cannot be agreed upon.”

Aresco wrote that “the prevailing feeling is that the most likely outcome in 2026 and beyond is a 12-team playoff,” and raised the question of why not do it sooner rather than later. He called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for many.

“Why delay it,” he wrote, “or, worst case, jeopardize it?”

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips was not immediately available for comment. CFP executive director Bill Hancock, who is a volunteer at the Olympics, also was not immediately available.

The second hurdle Aresco addressed in his letter is what he called a fairly recent proposal “by a few conferences” for a 5+1 format that would award automatic playoff bids to the Power 5 conference champions and one spot “to the top-rated so -called Group of Five champion.” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been the most vocal proponent of the 5+1 model, while Aresco has made repeated public objections to it, saying it favors “privilege for privilege’s sake.” Multiple commissioners have told ESPN the 5+1 model has received minimal support.

Aresco said the original proposal is “merit-based,” and doesn’t award playoff spots to conferences because they are “a well-known or favored brand.” Aresco repeated his stance that “Power 5/Group of Five branding must end,” saying, “it is arbitrary and harmful to the sport and to the perception of fairness. It diminishes the accomplishments of potential playoff teams.”

Aresco said the other issues, which include the position of contract bowls (most notably the Rose Bowl), revenue distribution, and the location of first- and second-round games (home sites or in bowl) “can be successfully addressed.”

The letter was released just weeks before the leaders of the CFP are planning to meet in person again in Dallas to consider expanding the current four-team format.

“We are on the clock, and our window is narrowing for an agreement on a plan that could be implemented in 2024 and 2025,” Aresco wrote. “And although frustration has intensified, there is still hope. … We strongly support the proposal as originally set forth by the Working Group, which we hope to see implemented as soon as practicality permits.”

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