The Pac-12 and ACC’s decision in January to block a proposal for the 12-team College Football Playoff with six automatic bids could be considered the most ill-advised in college athletics history.
The plan on the table almost certainly provided annual playoff entry and a tie, both political and financial, for the powerful SEC and Big Ten. The deal was expected to bring in more than $1 billion a year.
A path to compete for a championship is the single most important factor in recruiting. That’s why in basketball, even small schools of small conferences like Gonzaga can routinely sign future NBA lottery picks. In addition, a guaranteed route to the playoff makes both regular season and conference championships more valuable and relevant.
It’s part golden ticket, part lifebuoy.
And the Pac-12 and ACC decided to put it aside.
Now it may be gone for good.
After the Big Ten invaded the Pac-12 on Thursday for league members USC and UCLA, the era of the super conference has arrived. The Power Five is now the Big Two. The SEC and the Big Ten are the sport’s northern stars; their size, strength and financial resources dwarf all others.
Thus, the Pac-12 and ACC came closer to the AAC and Mountain West than the Big Ten and SEC. Their place at the sturdy children’s table in the canteen has been withdrawn. Their power is gone.
The future of not only the playoff, but the Pac-12 itself, is in the air. A league whose roots proudly go back to 1913 could be out of business by 2024. In the hours after USC and UCLA left, sources at the university of athletics said all 10 of the remaining Pac-12 schools were also asking to leave, usually to the Big Ten or Big 12. Everyone is trying to jump.
The ACC is not immediately in trouble, but the time when everything comes close to an equal partner with the SEC and the Big Ten is almost over.
The unequal nature of media rights would likely have tempted USC and UCLA to leave anyway. Big Ten schools may be earning $50 million or more per year than Pac-12 schools when their new television contracts are announced.
If the Pac-12 had made a playoff deal six months ago, at least the conference would take place in a near-certain place in the post-season.
The proposal called for six automatic bids for the champion of the six highest-ranked leagues per season. The Pac-12 and ACC would achieve that pretty much every season. If they really wanted to negotiate, they probably could have negotiated auto bids for the top five leagues (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC), plus one for the best of the rest.
Instead, they remained angry with the SEC for adding Texas and Oklahoma last summer (the schools will begin playing in the SEC in 2025). As such, they pushed aside a plan created in part by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. They then tried to rogue the SEC and joined the Big Ten in what was considered the “Alliance.”
It was a disastrous decision. Not only was the playoff plan fair, it was a gift to all college athletics. Meanwhile, it took less than six months for the Big Ten to sacrifice the Alliance by stabbing the Pac-12 in the back for its Los Angeles schools.
Now, when discussions about the future of the playoff resume, there’s no reason the Pac-12 or ACC will have much to say. The current four-team model will end after the 2026 season and something new should take its place.
That format no longer needs to be a unanimous agreement of all 10 conferences and Notre Dame. It will almost certainly be what the SEC and Big Ten decide it will be. They have the most powerful teams, the biggest brands, the most money. Without them there is no play-off and both leagues know that.
There is no motivation whatsoever for the SEC and Big Ten to support other conferences at the expense of their own programs. They are under no obligation to help or even consider anyone else.
They were able to stick with the current four-team format, knowing that most years their two conferences would fill three or even all four slots.
They could set up a system of eight or 12 teams and not offer automatic bids, confident that they would combine to get the vast majority of the bracket. Only a spectacular season by an ACC or Pac-12 team would get them in, as it now works for Group of Five schools.
The SEC and Big Ten can even host their own personal four-team playoffs and then have their respective champions meet in a pseudo-Super Bowl. That would gobble up all the money and put an end to the other leagues as major entities in the sport.
Now that the Big 12 and Pac-12 have dwindled, there’s almost no need to award a slew of automatic bids. It may not be good for the overall health of college football, but this is business. The SEC and Big Ten just need to hang out with each other. Everyone else is just everyone else.
Losing USC and UCLA would be a shocking and dark day, even if the 12-team, six-auto-bid playoff for the next twelve years were in place. And USC and UCLA may have jumped for the Big Ten money after all.
But for those left behind, the future looks very different. The remaining 10 schools may have struggled with less revenue or a foothold in Los Angeles, but it would still have had automatic entry into the playoff and at least that revenue stream for the playoffs.
In any case, some of the most competitive and talented recruits would still be playing at the conference. And while the lack of media funding is daunting, schools like Oregon or Stanford are wealthy enough to bridge gaps.
They could have brushed this off and tried to move forward. A highly competitive program like Oregon could have looked at an almost clear path to the playoff on an annual basis.
Utilities? Who knows.
This is a mistake others have made before.
In the 2000s, the Big East was a top six football conference and an automatic bid for a proposed playoff would have been deserved. Instead, it illogically opposed any playoff plans. Its membership was quickly broken up and in 2013 it stopped playing football.
The Big 12 were similarly opposed to all the bigger playoffs and automatic bids when the current playoff was created in the 2010s. After the SEC invaded Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 saw the light of day and became a vocal proponent of automatic bidding. However, the ACC and Pac-12 didn’t listen.
There is no doubt that they would change their vote today if they could. Even in January, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff stated that the league was in favor of an expanded playoff with automatic bidding, but voted against it for whatever reason.
That may have marked the demise of the competition.
A big playoff with plenty of guaranteed space for everyone and a long-term multi-billion dollar contract was up for grabs.
Still, the ACC and Pac-12 said no. Less than six months later, reality strikes. College football is on the line.
They only have themselves to blame for this.