The decision by the Pac-12 and ACC in January to block a 12-team, six-automatic-bid College Football Playoff proposal could go down as most ill-advised in the history of college athletics.
The plan on the table offered almost certain annual access to the playoff and a tie, both politically and financially, to the mighty SEC and Big Ten. The deal was expected to earn over $1 billion per year.
A path to compete for a championship is the single most important factor in recruiting. It's why in basketball even small schools from small conferences such as Gonzaga can routinely sign future NBA lottery picks. Additionally, a guaranteed route to the playoff makes both regular season and conference championship games more valuable and relevant.
It is part golden ticket, part life preserver.
And the Pac-12 and ACC decided to throw it aside.
Now it’s possibly gone for good.
After the Big Ten raided the Pac-12 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 northstars; their size, strength and financial resources dwarf everyone else.
Just like that the Pac-12 and ACC moved closer to the AAC and Mountain West than the Big Ten and SEC. Their spot at the cool kids' table in the cafeteria has been revoked. Their power is gone.
The future of not just the playoff, but of the Pac-12 itself, is up in the air. A league whose roots stretch proudly back to 1913 could be out of business by 2024. In the hours after USC and UCLA left, sources across college athletics said all 10 of the remaining Pac-12 schools inquired about leaving as well, mostly to the Big Ten or Big 12. Everyone is trying to jump ship.
The ACC isn’t in immediate trouble yet, but its days as anything close to an equal partner with the SEC and Big Ten are all but over.
The uneven nature of media rights likely would have lured USC and UCLA to leave anyway. Big Ten schools may earn $50 million or more per year than Pac-12 schools when its new television contracts are announced.
Had the Pac-12 made a deal for the playoff six months ago, though, at least the conference would be sitting on a near-certain spot in the postseason.
The proposal called for six automatic bids to the champion of the six highest-ranked leagues each season. The Pac-12 and ACC would achieve that virtually every season. If they really wanted to haggle, they probably could have negotiated auto-bids for the five biggest 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 play in the SEC in 2025). As such, they pushed aside a plan that was created, in part, by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. They then tried to villainize the SEC and aligned themselves with the Big Ten in what was deemed the “Alliance.”
It was a disastrous decision. The playoff plan wasn’t just fair, it was a gift to all of college athletics. Meanwhile, it took less than six months for the Big Ten to immolate the Alliance by backstabbing the Pac-12 for its Los Angeles schools.
Now, when discussions about the future of the playoff resume, there is no reason the Pac-12 or ACC will have much of a say. The current four-team model ends after the 2026 season and something new needs to replace it.
That format will no longer need to be a unanimous agreement of all 10 conferences and Notre Dame. It will almost assuredly be whatever the SEC and Big Ten decide it will be. They have the most powerhouse teams, the biggest brands, the most money. There is no playoff without them and both leagues know it.
There is zero motivation for the SEC and Big Ten to prop up other conferences at the expense of their own programs. They are under no obligation to help, or even consider, anyone else.
They could stick with the current four-team format knowing that most years their two conferences would fill three or even all four of the slots.
They could set up an eight-team or 12-team system and offer no automatic bids, confident 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, the way it works for Group of Five schools now.
The SEC and Big Ten could even stage 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 effectively end the other leagues as major entities in the sport.
With the Big 12 and Pac-12 greatly diminished, there is almost no need now 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 need only to deal with each other. Everyone else is just everyone else.
Losing USC and UCLA would represent a jarring and dark day even if the 12-team, six-automatic-bid playoff was in place for the next dozen years. And USC and UCLA may have jumped for the Big Ten cash anyway.
But the future will look much different for those left behind. The remaining 10 schools may have struggled with less revenue or a foothold in Los Angeles, but it would still have had automatic access to the playoff and at least that playoff revenue stream.
At least some of the most competitive and talented recruits would still play in the conference. And while the lack of media cash is daunting, schools such as Oregon or Stanford are wealthy enough to bridge gaps.
They could have brushed this off and tried to push forward. A very competitive program such as Oregon could have looked at an almost clear path to the playoff on an annual basis.
Now? Who knows.
This is a mistake others made before.
Back in the 2000s, the Big East was a top-six football conference and would have merited an automatic bid to a proposed playoff. Instead it illogically opposed any and all playoff plans. Its membership was quickly picked apart and by 2013 it stopped fielding football.
The Big 12 similarly opposed all larger playoffs and automatic bids when the current playoff was created back in the 2010s. After the SEC raided Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 saw the light and became a vocal auto-bid proponent. The ACC and Pac-12 didn't listen though.
There is little doubt they would switch their votes today if they could. Even in January, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff stated the league was in favor of an expanded playoff with automatic bids, yet for whatever reason voted against it anyway.
That may have signed the league’s demise.
A big playoff with lots of guaranteed room for everyone and a long-term, multi-billion dollar contract was there for the taking.
Yet the ACC and Pac-12 said no. Less than six months later, reality has hit. College football is on the brink.
They have only themselves to blame for this.