Bill Hancock

Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, speaks during a news conference in 2018. The CFP would expand from four to 12 teams, with six spots reserved for champions of the six highest-rated conferences, under a proposal being considered by league commissioners who manage the postseason system. Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

ROSEMONT, Ill. — The proposed 12-team College Football Playoff would make winning a conference more important than ever, with six spots reserved for league champions.

Every major college football conference plays a title game, but how the participants are determined – division winners or best overall records – differs.

On Thursday at the Big Ten Conference office outside Chicago, the college football leaders who manage the playoff opened two days of meetings they hope will end with consensus around the core piece of the plan: How many teams?

Already, though, the trickle down issues are starting to pop up, including finding the optimal way to determine a conference champion while also best positioning the league for playoff participation.

During the first seven seasons of the CFP, a conference has twice placed more than one team in the field of four. In 2017, Georgia and Alabama, which didn’t even win its division, made it from the Southeastern Conference. Last year, the Atlantic Coast Conference, benefitting from Notre Dame’s pandemic-induced league participation, placed both the Fighting Irish and Clemson in the playoff.

Notre Dame became the first team to lose a conference title game and reach the playoff.

If and when the playoff grows to 12, ideally conferences will want to create title game matchups that bolster their chances to get more than one team in the field because the other six slots will be filled by a selection committee.

The ACC did that last year by scrapping its divisions. Divisions are back in the ACC in 2021 and Notre Dame is gone, returning to its cherished independence.

But the future of conferences being split into divisions is uncertain.

“My initial reaction would be, you know, divisional play has been pretty fun,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You look across the conferences, it’s created some new rivalries. It’s enhanced some longstanding rivalries. It’s been great for a lot of fan bases in some leagues.”

Among Power Five conferences, the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 use divisions to determine their championship game matchups; the Big 12 goes with the top two teams in the regular-season standings. In the Group of Five conferences, the American Athletic Conference has no divisions but the others do.

The prospect of a championship-game upset costing a conference a playoff team is even more of a threat in the Group of Five conferences. Looking back at what the playoff field could have been with 12 teams dating back to 2014 – the CFP’s debut season – only once would more than one team outside the Power Five conferences have made the field. And that was last season, which was anything but typical because of the pandemic.

Using the final CFP standings for each playoff season, here is how many times both the winner and loser of a conference’s title game would have made a 12-team playoff:

SEC: 4 (2017-20)

Big Ten: 4 (2015-17, ’19).

ACC: 3 (2015, ’17, ’20).

Pac-12: 3 (2104, ’16, ’19)

Big 12: 2 (2019-20; title game was restored in 2017)

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