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It was never going to be easy formalizing the moment the Big Ten and SEC were partners. Certainly, the leagues themselves wouldn't always admit to being chummy. For a long time, the conferences were rivals in every sense -- recruiting, championships, TV contracts.

In a famous 2007 letter to fans, former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's took a not-so-veiled shot at the SEC. Delany compared the two leagues at the time, saying there were "appropriate balances when mixing academics and athletics" in the Big Ten.  

At the time, the SEC was about to put a death grip on college football -- one that has lasted to this day with the conference winning 13 of the last 17 national championships. At the same time, the Big Ten was, well, losing its grip.

Little of that rancor still exists as we step out to the edge of a new College Football Playoff. In fact, it will be a bigger, ground-breaking CFP largely because of the combined swagger of the Big Ten and SEC. A partnership between the two leagues announced earlier this month as an "advisory group" went way deeper.

The depth of that combined power was laid bare at the latest College Football Playoff Management Committee meeting when the Big Ten and SEC reportedly proposed multiple automatic qualifiers for their leagues beginning in 2026. Conference commissioners emerging from the meeting confirmed that field expansion to 14 teams -- or as many as 16 teams -- starting in 2026 was a possibility, this before the CFP has even played its first season as a 12-team bracket in 2024.

So far, this lobbying from the Big Ten and SEC is not so much an ultimatum but an inevitability. Realignment and consolidation have left the nation's two most dominant conferences with most of the best brands. The resulting windfall in media rights has put unprecedented separation between those leagues and everyone else.

The Big Ten and SEC have combined to occupy 113 of the 184 BCS/CFP slots (62%) since the BCS started in 1998. That includes all BCS-affiliated bowls and New Year's Six games.

Under their collective tents, the Big Ten and SEC have all nearly all of college football's best rivalries: Michigan vs. Ohio State, USC vs. UCLA, Oklahoma vs. Texas, Texas vs. Texas A&M, Alabama vs. LSU, Alabama vs. Auburn and Florida vs. Georgia, among many others.

Rivalries create passion which translates into ratings. Those ratings turn into leverage. That leverage revealed itself last week.

"We're still in a bit of uncharted territory here," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said last week during a visit to South Carolina. "But what you saw in that announcement was the acknowledgement of the expectation of leadership that exists for these two conferences."

The pair are now arguably the most powerful "single" entity in college sports. As the NCAA's authority declines and realignment has redirected power, influence and cash to the Big Ten and SEC, last week's CFP meeting was an inflection point.

Here's how and why ...

Big money at stake: At the center of those leagues' ascendance is a reported $1.3 billion media rights deal with ESPN for the expanded CFP beginning in 2026. That will be the largest such deal in college sports history. It is the key to all future talks in terms of access, revenue distribution and just how much access ESPN can get to the Big Ten and SEC.

The pressure surrounding that number has ratcheted up. Coming out of last week's meeting, it was stressed the parties have one month to finalize a playoff structure beginning in 2026. This as they sit less than 10 months out from the debut of the 12-team bracket.

Complicating matters, there is already reported animosity from the NFL regarding the Saturday, Dec. 21 first-round games when, for the first time, the CFP will go head-to-head with The Shield.

ESPN would like to know what it's getting for its $1.3 billion. To co-opt the network's own CFP marketing slogan: Who's In?

Another round (at least) of realignment looms if Florida State can extricate itself from the ACC. That looks more likely than ever based on recent reporting in the Tampa Bay Times.

The potential for additional playoff games to be included in the bracket comes so late in the process that the CFP could be playing games for "free." ESPN is unlikely to increase its $1.3 billion offer for the playoff -- after initially pricing the package with 12 teams -- should the CFP choose on its own to expand the field starting in 2026, multiple industry sources told CBS Sports.

However, a win-win scenario looms with further playoff expansion to 14 or 16 teams: The Big Ten and SEC get their automatic qualifiers, yet there remains plenty of access for the ACC, Big 12, Notre Dame and the Group of Five. ESPN can choose to sublicense some of those added games to reduce its financial burden.

Guaranteed playoff bids are key: In potentially receiving multiple automatic qualifiers into the playoff, the Big Ten and SEC would be setting a precedent. A conference has never before received more than one guaranteed bid for their league in a collegiate national championship tournament setting -- not basketball, not baseball. The only certainty in the past: Win your conference tournament, and you're in.

As such, the Big Ten and SEC would essentially be bogarting the bracket; they are seeking as many as four teams each in a 14- or 16-team field.

That's a recognition of the conferences' power and the CFP's new economics. In the future, the two teams playing for a CFP National Championship could earn as much as $20 million each for their respective leagues. Simple math and on-field success tells you the Big Ten and SEC will get a greater portion of those slots.

But in a playoff that has historically struggled to achieve high ratings at times, will an oversaturation of superpowers actually turn off the public? What if conference championship games are purely held for seeding purposes in the future?

Adding automatic qualifiers may also reflect the conferences' lack of trust in the CFP Selection Committee, which was unable to transparently explain why it left an undefeated ACC champion Florida State team out of the field last season.

"At the end of the day, you tell me who deserves to go -- a 10-2 Big 12 team or a 9-3 Big Ten team?" posited one industry insider. "It's completely subjective."

Not if that 9-3 Big Ten team is guaranteed a spot. 

Revenue up for grabs: Expansion of the bracket allows the Big Ten and SEC to receive their automatic bids while ensuring no one gets left out in the cold. It also keeps antitrust lawyers off the CFP's back.

Access to the BCS/CFP and the riches within has always been sort of a gentleman's agreement. The Power Five currently get an equal share, about $80 million each in 2023. The Group of Five currently splits 22% of the CFP revenue while receiving just one guaranteed spot in the New Year's Six.

In the 12-team field, which is in place for at least 2024-25, the highest-ranked Group of Five champion receives a guaranteed spot in the playoff field. Access and revenue still need to be negotiated starting in 2026.

The concept of tiered revenue distribution was discussed at last week's meeting. Going forward, revenue distribution could be tiered further with the Big Ten and SEC getting larger equal shares followed by a bundling of the ACC and Big 12 in a second tier, CBS Sports reported last week. 

There is some possible horse trading to be done. The Big Ten and SEC could give up one of those guaranteed bids in return for more revenue in their tier. If each receives three (instead of four) automatic qualifiers in a 14-team bracket, the Big Ten and SEC would make up nearly half the field.

Easier to vote, tougher to decide: Remember how Oregon State and Washington State recently attempted to leverage the CFP given votes currently need to be unanimous?

All such decisions beginning in 2026 will require no such unanimity. In fact, the way it was described to CBS Sports, the CFP will consist of parties to commit to being part of it. If that sounds like a circular explanation, it is. But there won't be anything to commit to without the Big Ten and SEC, so it's probably best to get on board with what the game's giants want.

This as the CFP will almost certainly be tasked with taking on more of a stewardship role in college football. The size of the ESPN contract will at least make it possible to provide more comprehensive insurance for players. The CFP could then, on its own, decide to share revenue with players.

"They're having these conversations while all of this other stuff is going on, not thinking, 'Oh shit, maybe we shouldn't do this without player input,'" said Jason Stahl, labor activist and head of the College Football Players Association. "That to me, unfortunately, strikes me as people who are still living in a bubble of their ideas about the way things should be. … They are having trouble seeing the reality of the new world emerging."