NCAA Football: Missouri at Tennessee

Former Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley is pitching a Group of Five playoff that would be financially backed by private equity, sources tell CBS Sports. 

The concept would address -- if not be motivated by -- disappointment felt by the Group of Five conferences (MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, American and Conference USA) over revenue distribution shares under the new College Football Playoff media rights agreement. The average program in those conferences will receive $1.8 million per year in CFP revenue beginning in 2026 under the new deal, up from the current $1.5 million payout. 

The Group of Five splits 9% of the annual $1.3 billion deal with ESPN. While the payout marks an increase in raw numbers, it is a percentage decrease considering the Group of Five received 22% of the pot in the prior deal (2014-23). 

By comparison, the Big Ten and SEC will each receive 29% of CFP money -- millions more than any Group of Five league is paid in media revenue alone during a given year. 

"You've got presidents and chancellors [from the Group of Five] now saying, 'Why would [we sit] around waiting for the inevitable, which is a total break [by the SEC and Big Ten]?'" one Group of Five administrator familiar with Dooley's proposal told CBS Sports. "We better start doing some things."

Dooley did not immediately return a call requesting comment. 

Some believe a Big Ten and SEC breakaway has already occurred given the incoming revenue both conferences are set to receive. The Big Ten and SEC demanded a larger share of the CFP pie, in part, because of their playoff success over the last 10 years.

The leagues have combined to earn 29 of 40 available CFP bids (based on league membership beginning July 2024) and 113 of 184 BCS/CFP slots (62%) since the Bowl Championship Series debuted in 1998. (That includes all BCS-affiliated bowls and New Year's Six games.)

While Dooley's idea is in the development stages, sources stressed that financial involvement would be more than just funding a playoff. In one iteration of the proposal, as described to CBS Sports, eight division champions would play at the end of the regular season for the Group of Five's guaranteed CFP berth. "Significant dollars" would be at stake, according to one source with knowledge of the pitch. 

Such an arrangement would require the 62 teams contained in the Group of Five conferences realigning into eight-team divisions.

Beginning this season, as the CFP expands to 12 teams with the five highest-ranked conference champions automatically receiving bids, at least one Group of Five conference champion is guaranteed a spot in the field. 

The proposal will face the difficult hurdle needing to rework ongoing existing media rights deals with CBS, Fox and ESPN. Those networks owning the majority of Group of Five media rights.

One option would be pooling those rights into a single entity to be sold together. Private equity would then get a percentage of the new TV deal, sources told CBS Sports. It's not known which specific private equity firms are currently involved in the pitch. Such a concept was suggested in the Super League discussion that emerged earlier this month.

The new divisions would be realigned geographically, in part to benefit Olympic sports. One of the biggest criticisms of conference realignment centers around the long distances those teams are required to travel. 

"I heard about ideas like that. It certainly has to be [for less money] than the Power Five," said Patrick Crakes, a media consultant and former Fox Sports executive. "... If somebody comes to me and asks to me to invest in this, how do I get my money back? … How do I make more than I can in [buying] Triple A corporate bonds at 9% today, or I can invest in Rice playing Texas State?"

During his introductory press conference earlier this month, incoming AAC commissioner Tim Pernetti mentioned his league taking "big swings" that include possible private equity relationships and "maverick postseason models." 

"When I look at college football … are there different levels of competition and levels of play? Of course there are," Pernetti said. "Is there a financial disparity? We know that."

Unanimous approval from the five conferences would be required to move forward with Dooley in the process of contacting conference commissioners and presidents to discuss his idea.

The 55-year-old spent the last two seasons as a senior offensive analyst at Alabama. Since leaving Tennessee in 2012, he has served as an assistant at both the college and NFL levels.

Dooley went 15-21 in three disappointing seasons with the Volunteers. His most successful stint as a head coach came at Louisiana Tech from 2007-09 where he went 17-20.

In January, Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier proposed an NIT best-of-the-rest postseason tournament for those schools left out of the expanded playoff in the future.