Imitation can often be the sincerest form of flattery. The game of American Football owes much of its origin to soccer, or "association football." In fact, some of the earliest football games—played by colleges in the eastern United States—used laced leather soccer balls as opposed to the oblong football we know today. The early game was a mixture of rugby football and association football, hence the name "football."
But our beloved gridiron game has evolved over the years, and the college game in particular is in another era of flux. A new playoff system, rule changes and an ever-changing conference landscape all seem to be regular news stories these days. But it's that conference realignment and playoff system that really got us thinking: What if college football really was more like the game it came from? What if college football instituted a massive change in the way teams are assigned not only conferences, but divisions?
It's really not as crazy or far-fetched as you might think. Some of the world's highest-paid athletes are soccer stars, and professional soccer leagues are big business outside of the United States, just like the NFL or NBA is in America. One of the most well-known professional soccer leagues, the English Premiere League, has used a system of "promotion and relegation" almost since its inception in 1992. The previous top division, The Football League's Championship Division, has used the system since its inception in 1888.
Everyone has heard of Manchester United. The club is almost always packed with top-paid superstars of the sport, and it is akin to the New York Yankees or Alabama Crimson Tide. It's almost unthinkable in the mindset of American sports for a club like mighty "Man U" to be dropped to what we might call the "minor leagues," but it's happened.
After the 1973-74 season, United found itself in 21st place out of 22 teams in the old Division One. The rules of the era stated that the bottom three of the league were relegated to Division Two (think AAA baseball), and so United tucked its tail between its leg and began the long road back to soccer prominence.
What would happen, we wonder, if the NCAA instituted the same kind of policy? The top division of college football, the FBS, is a mess. Terrible teams like Tulane seem to be rewarded with invitations to join the Big East after posing a 2012 record of 2-10. Perfectly awful FCS teams are joining the FBS in droves. Georgia State, which was 1-10 in 2012, will be a member of the FBS' Sun Belt Conference in 2013. On top of all that, with 35 bowl games each season, there are 70 programs every year that get some sort of postseason reward—even for a perfectly terrible 6-6 season.
Will the madness ever end?
The English system of soccer is pretty analogous to the NCAA or the US minor league baseball system in many ways. There are tiers, or divisions, and the top level gets a ton of attention nationally while the bottom levels get minor media attention from the local town newspaper. The Premiere League has 20 teams while the Football League Championship Division has 24. The Football League also has two lover divisions, "one" and "two," which also have 24 teams. Below that, there is the Football Conference and its National Division—another 24 teams. Further down is the Football Conference's North and South Divisions, with 22 teams each. Finally, there is the National League System with over 1,600 clubs.
Each league and division has its own set number of promotions and relegations each season, and those numbers correspond with the league above and below, respectively. Do well, get promoted. Do poorly, get relegated. It's really that simple.
If the NCAA used the English system of promotion and relegation, the bottom 15 percent of teams would be relegated to a lower division at season's end while being replaced with the top teams from that lower division—a surprisingly simple system of rewarding success while punishing mediocrity. To translate that to college football, teams that finished 2012 with a record of 3-9 or worse—like Auburn, UTEP, South Alabama, Southern Mississippi and Eastern Michigan—would become FCS programs. Simultaneously, the top FCS programs would be promoted to replace those that drop from the FBS.
The system could even be extended further, relegating the FCS bottom-feeders like Rhode Island, Idaho State and soon-to-be-FBS Georgia State to Division II while replacing them with the top D2 programs.
In all, 23 FBS programs finished with records of 3-9 or worse. Assuming there would be some system in place to widdle that number down to 18, we could then replace those programs—most of which don't contribute much to the FBS other than guaranteed non-conference wins to powerhouse programs—with the top 18 postseason contenders from the FCS field of 20 playoff teams.
The FCS would get its own relegation, as well. There are 104 FCS programs, not including the Ivy League and SWAC, which don't bother to compete in the postseason anyhow. That works out to 15 teams dropping each season, and as luck would have it, 15 teams finished 2012 with records of 2-8 or worse. Those 15 could then be replaced by the top 15 postseason performers from Division II. And on down to Division III, if necessary.
Would you like to see a promotion and relegation system applied to college football?
Sure, this might cause angst from a lot of fans. But what does a team like Akron really get out of a season of 1-11 football at the FBS level that they can't get at the FCS level? The university could save a truckload on scholarships, and assuming a new profit-sharing plan was instituted with the rest of their seismic changes, there's really nothing else Akron loses—it's not as if the whole nation is tuning in to watch the Zips play on Saturday anyhow.
The FCS isn't that far behind the FBS in talent level these days. Just in 2012, 10 FCS teams knocked off FBS opponents, including two teams from current BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences. The same thing happens each season between the FCS and Division II. So why not mix things up a bit?
Sure, this is a pipe dream. It's so far off the radar screens of every FBS conference commissioner and university athletic director it might as well be non-existent. But there could be some real benefits to this system.
First, it adds some real excitement to games that absolutely no one would otherwise be watching. For example, in 2011, Eastern Michigan averaged just 4,267 fans per home game. Meanwhile, just across the state, a program two full divisions lower more than doubled that figure. Division II Grand Valley State, averaged 10,478 fans per home game, and both EMU and GVSU hosted six games that season.
Now, what would be more exciting: watching EMU play Ball State in yet another meaningless game or watching the Eagles fighting to avoid relegation to the FCS?
Such changes are a distant dream, we know. But the problems of college football are bigger than a few conference tweaks and postseason expansions can solve. The FBS has become indicative of today's American culture where everyone gets an equal share even when the contributions to the system are rife with inequality. Mediocrity is rewarded with bowl invitations and massive payouts, and television contracts are based on the big draws, but the paycheck is split with programs that can't even fill their own stadiums half full.
Money is the driving force behind college football these days, and not much is changing with the new playoff format. But just in case you thought this system, with its uncertain futures and cut-throat, top-to-bottom competition can't generate the kind of money college football fat cats have become accustomed to, we leave you with this final thought: all 20 teams in the English Premiere League make money from the League, with the lowest margin at over $1.2 million in 2009. The average payday was nearly $12.4 million, and that's only counting money from the Premiere League itself, which doesn't include money from sponsors and advertising. That's money most FBS programs can only dream about.
If money truly drives college football, maybe a system of promotion and relegation deserves a second look.
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