A modest proposal for college football

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A modest proposal for college football

So earlier today I posted that college football needed to reconcile its desire to keep making money with its desire to maintain the notion of amateurism. College football could go all-in and become an explicitly for-profit enterprise, or it could take some drastic steps to reclaim the notion of amateurism, but it couldn’t continue to have it both ways.

One of my ideas for what college football could do to keep making money was to completely divorce itself from the NCAA, preventing an all-sports split by the big-name schools, allowing the NCAA to focus on lesser sports, and most relevantly to this discussion, allowing conference realignment to proceed without affecting the lesser sports. With that in mind, I propose this fairly radical idea for conference realignment in a post-NCAA college football universe.

This idea can be summed up in three words: Promotion and relegation.

Fans of European club soccer, whether newcomers or old standbys, inevitably become fascinated by and enamored of the promotion and relegation system. Newcomers wonder what would happen if it were applied to American sports; old standbys insist that America’s own soccer league, MLS, adopt it. In both cases, they wildly underestimate the deep philosophical differences between American and European sports that explain the existence of the promotion and relegation system.

Europe places more emphasis on the individual teams as the bedrock of the league, as opposed to American sports where the teams’ power ultimately derives from the league. By the same token, Europe isn’t as obsessed with parity as the United States, and the assumption of the promotion and relegation system is that the teams at the bottom are substantially worse than the teams at the top. You couldn’t have a player draft in a promotion and relegation system, nor would team owners be likely to accept the possibility of being moved up and down every year, with the millions of dollars at stake. If baseball adopted pro/rel, the Yankees and Red Sox would become even more powerful than everyone else.

But guess what one American sport the above doesn’t apply to? College football’s power, as has been proved time and again, derives from its individual teams, not from any central source, and ultimately could care less about parity. A promotion and relegation system would give the lesser teams a bigger slice of the college football pie, create better matchups throughout the season, and ultimately solve college football’s championship problem, while surprisingly keeping much that makes the sport great.

Here’s how I could see it playing out. The big schools start making noise about separating from the NCAA, while their 16-team superconference dreams start coming to fruition and they start making noise about a de facto playoff. The schools left threaten to, or actually do, sue the big schools for monopolizing the college football pie. The big schools reach an agreement with the small schools and the NCAA that theoretically allows any school in the country, even NAIA Podunk U, to some day compete with the big boys at the top level of the sport, but effectively ensconces the power of the big schools at the top of the sport, while creating a better experience for the fans. Everyone wins.

What would this system look like? At the top level, I see two 12-team conferences composed of the biggest-name, best programs in the country – call them the SEC and Big 10. These add up to 24 teams, very close to the “Top 25″ we’re so used to. Unlike current 12-team conferences, every team plays every other team one time, with no divisional arrangement. Under the current schedule, that leaves one game for a team to schedule a cupcake or a cross-conference or interlevel rival, preserving most rivalries between teams of comparable power while creating a far more exciting season full of big matchups. The champions of the two 12-team conferences then meet in a single game at the end of the season to determine college football’s national champion, solving the championship problem while preserving the sanctity of the bowls (for example, second place in each league could play each other as well).

The top four levels are important in this plan, as those levels are the ones that can tell recruits that, at least theoretically, they can someday play at that top level. Thus, the next few levels are arranged so that the top four levels total 120, same as Division I-A today. I see another two 12-team conferences at the second level (the ACC and Pac-12), then three conferences each at the third (Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA) and fourth (WAC, MAC, Sun Belt) levels. (These names are just for show, and to indicate the general geographic area each conference would cover.) The fifth level, where I-AA would essentially start, would then consist of four conferences, and so on down the line.

The bottom one or two teams in each top-level conference are relegated, with the champions and possibly runners-up in each second-level conference promoted. Perhaps the 11th-place teams in each conference could hold a play-off to determine who gets relegated, while the second-place teams at the second level hold their own, similar game to determine who gets promoted. Similarly, the last-place teams in each second-level conference are relegated, with a play-off between the 11th-place teams, while the champions of the three third-level conferences promoted.

What would these conferences look like at the top level? Here’s one way they might be arranged, with reference to Stewart Mandel’s 2007 column on college football’s “kings” and recent on-the-field success:

The Southeastern Conference

  1. Alabama
  2. Auburn
  3. Florida
  4. Florida State
  5. Georgia
  6. LSU
  7. Oklahoma
  8. South Carolina
  9. Texas
  10. TCU
  11. Virginia Tech
  12. West Virginia

The Northern and Western Conference (aka the “Big 12″)

  1. Boise State
  2. BYU
  3. Michigan
  4. Nebraska
  5. Notre Dame
  6. Ohio State
  7. Oregon
  8. Penn State
  9. Pittsburgh
  10. USC
  11. Utah
  12. Wisconsin

Look at all the rivalries that are preserved. Michigan/Ohio State, Oklahoma/Texas, Auburn/Alabama, Florida/Florida State, USC/Notre Dame, and so on down the line. There are even some new rivalries like Penn State/Pittsburgh, on top of all the other great games created with these top-notch programs. The extra game for inter-conference rivalries also allows us to preserve such games as Florida State/Miami (FL), Michigan/Michigan State, USC/UCLA, Oregon/Oregon State, Oklahoma/Oklahoma State, Texas/Texas A&M, South Carolina/Clemson, Georgia/Georgia Tech, and Virginia/Virginia Tech. The other thing to note is that, unlike in today’s conferences and even in European soccer, most if not all of these teams have large, devoted followings in their own right, large enough to merit their own per-school TV contracts with the networks and ESPN. There are no Longhorn Network controversies with this group. And some superb teams and programs will be relegated to the second tier at the end of the year.

What of the second tier? What do those conferences look like?

The Atlantic Conference

  1. Arizona State
  2. Arkansas
  3. Cincinnati
  4. Clemson
  5. Connecticut
  6. Georgia Tech
  7. Iowa
  8. Miami (FL)
  9. Michigan State
  10. Mississippi
  11. Texas A&M
  12. Texas Tech

The Pacific Conference

  1. Air Force
  2. Arizona
  3. Arizona State
  4. California
  5. Colorado
  6. Missouri
  7. Nevada
  8. Oklahoma State
  9. Oregon State
  10. Stanford
  11. UCLA
  12. Washington

Here are a bunch of lesser powers that could probably carry a pair of conference-wide contracts with ESPN2 and a considerable audience despite not being top-tier. That’s four conferences’ worth of great teams and great matchups on two tiers. For completeness’ sake, here’s what the third tier would look like:

Big East Conference

  1. Army
  2. Boston College
  3. Illinois
  4. Louisville
  5. Maryland
  6. Navy
  7. Northern Illinois
  8. Northwestern
  9. Ohio
  10. Purdue
  11. Rutgers
  12. Temple

Conference USA

  1. Central Florida
  2. East Carolina
  3. Kentucky
  4. Mississippi State
  5. North Carolina
  6. NC State
  7. South Florida
  8. Southern Miss
  9. Tennessee
  10. Troy
  11. Vanderbilt
  12. Virginia

Mountain West Conference

  1. Baylor
  2. Fresno State
  3. Hawaii
  4. Houston
  5. Idaho
  6. Kansas
  7. Kansas State
  8. Minnesota
  9. San Diego State
  10. SMU
  11. Tulsa
  12. UTEP

These conferences aren’t quite of the caliber of the previous tiers, with only a few teams able to carry their weight in TV contracts for the occasional ESPNU game, hence why there are three of them in more compact geographic areas. (Washington State, Iowa State, and Syracuse have some claim to being in this group. Most of the remaining I-A schools are on the fourth tier, with Appalachian State, Montana, and one or two more I-AA interlopers replacing some weak Sun Belt schools.)

A showcase for all the best teams in the country to play each other week after week, competing for national glory and to stay in that brutal competition. Opportunity for any team to rise to the top. No more cupcakes and a college football national championship everyone can agree on. Now, isn’t this a far better picture for college football than franken-conferences and the BCS?

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