Revisiting Promotion and Relegation in College Football, Plus Realignment

More than two years ago, I wrote an article on the concept of promotion and relegation in college football.  In that article, I postulated a system where conferences could be promoted into or relegated out of the BCS-system.  As an example, the Mountain West could move into “automatic qualifying” status, while say the ACC moves out of that status.

Last year, during the first seismic waves of the realignment earthquake, the Wall Street Journal developed its own system of promotion and relegation based around revenue.  It is a well-formulated system that deserves honest consideration.

In light of the recent news of the imminent end of the Big 12, along with the recent move of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC, it seems as though we are set up for the “Big One” — the realignment earthquake that will forever change the college football landscape.  Thus, it is time to revisit the promotion and relegation system.  In the process, I will also address realignment and the post-season in the FBS.  Hey, might as well solve all of the world’s problems!

At present, there are 120 FBS schools.  In 2012, there will be 123 with the additions of South Alabama to the Sun Belt, and Texas State and Texas-San Antonio to the WAC.  In 2013, Massachusetts will join the MAC bringing the total number of FBS schools to 124.  For the moment, I will deal solely with the 120 teams currently in the FBS.

  • Major Realignment: Blowing Up the Conferences

Take the conferences and blow them up.  I am not saying kill the rivalries and connections that have been created through the conferences, but conference affiliation is becoming meaningless anyway in college football.

Perhaps with the exception of the ACC, the conference realignment has little to do with sports other than football.  Allowing for the realignments to continue at this pace screws up other sports, such as basketball and baseball/softball.  Certainly these are not the major sports, especially the latter, but the Big East basketball tournament is already too cumbersome.  And for a conference like the SEC, the baseball tournament is already limited to the top eight teams; imagine getting the top eight from a sixteen-team conference!

So, let’s deconstruct the conferences of the FBS.  It is only fitting.  After all, football is the only (major) sport where a division of the NCAA is subdivided [remember the whole D-1A and D-1AA thing?].  Temple is a former member of the Big East and current member of the MAC in football only; they are in the Atlantic 10 in all other sports [the A-10 no longer sponsors football, but it was a D-1AA/FCS conference].  Ergo, college football is different anyway.

Therefore, the “old” conference structure will be repackaged into two tiers.  Yes, this means that a subdivision of Division I would be further subdivided.  But, let’s be honest; it is already subdivided anyway.  This new format only makes it official.  And since there are 120 teams, half will go into the upper tier while the other half goes into the lower tier.

  • Conference Structure: 10 Teams

It does not take a math whiz to figure out that half of 120 is 60.  I think it is better than 64/56 because of the evenness of it.  But from 60 is where it gets tricky.

Ideally, each tier would have six new conferences of 10 teams.  A ten-team conference would allow a round-robin style of conference scheduling where every team plays another conference member [similar to the Big 12 this season and the Pac-10 in previous seasons].  Relatively speaking, this gives a clear-cut winner for each conference.

Focusing solely on the upper tier, the six champions and two highest ranked at-large teams (more on rankings below) will play in an early December “championship.”  The conference champions (and at-large) could be locked in to play a certain champion from another conference, or there could be seeding.  Either way, given that there would be no conference championship as we see currently with the 12-team conferences, that week could be set aside for these match-ups.

This concept is very similar to the one being floated by the Mountain West and Conference USA, where there is a “federation” in which the conference winners meet one another for a (potential) BCS automatic bid.  It seems wise and one that is a “playoff” without specifically being a playoff.  From here, the winners of the “championship” would move on to the post season [more on that below].

A similar process could take place at the lower tier as well.

  • Conference Realignment: Not 16; 15 is the Number!

There is one small problem with the ten-team conference format; current trend is towards the larger mega-conferences.  Assuming this pans out, then it is unlikely that there would be a step “backwards” towards 10 teams.

Therefore, if we must go to these so-called super-conferences, then let’s go!  And the number I think is key is 15, not 16.

Obviously, given my division of the FBS into two tiers of 60 teams, 15 divides cleanly into 60 while 16 does not.  With 15 teams, the upper tier would be comprised of four super conferences (as would the lower tier).  Honestly, this appears to be where we are headed anyway, just with the notion of four 16-team conferences (totaling 64).

But, I think a lesson can be learned in part from the WAC, the first “super-conference.”  They had two divisions of eight teams, with “quads” in each division.  Each team would play every team from its division and then one team from each quad in the opposing division.

This system fell short because it meant that the cycle of playing all teams took entirely too long.  For example, in the three seasons of the super-WAC, BYU never played Air Force, Colorado State or Wyoming in a regularly scheduled game [BYU did play both Air Force and Wyoming in the WAC championships of 1998 and 1996 respectively].  This system erodes cohesiveness and rivalries.

While there are better ways to utilize the quad system, I would suggest going to three divisions!  It is radical, but so is realignment.  A three-division conference would allow for some geographic congruence (and escape logistical nightmares), while also allowing for more opportunities to play other non-division/non-quad opponents.  Scheduling would have a team facing its four divisional counterparts, three opponents from one division and two other opponents from the remaining division.

Interdivisional rivalries could still be locked in (as it is in the SEC), but have a rotating schedule among the other interdivisional opponents.

In terms of determining a champion of the conference, there are two options.  First, have the three division champion plus one at-large team (best conference record?) play a “mini-playoff.”  Two weeks in late November and early December to determine the conference champion.  Yes, it would begin on Thanksgiving weekend!  This would avoid the whining about stretching games into finals week and calm the bogus calls for maintaining “academic integrity.”

If that is too much to swallow, then of the three divisional winners, the two lowest will face off in a “play-in” game to decide which team moves into the post-season [again, more on that below].  The divisional winner with the best record automatically qualifies for the post season.

Of the two options, I prefer the latter because I think it would face the least amount of resistance.  While the former allows for a strong division to have proper representation (such as the SEC West having Auburn, LSU and Alabama all appearing to be much better than SEC East champ South Carolina), there is something to be said about winning the games on the field.  If each team plays one another in a division, then there should be no excuse.

Again, the same can occur in the lower tier.

  • Taxing the Polls: Blowing Up Rankings!

Polls are antiquated.  Preseason polls set up certain teams in privileged positions based on perception that can sometimes be misleading.  Plus, it is geographically and temporally biased as some pollster never watch west coast games, while the timing of a loss (early season versus late season) is weighted different.

Let us get rid of polls!  It is here that I would want to borrow from the WSJ’s system, which is borrowing from the English Premiership.  There needs to be a points system.  But I would move it more towards the NHL point system in order to compensate for overtime.

In this system, three points (versus one point in the WSJ version) would be earned for a win within the top tier.  I flirted with the idea of giving more points for conference wins, but I decided against it.

Two points would be earned for an overtime win, while one point can be earned for an overtime loss.  While it might seem unfair to take away one point for winning in overtime (and earning one for losing in overtime), there are two things I am taking into consideration here.  First, sometimes teams fight back to force overtime yet still end up losing; why not reward that?  Second, winning in overtime is fluky.  If you do not believe me, ask Portland State.

Finally, one point will be earned for a win against a lower tier opponent.  However, taking from the WSJ’s system, one point will be deducted for losing to a lower tier team.  No points are awarded for overtime wins versus lower-tier teams, nor are points deducted for overtime losses.

For the lower-tier, two points are awarded for a win against a fellow tier member, but three points for a win over an upper-tier team.  One point is awarded for an overtime win (regardless of tier), but no points for an overtime loss.

This system would encourage teams in the upper tier to schedule more upper tier opponents.  To be sure, many may target the weakest of the upper tier teams, but at least we are talking about the same general level.

However, I would add a couple of stipulations to the scheduling.  Keeping with the 12-game schedule, every team would have three non-conference games.  Each upper-tier team would be required to schedule one lower tier team.  This would allow lower-tier teams a chance at exposure and maintain viability.  The upper-tier teams would have a “break” from upper-tier competition.

Next, non-conference games at the upper-tier must be home-and-home series.  Neutral site games are acceptable, but it must be a two-game series.  This helps with long-term scheduling.  Games with lower-tier teams would not necessarily be home-and-home.  The upper-tier, non-conference games will be locked in between set conferences and worked out between the two conferences.  If there are rivals in separate conferences, then those become automatic non-conference games, while the remaining such games can be handled whichever way the conferences decide.

Finally, a ban would be placed on games with FCS schools.  This applies to both tiers.

In the end, the scheduling and the points should help produce a ranking system that better reflects the play on the field.  Any seeding that needs to be drawn together for the inter-conference “championships” can come from this ranking system.  This can then lead into the post season.

  • Post Season: Playoffs Minus the Playoffs

I am not going to wave the white flag and submit to the notion of there will never be a playoff at the FBS level.  But, I have always maintained that a system can be set up to be similar to a playoff based on the current bowl structure.

First, we need to blow up some bowl games.  While I love seeing Sun Belt teams compete, no one is really watching the New Orleans Bowl!  There are way too many bowl games rewarding way too many 6-6 teams.  So the Bowl needs to go away!

In its current format, just over 58 percent of all FBS teams go to the “post season,” although only 8.3 percent go to a BCS bowl game.  Compare this to 19.7 percent of all D-1 schools making it to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and it is clear that 35 bowl games is far too many.

I propose to cut this number down to 20 bowl games.  Yes, this means that 33 percent of teams are going to the post season, but this also includes both tiers.  And, it is not necessarily 40 teams; depending on the conference format would determine the number of teams eligible for the post season.

Ten-team Conference Format.  In the six ten-team conference format, there would be four “champions” of the inter-conference games.  This gives us four teams that could be slotted into seeds and play in a New Year’s Day bowl game.  The two games could rotate between the four current bowl games of the BCS.  For example, this year one game could be in the Orange Bowl and the other in the Rose Bowl.

From here, the winners would face off in the “BCS National Championship Game.”  This year, it will be the Sugar Bowl and held one week after New Year’s Day (as it is now).  The Fiesta Bowl, which held the BCS Game last season, would be the “odd bowl out” in this scenario.  To make up for it, they would host the two highest ranked teams that did NOT qualify for the “and one” playoff.  Hey, it’d be better than UConn v. Oklahoma.

A similar set-up could be constructed for the lower tier teams.  Because there is no pre-existing system here (like the BCS), three bowl games could be set aside for this system — Holiday Bowl, Cotton Bowl and the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.  However, in this case, the “championship” game would be on New Year’s Day, with the two “semifinal” games the week prior.

This system occupies seven of the 20 bowl games.  Ten of the 13 remaining bowl games will be split into tier-specific match-ups.  In other words, five bowl games will involve only upper-tier teams while another five will involve lower-tier teams.  The remaining three bowl games will be “inter-tier” games involving the highest ranked lower-tier teams versus mid-level to upper mid-level top-tier teams.  It could be possible to have the top remaining teams from the lower-tier square off against the top remaining teams from the upper-tier, but I fear the gap may be too wide and appeal would be low.

15-Team Conference Format.  If this format is followed, then more bowl games would need to go into the “playoff.”  It would also mean another week of action.

Nevertheless, dealing with the top-tier, there would need to be a total of seven bowl games set aside.  I would take the seven bowl games used in the above system — Chick-Fil-A, Cotton, Fiesta, Holiday, Orange, Rose and Sugar — and start the rotation.

While there may be bickering, I would argue for the games to begin the week after the season ends [the week after the “play-in” games].  The Rose may not like hosting their game in December, but maybe we can work something out.  Say, the Rose is guaranteed the New Year’s Day “semifinal,” but can never host the BCS Championship Game.  Hey, there has to be a trade off.

The process would then proceed as above, with the “semifinal” on New Year’s Day, and the BCS Game one week later.

The lower tier could do the same but use the Alamo Bowl, Capital One Bowl, Gator Bowl, Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Sun Bowl, and Military Bowl.  I am reluctant to choose the Outback Bowl because of fear of having three games in Florida.  But I might be willing to take the Outback Bowl and drop the long-running Gator Bowl.

I include the Little Caesar’s and Military Bowls due to the location, but would be willing to consider the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas.  The Aloha Bowl is also an option, but I worry about the logistics.

The remaining six bowls would be divided with two each for each tier, and the remaining two for inter-tier games.

  • Promotion and Relegation

Ah, finally!  The main point of the article — promotion and relegation.  As I have noted before, promotion and relegation cannot work within the Division 1 structure (i.e., between FBS schools and FCS schools); this is mostly due to stadium and scholarship differences.  And while I still like the conference promotion/relegation system, I think the applying the system to the teams of the FBS can work.

I had originally considered having the top teams in the lower-tier face the bottom teams from the upper-tier in a bowl game as a means to directly determine promotion and relegation.  In this case, if the lower-tier team wins then that team is promoted.  Conversely, if the upper-tier team wins then that team maintains its place at the Big Boy’s table.

However, I feel this is rewarding bad teams in the upper division.  Hence, it should be based on points accrued over time.  The teams with the most points in the lower-tier are promoted up while the teams with the fewest points in the upper-tier are relegated down.  In this system, it mirrors the WSJ’s format.  There would be some differences.

I believe that allowing promotion and relegation every season is too disruptive.  A team can have a solitary bad season (Michigan in 2009) and get relegated despite its general trend.  Therefore, a departure from the WSJ would be to have a multi-year review for teams.  At first, I considered a two-year review, but I think a four-year review is more rigorous.  Even numbers work best because of the home-and-home requirement in scheduling.  Four years is a nice number because it is a full recruiting class worth of information with which to work.  It provides a better measure of a team’s long term success (or failure).

I agree with the Wall Street Journal in that the upper-tier conferences need to be tied in with lower-tier conferences in the same geographic region.  There is nothing attractive about Hawai’i being promoted up and placed in an East Coast conference.  Thus, regardless of the number of conferences used, there would be a pairing between conferences of different tiers.

As for the number of teams, it would depend on the number of conferences.  If it is six conferences, I would suggest two as a maximum.  In total numbers, that would be a 20 percent turnover in conference composition every four years.  This is fair given that it is not an annual process.  If the four conferences of 15 teams is the format, then the number of promoted and relegated teams would be three per conference (again, 20 percent).

A system of promotion and relegation would maintain a level of competition even among teams that are struggling (especially in the upper-tier), as well as reward “mid-major” schools that outperform their assigned label.

  • Odds and Ends: Notre Dame, New FBS Schools and Television Revenue

There are three unresolved issues — the place for independents (namely Notre Dame), the four new FBS schools, and television revenue.

Independents would receive an ultimatum — join a conference or face permanent relegation!  This especially applies to Notre Dame.  Notre Dame’s clutching to the archaic status of independence serves no purpose in college football.  Notre Dame has not produced a relevant football program in over 20 years (they are still a relevant television draw).  There does not need to be a special exemption for Notre Dame.  Join the program and go down to the lower-tier…permanently.  If Army, BYU and Navy choose to remain independent, the same would apply to them.

As for the newcomers — UMass, South Alabama, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State — they would be placed into the lower-tier.  The idea here is that they need to work their way up and earn that upper-tier status.

Finally, television revenue.  No more conference-specific or team-specific contracts.  While it is not expected that the NCAA could pull in the $20+ billion being paid to broadcast NFL games, it is possible to work a similar, all-encompassing television.  Fox, CBS, ABC and ESPN could all broadcast games, but bid on particular conferences.  Yet, the total revenue is shared among all members of the FBS.  A larger portion will go to upper-tier teams, but there would be a more equal dispersal across the various upper-tier conferences.

Other networks such as NBC or cable channels such as Versus could also get involved.  The point is that there are plenty of television outlets to broadcast these games and better ways to divide up the pie (and end the realignment mess, which is driven predominantly by television revenue).  Additionally, as the WSJ notes, such a revenue stream also provides another incentive to remain in the upper-tier (or to get promoted up to that tier).

  • Conclusion…finally!

Certainly there are issues with a promotion/relegation system, namely getting all FBS schools on board.  But it could go a long way in solving many issues, including conference affiliation, scheduling, and legitimately determining a champion without deconstructing the bowl system.

One issue could be that some schools may resort to more rules violations in order to remain in the upper-tier or in order to achieve promotion.  That is where reform is needed for the NCAA.  And, for another article!

I will provide a follow-up to this article where I lay out potential conference alignments.  But at roughly 3500 words, this article is done!

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