Saving College Football from Itself

TO: NCAA President Mark Emmert
Major College Athletic Directors
College Football Conference Commissioners
RE: College Football Realignment/Playoff

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are once again nearing the end of another exciting college football season.  There have been some stellar individual accomplishments, great team performances, and heart-stopping finishes.  Traditional powers and perennial doormats alike have made their way through the minefield of the college football season, and are preparing for the upcoming conference championships and bowl games.

Yes, in many different ways, college football is thriving.  Cavernous and vast football stadiums are filled every weekend and television ratings are through the roof.  And it is because of this success that I make this simple plea:

Please … Stop.

It says a lot when the main discussion on sports talk radio days before what is traditionally known as “rivalry weekend” is focused not on the upcoming games or conference titles on the line, but upon yet another conference realignment where schools are choosing to “follow the money” and join a conference with which it has little or no connection of any sort.  Geography, tradition, and common sense be damned.

Here is where we stand at the current point:

  • The “Big Ten” currently has 12 teams, and will be expanding to 14 in 2014, with team stretching from College Park, Maryland, to Lincoln, Nebraska (1,203 miles).
  • The “Big XII” currently has 10 teams, reaching from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Lubbock, Texas (1,463 miles).
  • The “Pacific 12” conference (at least they got the number right) includes a team from Colorado, which is about as far from a coast as you can get in the United States.
  • The “Mountain West” conference has two teams (Hawaii, San Diego St.) from cities with an average elevation of less than 100 feet.
  • Louisiana Tech (Ruston, LA) is in the “Western Athletic Conference,” and is a whopping 2,245 from fellow conference member the University of Idaho (Moscow, ID).

Folks, this gerrymandering of the college football landscape needs to end.  For starters, the fact of the matter is that most college athletic departments lose money, with football being the main culprit for escalating expenditures.  These conference realignments will only exacerbate the problem.  (This will especially be the case where the realignment is for all sports—flying a field hockey team across the country on a regular basis is not cheap.)

Click image to expand

Second, such realignment is fundamentally unfair to a large segment of schools who are presumably playing at the same level of competition (the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS), who are being marginalized.  Sure, there has always been the situation where the larger land grant schools have more revenue and exposure to filter into their athletic department budget, but the new landscape is one where the rich get demonstrably richer and the poor continue to get poorer.  As these new “superconferences” develop, any access to the mechanisms determining a national champion becomes more and more remote to those programs without the necessary clout or influence.  (More about the championship process in a bit.)

Third, the continual realignment of the college football world comes at the cost of the destruction of many of the traditions and rivalries that make the game so special.  Are Nebraskans going to get energized at the thought of playing Maryland the way they once did for Oklahoma?  Will yell practice in College Station, Texas, mean as much when the opponent is Mississippi State and not the hated Longhorns?  Even continuing, in-conference rivalries have been devalued, as conferences expand, resulting in years where programs don’t face one another.

There are other reasons why I hate the direction that the NCAA college football system is headed, but I’ll stop here for now.  Suffice to say that the current structure is one that has become that has become unwieldy and unstable, completely dependent on corporate sponsorship and television revenues, and unrecognizable from its original intent as a diversion and activity for actual college students.  And while it might be true that major college football has become “too big to fail,” it runs the risk of becoming divorced from any remaining pretense that it is somehow beholden to higher education, or that its participants are anything short of semi-professional athletes who are procured by the most dubious of practices.

Fortunately, I think I have a solution that might provide some needed structure to the system, help to restore some of the traditional geography, and open up opportunities for the “have-not” programs that labor under small budgets and low media coverage.  And, somewhat ironically, the salvation for this most American of games will come from a sport perceived by some to be “un-American.”

For many years, soccer leagues around the world have implemented a practice known as “promotion and relegation.”  The idea is a simple one: there are multiple tiers of leagues in a given country.  When a team finishes in the top two or three spots in its division, it is promoted to the league the next level up, switching places with the two or three teams that finished in the bottom of the table in the league above.

When suggested for other sport models here in the States, the suggestion is regularly dismissed.  In many professional sports, the minor league teams are farm teams of the current top tier teams, making such an arrangement impossible.  In others, there is simply too much money tied to television revenue and merchandise for any of the major markets to risk relegation.

With college football, however, the system would actually work.  Not only would it work, I suggest it will solve many of the issues that threaten to overwhelm the game.

Here is what I propose:

  • In place of the current conference system, the college football map will be divided into seven geographic regions:  East, Atlantic, Southeast, Great Lakes, Midwest, Southwest, and West.
  • All of the existing FBS teams will be filtered into one of these regions.  The top tier will consist of 10 teams per region, with the remaining teams composing the second tier.
  • The top team from each region, plus two wild card teams will be selected to a single-elimination playoff.  The two wild card teams would face each other in an initial round, with the winner to face the lowest seed of the regional champions.  Wild card selection and seeding to be determined by something akin to the current BCS ranking system.

College Football Realignment_xlsx

The benefits of such a system are numerous:

  • The game returns to its regional roots.  No more conference games two time zones away.  (Well, unless you happen to be in a conference with Hawaii, but that is more-or-less unavoidable.)  Regional rivalries are maintained, travel expenditures are kept at a minimum, and most road games will be in driving distance for the general fan base.  Best yet, long-held rivalries recently sacrificed to conference realignment (e.g., Oklahoma/Nebraska, Texas/Texas A&M, Penn State/Pittsburgh) will be restored.
  • Ten-team tiers guarantee that every team in the same tier in a region plays every other team in the tier during the course of a season.  All too often, it becomes difficult to determine a conference champion because two or more teams laying claim to the title have not played one another, and do not have very similar resumes as to the teams they have played.  It becomes much simpler when all teams have played an identical conference slate to determine a champion.  In case of a tie, the head-to-head record should suffice as a tie-breaker in most instances.  Plus, the smaller units still allow for 2-3 out-of-tier games so that inter-regional rivalries may be maintained (e.g., Notre Dame/USC).
  • No independent teams.  Again, the base schedule of all the teams in a region should be similar, which isn’t the case when a team without a conference affiliation sets its own schedule.  Plus, all media contracts would now be set by the NCAA, rather than an individual school, thus helping to rein in the ability for already established programs to further separate from other schools in terms of television revenue.  (Looking in your general direction, Golden Domers.)
  • Every game counts.  Some of the most exciting matches at the end of the season in soccer leagues around the globe do not occur with teams at the the “top of the table,” but rather between teams at the bottom, fighting like crazy to avoid dropping a level.  It’s quite likely that games like the “Old Oaken Bucket” game between Purdue and Indiana would have even more riding on them than in-state bragging rights and a wooden keg adorned with bronze letters.
  • Upward mobility for “have nots.”  Perhaps most importantly, teams that until now have been doomed to second-class status in the FBS will now have the chance to move up and play at the top levels based on merit.  Conversely, those teams who perennially underperform despite having all the benefits that come with major conference affiliation will find themselves having to win or risking demotion.
  • The elimination of the current conference championship games offers an additional week (or two) to allow for a playoff.  One of the current arguments against a playoff is how it would stretch the season out for those teams participating in a championship.  This would be mitigated by eliminating the conference championship games currently taking place.  Since there are no divided conferences, there would be no reason to have such a playoff, and the conference champion would be determined through the course of a season.  If that is deemed insufficient, the regular season schedule could be shortened from 12 to 11 games, while still maintaining a full schedule inside the regional tier.

The system would provide enough flexibility to allow for some fine tuning and tweaking.  Additional tiers could be added to include schools currently at the Football Championship Series (FCS) level, if they desired to be a part of the festivities.  (They might not.  Unlike the FBS, they already have a nice, simple playoff format.  Plus, there are FCS conferences such as the Ivy League that choose not to be a part of the existing playoff system, citing academics as the primary reason.  Novel concept, that.)  One enterprising individual has even dreamed up a relegation model that incorporates all football levels, reaching down even to schools in the NAIA.  I’m not sure something that deep would be necessary, but it is possible to implement.

The system is not perfect, of course.  The disparity between the football powerhouses and the less-established programs will not disappear overnight.  (Ask teams like Wigan or Stoke if they feel like they are on equal footing in the English Premier League with soccer giants Manchester United or Chelsea.)  And careful attention would have to be paid to ensure that no chicanery or underhanded dealing takes place by college programs or their boosters.  Still, it does offer programs a chance to prove themselves with the “big boys,” and allowing them an extended stay at the top level, if they can prove their worthiness.

I must admit that the relegation idea is not unique to me.  I first became aware of the idea from Spencer Hall’s sometimes profane, often very funny, but always worth reading blog, Every Day Should Be Saturday (a/k/a “EDSBS”).  Since then, the idea has popped up in a number of places, including the pages of Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.  The fact that the idea is being supported by such a disparate group should lend some credence to the argument that such a format would be not only feasible, but beneficial.

Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly urge you to consider my proposal.  Here’s hoping that we can prevent the great pageantry and tradition that is college football from collapsing under the weight its own hubris.

Steve Rempe
College Football Fan

Author: Steve Rempe

Christian. Husband. Dad. Bengal fan. (Pretty much in that order.)

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