Conference realignment endgame, part 1: Why college football needs a promotion/relegation system

Well, it's the time of year we call Bowl Season... that delightful time between the conference championship games and the national championship game when people gather around to watch bad exhibition football and complain about the BCS.

I have said in the past that the BCS is the worst method of selecting a national champion, except for all of the other systems. I would like to add a caveat to that statement, however. I have no problem with the method by which we match up a #1 team against a #2 team. The vast improvement we can make, however, is the method by which we ensure a level playing field for all teams: a promotion/relegation system.

At the risk of alienating the majority of readers, I must freely admit that I have stolen this idea from 90+% of the soccer leagues around the world. I hope you will bear with me for just a little while longer, however, because the reason it makes so much sense for college football is precisely the same reason it makes so much sense for the soccer world.

Let's consider England, for example. There are parts of the country where football (as they call it) is widely played, widely followed, and the fans who live there are so passionate about their teams that some people jokingly refer to it as their religion. There are other parts of the country where good football is played, but the fans simply aren't as loud and boisterous, so they at times get less publicity, even though their teams are very good. And certain parts of the country have great fans but poor teams, and vice versa.

There are literally hundreds of soccer teams associated with the Football Association, or FA as it is called. Some have more talent than others, some have more loyal supporters than others, and some simply have more resources than others. The way the FA sorts this out is by allowing teams to compete with other teams on their competition level year-in and year-out.

For example, there are 7 football teams in the Manchester metropolitan area alone, and 14 in Greater London. (For the soccer-literate among you, I'm only counting League teams.) If a club wants to improve their program, however (or if they happen to procure an oil baron as their program's premier benefactor), they have the opportunity to play their way into the best leagues and compete for the national titles on the field, and they do it all without a playoff system.

That system is the promotion/relegation system.

At its heart, the concepts of promotion and relegation are simple. A hierarchy of leagues is established, and the worst-performing teams in each league at the end of the year are demoted to the next league below them in the system. Likewise, the best-performing teams in each league are promoted to the league above them. As the old cliche goes, however... the devil is in the details.

- The first, and most unpleasant change (to some) we have to make is to codify one of the most basic unspoken rules of our current BCS system: namely, that teams from non-AQ conferences have no shot at winning the national championship.

- Unlike soccer leagues, college football can't have just one big "Premier League" conference. We would still need to have most of the current AQ conferences. I've done the Big East a favor and put it out of its misery. (The numbers worked better that way, anyway.) Now, every AQ and second-tier conference will be required to have exactly 12 teams. (Conference championship games are still optional, however.)

- All of the BCS automatic-qualifying conferences will be required to be geographically-based. Likewise, the conferences attached to them in the promotion ladder will be tied to similar geographies.

- Bonus: The third-tier leagues and lower (currently Division I-AA) would not need to cancel their current playoff systems. They can still crown their national champions via playoff, but it simply would not affect who was promoted and relegated, which would be determined solely by league standings.

- Pros: The previous rule leads to one of the most positive side-effects of this system: We will be able to eliminate all of the radical realignment that has been occurring. We will no longer have a "Big East" conference that boasts members from California, Idaho, and Texas, or a "Western Athletic Conference" that includes Louisiana Tech. Also, we will eliminate parvenus like Boise State, who have been harping for the better part of a decade that they "belong with the big boys." They would have been "big boys" a long time ago under this system.

- The biggest "Pro" of this plan, however, is that it will do what is long overdue in collegiate athletics: it will strip college football away from all of the other athletics programs sponsored by the NCAA. Schools will be free to pursue static memberships in conferences for all other sports, saving themselves from having to send the women's softball team from Connecticut to Boise, Idaho, just so the football team can be part of a "power conference." The football money will still be there, and it will still be distributed amongst the conference's member schools. What we are doing here is putting the cash cow to work, while allowing all of the other sports to pursue their natural, historic conference alignments.

- Cons: It is unknown which teams will be promoted and relegated each year, so it's possible that divisions might have to be realigned within conferences on a year-to-year basis to continue making geographic sense. Also, the initial implementation will have to be accompanied with another radical realignment to set the geographic footprint of the AQ conferences.

Just for the sake of creating the first hypothetical, I've created the following hierarchy as a starting point. Every year, the bottom 2 finishers in the conference (the last-place teams from each division) will be relegated to the next-lowest tier in the table, and the top two finishers from each conference will be promoted to the next-highest tier.

The conferences are tied as follows (Listed through 3 tiers, though we can go as many layers down as it takes to encompass all NCAA football-playing institutions ):

SEC -> Conference USA -> Southern Conference/CAA

ACC -> Big East/Sun Belt (SUN BEAST!) -> Big South Conference/Patriot League

Big Ten(+2) -> MAC -> Pioneer/Ohio Valley League

Big XII -> Mountain West -> Missouri Valley/Southland Conference

Pac-12 -> WAC -> Great West/Big Sky Conference

Coming in part 2 (and potentially a part 3 if it's too long): The new team breakdown of each conference (to set geographical boundaries)

What do you think of this new system? Will it help level the playing field for universities who would like to step up their level of competition? Would you like it just for the laughs of seeing a team like Vanderbilt or Kentucky slip down to what is today a I-AA conference? Or do you hate it and hate me for proposing it? Let me know in the comments!

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