With all of the debate surrounding UCF’s national title claim (and their undefeated season), it’s worth asking a question. What if college football utilized a relegation system, like some soccer leagues? This is, obviously, not something being considered by the NCAA. But, there are some interesting points that wash out if one takes a close look at what college football relegation would look like.
College Football Relegation: Time To Consider?
First, let’s look at why relegation won’t happen. Simply put, the Power 5 conferences (plus Notre Dame) won’t let it happen. The conferences own the product of college football, and the Power 5 conferences (plus Notre Dame) wield that control with absolute power. Any threat to the status quo is met with resistance. In this case, using a relegation system would mean lower yearly payouts for two schools in each of the conferences.
But, more importantly, it would mean that the Group of Five conferences would get a little closer to the Power 5. We’ll run the scenarios below, but what if North Carolina and Syracuse were relegated to the American Athletic Conference and UCF and Memphis took their place? That, in and of itself isn’t a big deal. But what if Syracuse and North Carolina couldn’t win their place back it to the ACC? And what if UCF and Memphis won more than 50% of their games in the ACC? An undefeated, Group of Five conference champion would then have a very legitimate argument for getting in the College Football Playoff. Moreover, many current members of the Power 5 would be worried about getting stuck in a Group of Five conference long term.
In short, there’s no way this is ever considered by the NCAA.
But If It Did …
But what would it look like if it did?
It’s actually a lot cleaner than it sounds. There are five Power 5 conferences and five Group of Five conferences. And these five line up geographically fairly well. So first we will align the Power 5 conferences with the Group of Five conferences as such:
Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) with American Athletic Conference (AAC)
Big 12 Conference (B12) with Conference USA (CUSA)
Big Ten Conference (B10) with Mid-American Conference (MAC)
Pac-12 Conference (P12) with Mountain West Conference (MWC)
Southeastern Conference (SEC) with Sun Belt Conference (SBC)
Each Power 5 conference partner with each Group of Five conference to exchange teams. In this example, two teams from each conference move to the other conference. That works out nicely, as four of the five Power Five conferences and four of the five Group of Five conferences have divisions. Each Power 5 last-place division team is relegated and the two division winners from each Group of Five team take their places. For the B12 and the SBC, it will be the two last-place teams and the two top ranked teams.
2017 Relegation Results
What would the upcoming season look like if college football relegation existed in 2017?
|ACC Relegation||AAC Advancement|
|B12 Relegation||CUSA Advancement|
|10th Place||Kansas||West||North Texas|
|B10 Relegation||MAC Advancement|
|P12 Relegation||MWC Advancement|
|North||Oregon State||Mountain||Boise State|
|SEC Relegation||Sun Belt Advancement|
|West||Arkansas||2nd Place||Appalachian State|
Nothing terribly controversial about Syracuse and North Carolina being relegated to the AAC. On the up side, UCF and Memphis advancing to the ACC would give the nation an idea of just how well a top-flight Group of Five team could do over an entire season in a Power 5 conference. There’s a lot of talent on these two teams, especially UCF. They might not go undefeated again, but there’s a good chance that they wouldn’t be going back to the AAC.
Again, nothing terribly controversial about Baylor or Kansas being relegated. Kansas, along with Oregon State, has long been one of the worst Power 5 teams. Quite honestly, there’s a stong likelihood the Big 12 wouldn’t ever see Kansas again. They would have to win at least nine games to get back to Big 12 against teams like Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, and Texas-San Antonio. Enjoy basketball season, Jayhawks. On the flip side, how fun would it be see Lane Kiffin bring the Owl Train into the Big 12 and those high-powered offenses. Unlike UCF and Memphis, the Owls and the Mean Green might only have one season in the big leagues.
This is where purists might start to have some issues. The Big Ten is a conference that prides itself on its tremendous history and traditions. Even though Indiana and Illinois haven’t been good for a long time, there’s a lot of people in Big Ten land that just wouldn’t feel right kicking the Hoosiers and Illini out and bringing in Akron and Toledo. This might also be the most lop-sided of the conference match-ups. The odds indicate that the MAC teams that advance one year, are the same ones that would be relegated the next season. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine the relegated Big Ten teams not winning their way back to the Big Ten.
This is the strongest case for relegation. Both conferences line up nicely with regards to geography. Both conferences have built-in rivalries with Colorado-Colorado State, Boise State-Washington, Utah-Utah State, and several California teams. Additionally, fans have wanted to see Boise State in a big conference for years. But there’s some other quality teams in the Mountain West, including Fresno State and San Diego State. There’s no reason to think Oregon State would be able to get back to the P12, much like Kansas in the Big 12. And Boise State might find a home in the Pac-12, which means someone else would be moving out after 2018. Better bring your A-game Cal.
Here’s where relegation controversy comes in. Tennessee would easily be the most decorated team relegated in 2017, with more national championships in the last 90 years than the other 9 teams combined. It would be a tough pill for college football purists to see Tennessee and Arkansas playing outside of the SEC. And before you scoff at the Sun Belt, remember Troy beat LSU last season and Appalachian State took a nine-win Tennessee team to overtime in 2016. While the rest of the Sun Belt isn’t very good, and the Vols and Razorbacks would likely return the SEC, Troy and Appalachian State would get a chance to make a name for themselves by surviving the SEC regular season. That would also be a counter-argument to the “grueling SEC regular season” narrative that almost assures a one-loss SEC team a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The Other Issues
Certainly, there are other issues to deal with. But they aren’t insurmountable.
Revenue can be on a yearly basis. Akron and Toledo would get their fair share of the Big Ten money from 2018. And Indiana and Illinois, even if they earn advancement, would only get a share of the Mid-American Conference cut for that season. It would help the Group of Five teams monetarily.
Remember, this would only be for football, so schools wouldn’t have to worry about their traditional connections to their conferences. North Carolina, Syracuse, and Kansas basketball wouldn’t be affected by this at all. The only real issue in this area is when a team, let’s say Kansas, spends several years in Conference USA. Remember, there are plenty of schools that have teams that play in other conferences in non-revenue generating sports, like rowing or soccer. Kentucky and South Carolina field men’s soccer teams in CUSA because the SEC doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer. This could work the same way.
Scheduling isn’t a deal breaker, either. The teams keep their contracted non-conference match-ups and fall into the conference schedule for whatever team they replace. Ideally, the relegation and advancement are on conference records, anyway, but that’s up to the conference.
There are actually several benefits. As previously mentioned, fans will finally be able to see if a 13-0 Group of Five team can survive a Power 5 conference schedule for a full year.
Additionally, it would help the competitive balance across the college football landscape, bringing the Group of Five conferences closer to the Power 5 conferences due to increased exposure and a subsequent increase in revenue from television contracts.
Lastly, it’ll bring a new experience for the fans. It will add another dimension to the regular season. It’ll give meaning to the Indiana-Maryland game and the Cal-Oregon State game. And it will let fans see teams, stadiums, and cities that they haven’t seen before.
While it might not ever happen, it probably wouldn’t be as hard as most people think.
The game changes over time; is it time to promote the idea of relegation?
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