The Case For a Promotion/Relegation System in NCAA Division I Football

One week from tonight, the college football season will begin. And while many football fans will be ecstatic to see their favorite teams in action, many will still be wondering when the games actually begin. Opening Night of any sport is special. However, it would be a lot more special if the opponents of ranked teams didn’t consist of teams like Alcorn State, Tennessee-Martin, Wofford, McNeese State, Texas State, and Arkansas State.

One of my major gripes with collegiate sports is the scheduling. Every school that is part of a conference must comply with playing a set schedule against conference opponents, but there is no real rule for scheduling out-of-conference games. The de facto rule, unfortunately, boils down to how much cash is on the line.

As Michael Felder of Bleacher Report described it in a 2012 article:

Do we have to play smaller schools in-state as a rule or a show of goodwill?

Do we want to get into City/Area/State X for recruiting?

How much will Team A charge us for a game?

How much will Team B charge us for a game?

How much will Network Q pay us to play this game?

Can we afford to give up a home game down the road to play this home-and-home?

Will this team help fill up the stadium?

If we schedule these games back-to-back, is that too much?

Getting to schedule whichever team you want, including teams which aren’t even competing for the same championship you’re competing for, seems completely illogical. For instance, we don’t allow the New York Yankees to schedule games against the Binghamton Mets and treat it like it’s part of the regular season schedule. Excluding financial benefits, why would you allow it in college football? Yes, sometimes you get an Appalachia State vs. Michigan upset, or a North Dakota State over Kansas State. However, according to Football Geography, entering last season FBS schools were 2028-423-18 dating back to the Division 1A/1AA (now known as FBS and FCS) split in 1978, a winning percentage of .824. Furthermore, since 2000, FBS schools have not had a year in which their overall winning percentage against FCS teams was under .800.

But that includes all FBS schools that schedule games against FCS opponents. There’s quite a large difference between the level of talent at Alabama and the level of talent at The University of Buffalo. Only four FCS teams have ever defeated an FBS team ranked in the Associated Press poll. While the Kansas State, reigning Big 12 Champions’, loss to NDSU in 2013 was shocking, Kansas State was not even ranked at the time.

Since 2000, SEC teams have lost just three games against FCS opponents. Alabama is 10-0. Georgia is 15-0. In a sport such as college football, where one or two losses can ruin a season, why should schools be allowed to schedule easier opponents? I’ll give Ohio State a lot of credit for selecting Navy, a team who finished the season with a winning record and a bowl victory, as their opening match-up in 2014. And they deserve respect for scheduling Virginia Tech, a team which nearly dashed their FBS playoff hopes with a September victory over the Buckeyes, as their opening night match up this season.

This is what happens when there is scheduling anarchy. There are 128 teams in the FBS this season. You’re telling me that LSU couldn’t find any one better to play than McNeese State? There’s anarchy because teams and coaches have their different styles of how to perfect their team before the conference season begins. But there’s a difference between scheduling games, and scheduling scrimmages disguised as regular season games. No ranked team should be in the position to start their season against teams that are literally out of their league.

There needs to be a more exact way of categorizing teams in college football. There are 128 teams that are eligible for a four team playoff to decide the championship. 3.1% of all eligible teams for the FBS championship can make the playoffs. If Major League Baseball allowed 3% of its teams to make the playoffs, there would be no playoffs because only one team would be eligible to make it!

Instead of a logical system, college football is set up to have the power teams succeed, and all the rest of the teams to have an illusion of success. A conference championship for teams in the Sun Belt conference is a great season, but it’s nothing compared to how great of a season it could be if they had a chance of making a college playoff.

This problem would be simplified if instead of having one division of 128 teams loosely united by a system of conferences, there were five divisions of 30 teams.

The problem to fixing college football might be looking at football itself. No, not American football; association football, soccer. The governing bodies of football in Europe’s top countries all utilize a promotion and relegation system. If you’re not familiar with the system, at the end of each season. This not only ensures that only the top teams are competing for the top prize, but prevents against the top teams from beating up on smaller clubs. Hey, wait. That makes sense!

For example, let’s look at the Barclay’s Premier League in England. Three teams are sent down at the end of the season and three teams from the country’s second division, the Championship League, are brought up. Last year, Queens Park Raisins Rangers, Burnley, and Hull City finished with the lowest amount of points and were relegated. Bournemouth and Watford, the top two teams from the Championship, were automatically promoted to the Premier League, while Norwich earned promotion by winning a playoff between the teams which finished third through sixth. This process repeats itself throughout each of the professional leagues in the country – the bottom three teams from the Championship are sent down to the third division, oddly enough called League 1, and the top three teams are sent up to the Championship, and so on it goes further down to the bottom.

When you think about it, college athletics are more like European soccer teams than they are professional football teams. For one, while professional sports in America are designed for it’s largest markets, college sports retains a rural, or small-town feel to it. There’s no metropolis in Tuscaloosa or South Bend. While the largest cities in England (London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle) each have more than their fair share of professional teams, because clubs are more associated with a specific neighborhood than an entire city, the rivalries are more akin to Alabama vs Auburn than it is to Jets vs. Patriots.

Let’s also consider the number of teams in competition. Again using England as an example, there are four professional levels of competition – ranging from the Premier League all the way down to League 2. The Premier League has 20 teams, but each other competition has 24 teams. If you did the math, you’ll realize that there are 92 teams in professional English football. But instead of trying to do the impossible and select one championship out of all 92 teams, each division gets their own championship and an opportunity to compete at the next level if you play well enough to deserve it.

(PS. European football leagues also do have tournament-style competitions that are open to each professional team in the country, regardless of which level of competition they play in; the most famous of which is England’s FA Cup.)

What would it look like if FBS adopted a similar format? Originally, it was difficult for me to imagine. Luckily, Bill Connelly wrote a pre-season article in which he ranks and categorizes each team competing in the FBS. He breaks it down into seven tiers of teams, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to break it down to into four tiers of 25 teams and one bottom tier of 28 teams.

NCAA FBS Division I

  • 1. Ohio State
    2. Alabama
    3. Oregon
    4. Baylor
    5. Georgia
    6. TCU
    7. Ole Miss
    8. Auburn
    9. UCLA
    10. LSU
    11. Michigan State
    12. Oklahoma
    13. USC
    14. Arkansas
    15. Arizona State
    16. Stanford
    17. Florida State
    18. Tennessee
    19. Georgia Tech
    20. Notre Dame
    21. Wisconsin
    22. Louisville
    23. Mississippi State
    24. Clemson
    25. Virginia Tech

Your top division would include teams that are sure-fire contenders for the FBS Playoff. Teams play 12  regular season games against teams within their division as they attempt to qualify for the playoffs. The top four teams (16%) advance to the playoffs to crown a national championship. All teams, except for the one which finishes in last place at the end of the regular season, gets to play in a bowl game. The bottom team is automatically relegated. Teams that finish 17th-24th play bowl games against one another, with the loser of each game being relegated.

NCAA FBS Division II

  • 26. Boise State
    27. Missouri
    28. Nebraska
    29. Michigan
    30. Texas A&M
    31. Penn State
    32. BYU
    33. Miami
    34. Arizona
    35. Oklahoma State
    36. Pitt
    37. Florida
    38. Texas
    39. Minnesota
    40. Cincinnati
    41. Kansas State
    42. South Carolina
    43. Utah
    44. West Virginia
    45. NC State
    46. Navy
    47. Iowa
    48. North Carolina
    49. Maryland
    50. Kentucky

This division includes teams whose performance expectation ranges from, as Connelly describes it, “top 15 finish wouldn’t be surprising” to “top 40 is their goal (and that’s OK)”. Sure, classic teams such as Penn State, Miami, Florida, and Texas are not in the premier division, but it gives teams such as Boise State, Utah, and Navy a chance to play with the big boys on a consistent basis and work their way up to the top tier where they’d finally have a legit chance to compete for a championship. The top four teams in the AP Poll at the season’s end automatically earn a nationally televised bowl game and promotion to Division I. The fifth and sixth place team play a bowl game against each other with the winner earning the final promotion spot. The seventh and eighth place finishers receive a bowl invite. The bottom five teams in the AP poll at the end of the season are relegated.

NCAA FBS Division III

  • 51. Western Kentucky
    52. California
    53. Marshall
    54. Rutgers
    55. Georgia Southern
    56. Central Florida
    57. Northwestern
    58. Washington State
    59. Colorado State
    60. Duke
    61. Virginia
    62. Memphis
    63. Western Michigan
    64. Utah State
    65. Temple
    66. East Carolina
    67. Houston
    68. Texas Tech
    69. Boston College
    70. Colorado
    71. Arkansas State
    72. Louisiana Tech
    73. Toledo
    74. Rice
    75. Indiana

More teams searching for a top 40 (or in our case, 50) finish. A “fun combination of risers and fallers,” in the words of Connelly. Boston College has hardly been worthy of a position in a power conference for the past five seasons, while teams such as Western Michigan, and Western Kentucky have grown their programs in recent years. Bowl games, promotion and relegation work as it did in Division 2.

NCAA FBS Division IV

  • 76. San Diego State
    77. Air Force
    78. Northern Illinois
    79. Illinois
    80. Washington
    81. UL-Lafayette
    82. Appalachian State
    83. Purdue
    84. Middle Tennessee
    85. Tulane
    86. Old Dominion
    87. UTEP
    88. Oregon State
    89. South Alabama
    90. Iowa State
    91. Bowling Green
    92. Akron
    93. New Mexico
    94. Vanderbilt
    95. San Jose State
    96. Tulsa
    97. Ball State
    98. Wake Forest
    99. Syracuse
    100. Texas State

A division consisting mostly of what Connelly describes as “mid-major up-and-comers and power conference dead weight”. Our old friend Appalachian State is in this group, as are San Diego State and Old Dominion. Programs such as Iowa State, Purdue, and Syracuse, all of which have been in dire straits recently, find themselves near the bottom of the pack. As in the Second and Third Division, the top four teams gain promotion and a bowl game, the fifth and sixth teams play a bowl game against each other to determine the final promotion spot, seventh and eighth receive a bowl game, and the bottom five teams are sent down.

NCAA FBS Division V

  • 101. Nevada
    102. Florida Atlantic
    103. Fresno State
    104. UL-Monroe
    105. Florida International
    106. Ohio
    107. Wyoming
    108. Buffalo
    109. Kansas
    110. SMU
    111. Idaho
    112. Central Michigan
    113. Southern Miss
    114. Massachusetts
    115. South Florida
    116. Hawaii
    117. Kent State
    118. Army
    119. Troy
    120. Connecticut
    121. Miami (Ohio)
    122. North Texas
    123. UNLV
    124. Georgia State
    125. Eastern Michigan
    126. New Mexico State
    127. UTSA
    128. Charlotte

I can’t put it more succinctly than Connelly’s “:( 😦 :(“. The top five teams  earn promotion, and the top eight teams earn a bowl invite. There’s no penalty for finishing in the bottom five at the moment, but it would be possible to extend relegation into the FCS, on the provision that both FBS and FCS are able to issue the same number of scholarships to their players. Currently, FBS teams are allowed to offer 85 scholarships while FCS schools are allotted only 63.

In summary, there is one national championship selected from top-level competition of 25 teams. While you would still have controversy of “which team deserves a spot” in the playoff, I think we can all agree that it’s easier to compare one team to another when there are only 24 other teams that it would be possible to compare them to. As far as bowl games go, this system would have 29 bowl games, down significantly from the 39 bowls from the 2014-15 season. With the exception of the Division 1 playoff and relegation bowl games, any team can play one another in a bowl game, regardless of which Division they are in.

Is this system perfect? No. But it’s a lot better than the oligarchy currently present in college football, where very few teams outside of the power conferences are relevant. Geographic or classic rivalries would be thrown out of the window in this scenario, but recent conference re-alignments has proven that this was never a major concern for the NCAA anyway. Conferences have become less confined to geographic areas, less traditional, but still just as imbalanced. A promotion/relegation system would ensure that there is always an interesting, meaningful college game going on while respecting an equal, or near-equal playing field. I don’t want to watch Alabama beat up on Western Carolina in late November when their win-loss record is going to have a monumental impact on the playoff picture. How is that dramatic? If you’re a big time college football program, you shouldn’t have to shy away from competition. You should relish it, and soak it in.  The sport would be the better for it.

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