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A Modest Realignment Proposal

College football conferences are messy and confusing. Let’s start over.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Washington at UCLA Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A year ago, Max took a stab at a different sort of conference realignment. It was a system built around four major conferences with 16 teams each, plus minor conferences affiliated with the majors. The key qualification is that it would be possible for the teams from the lower conferences to jump into the higher conferences through on-field success with a system of promotion and relegation. The conferences were reasonably balanced in terms of geographic diversity, team quality, and market viability. It was a good system.

Alas, we’re no closer to resolving the ongoing fight over conference alignment. A lot has changed in the last year, but none of those changes have brought us much closer to true stability. With that in mind, I started to revisit Max’s idea: what would it look like if we started from scratch and wanted to build conference alignment and scheduling in college football without the ultimate control of TV networks, the CFP, and other interests removed from fan experience?

When I started to think through the idea, there were a few guiding principles that I knew I wanted to preserve:

  • I love the promotion/relegation system. It preserves and restores the sanctity of the regular season. Of course, a few teams in the middle of a conference will have games that don’t matter much at the end of the year, but with relatively small divisions, most games will have great importance for most teams.
  • At the same time, I need to find a way to preserve the most important regional rivalries. Fan rivalries and the history attached to them are the sorts of things that distinguish college football from most other major American sports. The number of 100-year-old college football rivalries is probably longer than the list of 100-year-old rivalries in all major American sports combined.
  • While I’m not the biggest fan of the tournament structure at the end of the season, I recognize that I’m in the minority on that question. The ideal system should have an exciting postseason that doesn’t negate the games played in the regular season.

With those criteria in mind, I came up with two options for a new conference alignment and schedule.

Option 1- Cream of the Crop

This version includes only 72 teams, which is just over half of the current FBS. There are four conferences with loose regional and historical ties. Each conference has an upper tier and a lower tier. The top team in each conference automatically goes to an eight-team CFP at the end of the year. Four additional at-large teams will go to the CFP based on the choice of a selection committee. A team must finish in the top three of Tier 1 to make the CFP (no conference will send more than three of the eight teams).

(It’s worth noting that the initial Tier rankings are purely subjective. You could argue about Iowa vs. Minnesota vs. Kansas St. for the last Tier 1 spot in the Midwest. The negotiations around this part would be nearly impossible unless schools were able to agree on some objective formula to divide the initial tiers. I haven’t tried to make that clean of a divide here.)

This system also includes promotion and relegation. The bottom team from Tier 1 drops down and the top team from Tier 2 moves up. Additionally, the second-to-bottom team in Tier 1 hosts the second-place Tier 2 team with a spot in next year’s Tier 1 on the line. The Tier 1 school hosts this game. These four games will be must-see TV. A fun side-effect of promotion and relegation is that it creates a very harsh type of penalty for rule infractions. In European football, teams that have broken serious rules have sometimes been relegated to lower leagues as punishment. I love the idea of Oregon getting sent to Tier 3 for **PURELY HYPOTHETICAL** recruiting violations. Wink wink.

For scheduling, each team will play the other eight teams from their Tier every season. They will also play two games per year against the other Tier of their conference. Each team can have up to two “locked” rivals that they will automatically play even if one of the teams drops to the lower Tier. For example, if UW’s two locked rivals were Oregon and Washington State and both of the rivals fell into Tier 2 (fingers crossed), UW would have those two cross-Tier games locked in. If a team has fewer than two locked rivals or their locked rivals are in the same Tier, they would play two teams from the next Tier on a rotating basis. That leaves two additional games on the regular season schedule, both of which will be played before the start of conference play. The two games will be against one team from Tier 1 and one from Tier 2 in another conference. The conferences will rotate their opposing conferences year. For example, if the West Conference was matched up with the Midwest Conference one year, UW would play one Midwest Tier 1 game and one Midwest Tier 2 game to open the year. The next year, the West and Midwest would both rotate to other conference opponents.

Option 2- Place at the Table

The major difference in this version is that there is a third Tier in each conference and every current FBS school is included. The same promotion and relegation rules apply, but teams from Tier 3 can be promoted into Tier 2 or relegated from 2 to 3. In-conference scheduling would be similar, but teams would play one team from each of the other two Tiers each year within the conference schedule (unless they have two locked rivalry games, which would occur rarely). Additionally, Tiers 1 and 2 in this version have eight teams instead of nine, which frees up a week for a third non-conference game so each team can play a team from each Tier of their aligned conference for that year. This cyclical scheduling approach solves the problem of SEC schools loading up on bad non-conference opponents to avoid a letdown game.

Finally, I think that this system would mostly work for other sports, as well. The schedules would be different, but with the Tiers in each conference, there’s room to flex for bigger or smaller schedules with different sized Tiers. If only 20 schools in the Western Conference had Softball teams, it could easily divide into two tiers instead of three.

What do you think? This approach is just a fun thought exercise, so use the comments to poke holes in it or come up with improvements. Better yet, come up with a whole new conference structure of your own and we can argue about whose is better.