What would relegation and promotion look like in college football?


Temple football was a laughingstock when Bill Bradshaw took over as the Owls’ athletic director in 2002. Recruiting was a mess. The coaching staff was forced to bring in a host of junior college transfers, which led to a precipitous decline in academic performance rates. The previous five coaches had all been fired. The Owls hadn’t won more than four games in a season in 12 years, and no one showed up for games at the cavernous old Veterans Stadium, a 1970s-era relic not close to campus.

As bad as Temple’s program was, however, things seemed destined to get worse. The Owls had just been excommunicated from the Big East, the team’s performance so miserable that the conference could no longer justify paying a share of revenues to a perennial doormat.

Temple had been cast off into the college football wilderness. Or, as fans of international soccer might put it, the Owls were relegated.

“Getting kicked out for dragging the league down and getting a share of the revenues without putting any revenues in at all,” Bradshaw said, “we had nowhere to go.”

In American sports, there’s virtually no context for such a move, but if you head across the Atlantic, a system of promotion and relegation in soccer is the norm, and it makes for some of the most interesting storylines and drama-filled matches of the season.

The playoff matchup that decides which team gets promoted each year is dubbed “The richest game in football,” with as much as £100 million on the line, ESPN soccer analyst Shaka Hislop said.

Even games between awful teams still draw a big audience as fans hope to avoid relegation.

In college football, however, a team like Kansas can endure a decade of utter futility, and still keep its seat at the table with the more successful members of the Big 12. More importantly, the school keeps collecting the same payout from the league.

Meanwhile, modern upstarts like UCF are left to beg and plead for high-profile games, and its path to a national championship is nonexistent, all because the Knights weren’t around to land a plum spot in a power league decades ago.

“The idea that being in the right place at the right time 50 years ago permanently positions you in a status in college football should at some point become antiquated,” UCF athletic director Danny White said. “At what point do the upstarts like UCF have a fair opportunity?”

Logistically speaking, the answer might be “never,” but college football is wading into an uncertain future at the moment, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing programs to take a hard look at spending, state governments taking steps to give athletes rights to profit from their name, image and likeness, existing TV deals drawing to a close amid a shifting media consumption landscape, and a societal change that’s empowering players like never before.

So, maybe White is right, and it’s time for a wholesale change to how college football operates. And perhaps the answer to his central question comes from Bradshaw’s experience at Temple: relegate the bad teams to make room for the up-and-comers.

Breaking down the options

International soccer offers a bevy of models college football could follow, but the most popular one comes from England. Each year, the three worst teams in the Premier League are relegated to the English League Championship, a rough equivalent to college football’s Group of 5. To soften the blow, the teams get a nice payout on their way out the door, and more often than not, they’re in a strong enough financial position to make a run at promotion the following year.

Meanwhile, the top six teams from the English League Championship all get a crack at moving up. The teams with the two best records automatically get promoted, while the next four play in a round-robin tournament to land the final EPL spot.

How might this look in college football?

Option 1: The EPL solution

The worst team in each Power 5 league gets relegated every year, shipped off to the Group of 5 conference with the most advantageous geographic footprint and an open slot. Meanwhile, the top two Group of 5 teams earn an automatic promotion, while the next six — composed of all remaining league champs plus needed wild cards — will compete in bowl games against one another, with the three winners also earning a promotion.

Assuming relegation decisions are made by conference records, with tiebreakers involving head-to-head outcomes, the 2019 season would’ve shipped off Rutgers, Kansas, NC State, Arizona and Arkansas to the Group of 5, and Memphis (to the Big 12) and Boise State (to the Pac-12) would’ve earned promotions.

Appalachian State, FAU, Miami (Ohio), Cincinnati, Navy and Air Force would have matched up in bowl games for their shots at promotion, too.

With this plan, the drama of those Group of 5 postseason showdowns would rival anything the New Year’s Six games had to offer, while those stumbles to the finish line between Maryland and Rutgers would’ve provided some real intensity, too.

Think the playoff committee is already scrutinized? Imagine what happens when their rankings determine the two Group of 5 schools that are promoted.

Of course, there are problems, too. What about Notre Dame and the other independents? With unequal scheduling, it hardly seems fair to send Arkansas (with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M on its slate) to the minor leagues, while Vandy got off a bit easier. But perhaps the most significant problem is that the one-year promotion/relegation model simply doesn’t fit the reality of college football, where stars leave every three years, and a big change at a key position — QB, coach, tailback — could send an otherwise consistent program spiraling downhill.

Option 2: The aggregate model

What if promotion and relegation were like the Olympics, and they happened only every four years? This might help with planning for TV contracts and future scheduling needs for programs, and it would avoid the possibility that one catastrophic season sends a program on an indefinite tailspin. Instead, this model would focus on success and failure over time, with the best teams in each four-year cycle getting promoted and the worst getting relegated.

From 2015 through 2019, Kansas (3-42 in conference play), Rutgers (4-40), Oregon State (8-37) and Arkansas (9-31) have the worst records in their respective leagues, and the ACC would enjoy the drama of a three-way tie between Boston College, Syracuse and Duke (all 14-26). The Orange would be our relegation loser based on the largest average margin of defeat.

On the flip side, App State (35-5), Boise State (33-7), Temple (30-10), Western Michigan (28-12) and Western Kentucky (27-13) would represent each Group of 5 league, and Arkansas State (31-9), San Diego State (29-11), Memphis (29-11), Navy (27-13) and Toledo (27-13) would round out a 10-team bowl battle for a shot at promotion. (Note: In this case, we’ll use records vs. Power 5 as the tiebreaker for inclusion.)

The upside to this plan is promoted teams would get four years to build before the next round of relegation, and one bad season won’t doom a team to an epic demise. Still, we run into issues. The bowl-battle model for the Group of 5 would heavily reward teams with the best personnel that year rather than throughout the four-year window. And where is the immediacy and drama? Without that, there’s no hefty TV payday, and without that, there’s far less incentive to make the plan work.

Option 3: Let’s get wild

Want to really shake things up? It wasn’t that long ago that real-world football was almost turned on its head when the Pac-12 was nearing a deal with Texas that might’ve ended with such a radical realignment of the sport that we got four 16-team super conferences. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.

Let’s get rid of all the historical conference relationships and start from scratch. We’ll build out four conferences with two divisions each for a “Premier League,” then have another four conferences with two divisions we’ll call the “Championship League” (formerly the Group of 5). Leagues and divisions will be based solely on geography (hey, we’re cutting travel costs and keeping rivalries!).

The top two teams in each division earn a spot in a 16-team playoff to determine the true national champion, where everything is decided on the field. The last-place team in each division lands a spot in a bowl-season showdown, where the winners keep their spot in the Premier League and the losers are relegated. Similarly, the conference title games for each of our newly formed Group of 5 conferences earns an automatic promotion.

While the look of those new conferences would make for its own worthy debate, we can take a stab at what it might have looked like in 2019, with Rutgers and NC State facing off to avoid relegation in the Northeast region, Arkansas and Georgia Tech in the Southeast, Purdue and Northwestern in the Midwest and Arizona and Texas Tech in the West. Meanwhile, App State and Navy, Memphis and Louisiana, Western Kentucky and Air Force, and Boise State and San Diego State would all battle head-to-head for promotion.

Does history give us clues to the future?

Back when the SEC played its first season in 1933, the top of the standings looked much the way it does today: Alabama, LSU and Georgia led the way. At the bottom of the barrel, however, was The University of the South, better known now as Sewanee, a small liberal arts college in Tennessee. Sewanee was a power at the turn of the last century, and that cache helped the Tigers become a charter member of the SEC. The only problem was, by the time the league began, the school was barely interested in maintaining its athletic programs. Sewanee didn’t win an SEC game in seven seasons before a new university president nixed scholarship athletics completely and the school withdrew from the conference.

Perhaps Sewanee’s move was inevitable. The Tigers were bad, and football was hardly a cash cow in those days. But what if, instead, Sewanee kept plugging along, happy just to be a part of the SEC party? Might it now be collecting $50 million a year from the league and still finishing 0-8 in conference play, its fans cheering along — “S-E-C! S-E-C!” — as the Crimson Tide roll toward another playoff berth?

That largely has been the story for Sewanee’s neighbor just 90 miles up I-24. Vanderbilt, another charter member of the SEC, won more than five games in a season only four times from 1952 to 2012, and yet the Commodores remain part of the preeminent football conference in the country, bringing in close to $45 million in revenue from the league in 2019 despite an on-field product that won only one conference game.

Vandy isn’t alone. Kansas is just 4-50 in Big 12 play during the College Football Playoff era. Oregon State (10-44 in the Pac-12), Illinois (13-39 in the Big Ten) and Arkansas (11-37 in the SEC) are among a litany of perennial bottom-feeders taking up space in Power 5 leagues, all because they joined in a much different era of college football.

The lesson: In college football, it helps to have been in the right place at the right time.

But what if that hefty check from the SEC office is actually doing more harm than good, and relegation could be the spark that turns things around? That’s exactly what happened at Temple.

At the time Bradshaw was hired, the school’s president wanted to drop football altogether. Plenty of others agreed. Bradshaw wasn’t so sure, so he started doing some digging. He found there was an ample appetite for college football among Temple’s students and alumni. Everyone was just sick of the losing.

In the end, football survived — by a one-vote margin, Bradshaw recalled — and Temple made an outside-the-box coaching hire in Al Golden. Then the school struck a deal with the MAC and began to rebuild from the ground up against a more manageable slate of opponents.

In 2009, Golden led Temple to a 9-4 record and its first bowl game since 1979. A winning record followed in seven of the next 10 seasons, with Golden and each of Temple’s next two coaches hired away by bigger names.

Temple’s rebirth is a rare success story, but it’s not entirely without comparisons. Just two years removed from a 10-2 record, Army abandoned its independent status in 1998, joining Conference USA. The Black Knights proceeded to go 13-67 in seven years as a league member before returning to life as an independent. That marked a low point for a historic program that’s just now finding its footing once again, winning 10 games in 2017 and 11 in 2018.

Now UConn, one of the worst programs in the country, voluntarily cut ties with the American Athletic Conference, deciding to prioritize its basketball programs instead.

So what if the key to rebuilding Kansas is a stopover in Conference USA? And what if that Big 12 vacancy could be filled by one of the current members of the Group of 5 just itching for an invitation to the big time?

How TCU offered a model for the future

If Temple offers a template for relegation’s success story, there is even better evidence suggesting promotions can work, too.

When TCU was left out of the Big Eight-Southwest Conference merger in the mid-1990s, its athletic department immediately set its sights on making it to a bigger conference.

“Every decision they made was with that destination in mind,” said Chris Del Conte, who served as the school’s athletic director from 2009 through 2017 before leaving for Texas.

It took 15 years, four conferences and massive investments in facilities, including a new stadium, but Del Conte helped TCU realize its goal when the Horned Frogs were invited into the Big 12 in 2012, part of a massive reshuffling of conference affiliations based around new TV deals.

When the opportunity came, TCU was prepared. The Horned Frogs had already won a Rose Bowl as a member of the Mountain West, and its roster had ample talent. TCU made a bowl game its first year and finished 12-1 its third. In the playoff era, the Horned Frogs are 33-21 in conference play, trailing only Oklahoma. Utah, which had a similar promotion from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, has an identical 33-21 conference record since 2014, and the Utes won the league last season.

Since the BCS system began in 1998, 15 teams outside the power conferences have played in a BCS bowl or New Year’s Six game (including a battle between Boise State and TCU in January 2010), winning nine of them.

While the financial disparities between the Power 5 and Group of 5 are significant, UCF’s White argues that the difference can be quickly erased at schools like his, if only they were given a shot.

“We have these young universities in big markets with young alumni bases that are growing rapidly,” White said. “We’re out-punching our weight. We’ve shown that on the field, really any metric you look at.”

The question is, what else needs to happen before those metrics pay off in a promotion to the big time?

Removing all obstacles

To be sure, there are major obstacles to enacting any plan for promotion and relegation. Schools have contracts, TV deals and political clout that could impede any significant shake-ups, and while football is the ultimate breadwinner, other sports offer some serious cache, too. Vandy might not do much for the SEC football schedule, but its baseball team is a perennial winner. The woeful history of Kansas football is largely offset by its dominance in men’s basketball. As college sports are currently constructed, promotion and relegation just can’t happen.

But what if that construct changed?

As programs have reckoned with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that all budgets are predicated on football, and the requirements of feeding that monster look much different than other sports. So what if football were treated independently from all other varsity programs, allowing schools to move more deftly to protect their cash cows?

As it stands, the Group of 5 remains on ostensibly even footing with the Power 5 by the NCAA, but again, the pandemic, along with other foundational shifts in the college football landscape, have made it entirely possible the big brands choose to break off from the pack in the near future.

The SEC’s TV deal is predicated on its current league makeup, too, and any changes in membership would probably mean a change to the TV contracts, too. That’s particularly complicated, but promotion and relegation could actually make for some valuable media rights. How much is Duke football really adding to the ACC’s marketability compared to what UCF might provide? Moreover, Alabama might rightly ask why it’s sharing that TV revenue equally with a program like Mississippi State. When the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland in 2014, it was largely about securing large markets in New York and Washington, D.C., while the on-field products have been a mess. The Scarlet Knights and Terrapins combined for a 21-83 record in Big Ten play since joining the league. As media consumption shifts away from standard cable packages and toward streaming services, however, the value of large-market teams could be superseded by the number of individual subscribers a name brand might provide.

Then there’s the added value of all those drama-filled games that decide who gets a shot at promotion and which teams are destined for relegation. While other networks probably will still be home to the best games of the year, those battles to avoid relegation shown on Big Ten Network or ACC Network would suddenly be cash cows, too.

“The focus becomes the bottom three because of how much money is involved,” Hislop said of Premier League viewership. “Even though we’re talking about the worst teams in the league, those are the games getting all the attention because of how much money is involved.”

It’s entirely possible that kind of national attention and expanded revenue still wouldn’t be enough to even lure Notre Dame into joining a conference, let alone changing the entire structure of the sport. In other words, all this seems a long way off, even in the most optimistic of futures.

“You never say never because one thing about college athletics is that change is always present,” Del Conte said, “but those models are entirely foreign to the collegiate landscape.”

And yet, the future of college football seems more uncertain than it has in more than a century, so perhaps the time for systemic change really is at hand. At least a few programs wouldn’t mind seeing it happen.

“It’d be great, and it’s in keeping with the spirit of sport, being about competition and the result of what happens on the field,” White said. “Something like that, we’d be very excited about it. But we’d be excited about anything that changes the course we’re on. Right now, it’s the haves and have-nots, and the haves have their status really based on history and many times no real data or facts.”

For a different look at how relegation could work, check out colleague Bill Connelly’s plan from a few years ago.

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