All the recent talk of Big Ten expansion and the implications of such an expansion's domino effects triggered me to share the following thoughts with y'all.
There are certainly a number of conference changes that could and/or *should* be made, but I'm not sure that Big Ten expansion is one of them. For one thing, I think we can all agree that in the current system Boston College belongs in the Big East (which, in basketball particularly, puts it with a ton of other northeast Catholic schools), and South Florida should likely/probably take its place in the ACC (though the Bulls aren't big-time yet, they're certainly mid-level... they also have a huge enrollment, sit in the coveted central Florida market, and play in a first-rate football stadium).
That being said, there are a ton of other conference moves that could be made, particularly when you factor in geography, as conferences where schools are closer in proximity make travel easier for student athletes and fans alike. Big Ten expansion rumors have said the Big Ten could expand to as many as 16 teams, which is undoubtedly shaped by the quest for big money. Some say this an unworkable size, but expansion with the right teams could mean the Big Ten would more closely resemble 2 conferences in 1 over-arching union. Essentially, the Big Ten Championship Game would be like a true bowl game.
Now, it's possible the domino effects of this move could trigger other conferences to expand and re-shape as well, giving way even to the possibility of 4 mega-conferences of 16 (with the Big 12 and Big East the likely victims). I, for one, think this would be a mistake. While it's true this could nicely set-up a 4-team playoff (the conference championship games would really make it like an 8-team playoff), and the six BCS conferencs + Notre Dame currently comprise 66 teams (which divides into 4 16-team leagues nicely when you drop two scrubs like Baylor), this scenario still leaves emerging programs like the Boise State and TCUs of the world on the outside looking in. Even if you found a way to build 4 18-team conferences (which, c'mon, really - these conferences would really be like 8 conferences of 8 or 9 teams), or found a lot of teams to kick out of the current BCS conferences, there's still always the possibility of new emerging programs.
This is when I began to think of my favorite idea in the sports industry - one that is particularly prominent in international leagues outside of America: *Promotion and Relegation.* In a system of promotion and relegation, the lowest-ranked team(s) from the year before are either automatically relegated to a lower-tier league, or face the team marked for promotion in a contest to decide who plays in the upper-tier league the following year.
Such a system could do wonders in college football, as it's rarely a sport where teams shoot from scrub to champion in a year, and it could particuarly help leagues create more competitive matches for its fans from year to year.
How does this factor in to conference expansion talks, you ask? Simple. When conference expansion periods begin, there's always a chance to re-create league landscapes - forging new rivalries, finding new ways to make money, rearranging team travel geography, etc. What better time than now for the introduction of this radical idea?
[More on this after the jump]
Ideally, all 120 (current) FBS teams would be re-drawn into 8 geographic regions, forming 8 upper-tier leagues with 8 teams, and 8 lower-tier leagues with 7 teams. Each geographic region would be comprised of 15 teams, as best fit together geographically as possible (though not perfectly).
Were this implemented, I’d like to ideally see a 16-team playoff, with upper-tier conference champions hosting the second-seeded team of a nearby conference at home. The Quarter-Finals/Semi-Finals/Championship would then be on a neutral field(s). When it comes to the playoffs, you could either incorporate in the stronger bowls of the old bowl system, set up a selection process, or even put the sites up for bidding with the revenue shared between all teams. You could also maintain traditional mid-level bowls for mid-level teams if one really wanted to.
There would also be at least 8, and possibly 16, promotion/relegation games (it could be upper-tier #8 vs. lower-tier #1 and/or upper-tier #7 vs. lower-tier #2), which could be played on campuses or at neutral sites. These games would decide the make-up of the leagues for the following year.
To all the bowl-lovers and traditionalists, I’d argue that bowls are slowing becoming mid-season phenomena nowadays anyway, which I actually think is a good thing. Instead of South Carolina fans disappointingly heading to Birmingham to watch the Gamecocks take on UConn after a bleh season, it’s much more fun to know a year in advance that we’d be playing someone like UNC Chapel Hill at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Just look at all the neutral-site games taking place nowadays – Atlanta’s got one every year between the SEC and ACC, Dallas is hosting 2-3 a year, there’s the traditional Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, the news of the Notre Dame/Army games at Yankee Stadium, Mizzou/Kansas in Kansas City, Mizzou/Illinois in St. Louis, Boise State/Virginia Tech in Washington, etc., etc., etc.
When all the talks of Notre Dame vs. Army at Yankee Stadium began, I couldn't help but feel as if the big-money 'neutral-site' mid-season games weren't really starting to take off. Sure, for years we the fans were treated to neutral-site Army/Navy games, as well as the tantalizing match-ups of Oklahoma/Texas (formerly non-conference, now in-conference) and Florida/Georgia. However, recently there has been a lot of momentum for even *more* big games to be played at neutral sites, typically in pro stadiums.
In fact, in the past few seasons we’ve seen the creation of the following neutral-site non-conference games (that I could find – there are undoubtedly more on the way)*:
*Yes, some of these are near the schools (such as TCU playing in Dallas/Arlington), but the games are being played in neutral sites (such as Cowboys Stadium).
Boise State vs. Virginia Tech (Washington, 2010)
Army vs. Notre Dame (New York, 2010)
Texas Tech vs. Baylor (Dallas, 2009)
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (Dallas, 2009-2013)
BYU vs. Oklahoma (Dallas, 2009)
Alabama vs. Clemson (Atlanta, 2008)
Virginia Tech vs. Alabama (Atlanta, 2009)
LSU vs. North Carolina (Atlanta, 2010)
N.C. State vs. Tennessee (Atlanta, 2012)
Oregon State vs. TCU (Dallas, 2010)
Texas Tech vs. Alabama (Dallas, 2012)
Akron vs. Army (Cleveland, 2007)
Boston College vs. Kent State (Cleveland, 2008)
Ohio State vs. Toledo (Cleveland, 2009)
Kentucky vs. Miami of Ohio (Cleveland, 2009)
Washington State vs. various teams (Seattle, multiple years)
Missouri vs. Illinois (St. Louis, multiple years)
Colorado vs. Colorado State (Denver, multiple years)
Virginia Tech vs. Southern Cal (Washington, 2004)
Texas vs. Rice (Houston, multiple years)
Maryland vs. Navy (Baltimore, 2005 & 2010)
Notre Dame vs. Navy (Baltimore, 2006)
Rutgers vs. Army (Meadowlands, 2010)
Syracuse vs. Southern Cal (Meadowlands, 2012)
Syracuse vs. Notre Dame (Meadowlands, 2014 & 2016)
Navy vs. Notre Dame (Meadowlands, 2010)
East Carolina vs. Virginia Tech (Charlotte, 2007)
N.C. State vs. East Carolina (Charlotte, 2004)
UMass vs. New Hampshire (Foxboro, 2010-2011)
Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago, 2007)
Western Michigan vs. Michigan State (Detroit, 2009)
Florida State vs. Alabama (Jacksonville, 2007)
Colorado vs. Florida State (Jacksonville, 2008)
Stephen F. Austin vs. Sam Houston State (Houston, 2010-2013)
And that list does not include all the in-conference neutral site games such as Texas vs. Oklahoma, Missouri vs. Kansas, Florida vs. Georgia, Iowa State vs. Kansas State (yes, ISU vs. KSU is now played in Kansas City), etc.
The tourism of the bowl system is an ancient model that’s been slowly (but smartly) changing its dynamics to tantalizing regular season match-ups. Promoters would be wise to continue this trend, as fans love the match-ups, love having a year to plan their travel, and are more excited about early and mid-season games than some of the lower bowls in places like Shreveport in December. I certainly know I'd be more excited about going to Jacksonville in October to see the Gamecocks play an ACC team such as Florida State than a winter trip to Memphis to see USC play a team from Conference USA.
Just as bowls have been continually added each year, so have the neutral-site games. I just feel like eventually the uniqueness of the bowls can transition to the regular season, as they’re already somewhat doing so. The early season matches in the Georgia Dome have been every bit as intriguing as the Peach Bowl the past two years (I refuse to call it the Chik-Fil-A Bowl).
Now, I know those opposed to a playoff system might not be in favor of this proposal, but I would like to offer a few tidbits on such a topic. For the longest time, I was one of the stronger supporters of the traditional bowl system, but the more in-season neutral-site games I see that are better match-ups than bowls, the less I care for the bowl tradition. I also think a playoff would bring more money, distribute it more equitably, and the schedule wouldn’t be a major stress on students (FCS does it).
I would, however, agree that the integrity of the regular season must remain intact. I would only want to see a playoff system that featured conference champions – even if it’s only a playoff of the top 4 conference champions (in some twisted land of 4 16-team mega-conferences) or something. I realize this opens pandora’s box for watered-down expansion (see: NCAA talks of expanding the basketball tournament. Again.), which I would be severely against, but the ‘integrity of the regular season’ argument loses a lot of its merit with me in the years I see undefeated teams (i.e. Auburn) not have a shot at the championship. At worst, even a watered-down crappy tournament is at least on par with a system that left out a team like Auburn a few years back.
The rivalry disruption is also a huge concern, and I’d hope that having only 7 league games (in the upper tier leagues) would leave plenty of room for big-time mid-season match-ups. One of the liberating things about a playoff system based on conference finish (be it only champions, or only top 2) is that it would more likely increase the number of interesting games in the regular season. When I was in high school, I attended one of Texas’s power football schools (Plano, which is tied for the state-record for most state championships), and we always scheduled as many good teams in our non-division play as possible to prepare ourselves for the playoffs and our league play. Ditto when I played rugby in college – I noticed the best teams try to play the best teams in non-league play because they know it best prepares them for the end-of-year national tournament.
On the upside, the rivalries that matter would probably continue (I can’t imagine Florida and Georgia not playing each other), but less-relevant rivalries would fade or be played sparingly. There’s also the bonus ability to create new rivalries, or restore old ones.
I remember when the Southwest Conference died how Texas-Arkansas pretty much died with it (as it should have – it hadn’t been relevant in over 15 years at that point). On the upside, Texas got to play schools like Nebraska. Ditto for Arkansas – they suddenly were put into league play with schools such as LSU and Ole Miss.
The Gamecocks are good example too. After USC left the ACC, and particularly after South Carolina(much) later joined the SEC, some rivalries faded while others were created. And the ones that matter, or are interesting, still get a chance to be seen on occasion (i.e. the recent series with N.C. State and/or UNC).
Thus, I present to you...
*My proposal for 120 teams with promotion/relegation (sorry, South Alabama, but I’m not including you here – if/when new teams are added to Division 1, the expansion would be in the lower leagues):*
[Note: The upper-tier/lower-tier splits are based on team performance in the 2009 season, and regions are based on geography as best as possible (trust me, some are odd-seeming, but they're the only way to make the other ones work). Yes, it seems odd that Florida State and Michigan are in a lower-tier league, but were this proposal in place, they could have had the chance to challenge up to the upper-tier league if they performed well in their lower-tier league.]
.#. = Geographic Region
TEXT (U) = Upper Tier League (lowest seed(s) meets highest team(s) from Lower Tier for promotion/relegation at season’s end)
TEXT (L) = Lower Tier League
Southern Cal, California, Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Fresno State, Nevada
Arizona State, Washington, Washington State, San Diego State, Hawai’i, San Jose State, UCLA
Bosie State, BYU, Utah, Air Force, Wyoming, Texas Tech, Idaho, TCU
UTEP, Colorado, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, New Mexico State, UNLV
Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, SMU, Houston, Arkansas, LSU
Louisiana Tech, Rice, Tulane, North Texas, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Baylor
Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa State, Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas State
Illinois, Kansas State, Indiana, Purdue, Tulsa, Ball State, Northern Illinois
Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Connecticut, Rutgers, Boston College, Virginia Tech, East Carolina, Navy
Temple, Buffalo, Marshall, Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia, Army
GULF COAST (U)
Florida, South Florida, Ole Miss, Central Florida, Miami (FL), Alabama, Auburn, Troy
Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Mississippi State, UAB, Southern Miss, Florida State, Memphis
Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Middle Tennessee State
Western Kentucky, Arkansas State, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest
Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Central Michigan, Ohio, Bowling Green
GREAT LAKES (L)
Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Michigan, Kent State, Akron, Miami (OH)
Notable PROS of this Proposal:
- Separates the contenders from the pretenders from the start
- With 8 upper-tier leagues, it is easily divisible into a 16 or 8-team playoff system
- Easier travel on student athletes
- With only 7 upper-tier and 6 lower-tier conference games, there is plenty of room for intriguing out-of-conference (OOC) match-ups
- No more super-conferences that need title games; Instead, every confernce has teams that play a full matrix of games, and the weekend where conference title games historically go could instead be playoff contests
Notable CONS of this Proposal:
- Teams like Michigan and Florida State would theoretically start their first season (if it were theoretically enacted this year) in the lower-tier league based on the previous year’s results, given that they didn’t have a chance to challenge a lower-finishing team from the upper-tier league the year before.
- Historical rivalries and conferences would be somewhat disrupted (no more Florida-Georgia every year as a conference game, though it could still be contested OOC)
- There’s a strong chance this wouldn’t go over too well overall, as it would create chaotic situations in other sports such as basketball. (Assuming it’s not a football-only creation; Hockey has hockey-only conferences and it does just fine)