How Would Relegation And Promotion Change College Football?

Before you waste $9.99 on a college football preview magazine, let me remind you of something you already know. The top of College Football is already decided. It’s done. Over. Rigged. So long. Nothing to see here.

Last season’s CFB Playoff was going to be decided by Alabama, Georgia, or the Big Ten Champion. Cincinnati was a great story and deserved their spot in the Playoff but we all knew they didn’t stand a chance. And guess what? The upcoming season’s CFB Playoff will be decided by Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, or Clemson.

Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia Bulldogs Head Coach Kirby Smart raises the National Championship Trophy during the Alabama Crimson Tide versus the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship, on January 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo via Getty Images)

Sure, Utah or some other “outsider” may dazzle us for a few weeks in October and sneak their way into the back end of the Playoff, but we already know how things will end. Maybe even Texas A&M will rise out of the heap of insanely good recruiting classes to snag a crown-like LSU did in 2019. But we all know the script, yet we will watch the movie 1,487 times this fall.

Why? Because we love the sport even with its very obvious competitive flaws. I realize this is not a ringing endorsement for a sport I’ve loved ever since I was old enough to complete a thought.

But to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs. And before you make an omelet, you have to wake up one day and decide you really want an omelet. I woke up today and decided I want to enjoy a deliciously competitive college football omelet that features real stakes at the end of the season for
virtually everyone in the sport.

To fix any problem, you must first acknowledge there is a problem. So, let’s state the biggest issue with the sport. There’s really no intrigue at the top. College Football is also unique in that there’s a reason to watch your favorite team every week even if you have no chance of winning anything of consequence (which is 95% of the sport).

Rutgers Scarlet Knights mascot
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights mascot on the field prior to the college football game between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the Massachusetts Minutemen on August 30, 2019, at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ. (Photo via Getty Images)

Because let’s face it. No Rutgers fan is going into 2022 with the goal of winning the Big Ten. But that doesn’t stop fanbases from setting their own bar for success. Maybe it’s winning a conference game or two. Maybe it’s becoming bowl eligible.

Maybe it’s winning one more game than you did the prior year. Whatever your team’s realistic expectations, the college football fan has no shortage of things to watch even if we already know the 5 to 6 teams (3% of the sport) that have an actual chance of taking home a national championship before the first ball is kicked.

And 5-6 teams is probably me being generous. It’s really 2 and maybe 3 teams that have a legitimate shot at a national title any given season. There’s a growing helpless feeling around fans of 97% of the teams in college football. They aren’t playing the same sport as the elites and there’s
nothing they can currently do about it.

One possible solution is to completely cut them out and move to more of an NFL model that features 40-50 programs with the resources to compete at the highest level and THEN attempt to create rules to even the playing field for those teams.

But I’ve been thinking about a different, outside-the-box, and possibly insane plan. Because of the lack of intrigue at the top of the sport, what if we added real consequences at other levels of college football? Instead of sweating over whether or not your team is going to qualify for the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl, what if you had to sweat your standing in the Southeastern
Conference?

Let’s hypothetically implement a system of “Relegation and Promotion” that’s been used for years in English Football (soccer). The English Premier League system sees the bottom 3 teams in the Top Division (EPL) relegated to the 2nd Division (The Championship) with the Top 2 teams in the 2nd Division automatically promoted to the EPL and the next 4 teams in the standing playing a 4-team playoff to decide the 3rd and final spot for promotion to the EPL.

Relegating the bottom 3 teams from every major conference is a bit extreme so I’m tweaking the system a bit. Here’s my plan. Every power conference needs a partner conference for promotion and relegation purposes. Here’s my conference partnership:

1) SEC- Sun Belt
2) ACC- AAC
3) Big Ten- MAC
4) Big 12- C-USA
5) Pac 12- Mountain West


At first glance, I would send the last place team down and the first-place team up. But if the goal is adding more meaningful games, you relegate the bottom two teams from every power conference and let #2 play #3 in the secondary conference battle it out in a one-game playoff for promotion.

If we followed this model for the 2021 season, it would look like this. I’m using conference records
only for this exercise.

Vanderbilt Commodores wide receiver Jayden McGowan (16) is tackled by Vanderbilt linebacker Michael Owusu (88) and defensive lineman Tyler Bence (57) during the Commodores Black and Gold Spring Game on April 16, 2022, at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo via Getty Images)

1) SEC- Sun Belt

Relegated to Sun Belt- Vanderbilt, Florida
Promoted to SEC- Louisiana
Playoff to decide Promotion- Georgia St. vs. Appalachian St.

Those losses to Missouri and South Carolina late last season suddenly look a lot different for the Gators, huh? A win in either one of those games would have put the Gamecocks or the Tigers in the second relegation spot.

Imagine that OT game against Missouri being for both a spot in the SEC the following season AND Dan Mullen’s job (he was fired the next day after the loss). These are the types of added stakes that will draw even more interest to the sport in November.

Louisiana and the winner between Appalachian State and Georgia State would have a hard time sticking around the SEC more than the 2022 season but the reverse is true for Vanderbilt. I like Clark Lea and believe he has a clear and well thought out plan to build the Commodore program. But Clark Lea’s steep rebuild would be made much more difficult with relegation. And his team went winless in the SEC, lost at home to ETSU and had to survive a close game at home against UCONN (really bad) in Year One. Getting back to the SEC after a one-year stint in the Sun belt is no foregone conclusion. I’m sure the Gators would have no problem getting back to the big boy conference after only one season.

WHAT SCHEDULES COULD LOOK LIKE IF SEC MOVES TO 9 CONFERENCE GAMES
Gunnar Holmberg #12 of the Duke Blue Devils runs against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their game at Truist Field on October 30, 2021, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Wake Forest won 45-7. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

2) ACC- AAC

Relegated to AAC- Duke, Georgia Tech
Promoted to ACC- Cincinnati
Playoff to decide Promotion- Houston vs. UCF

This is where things could really change. I realize Cincy, Houston, and UCF are all headed to the Big 12 on July 1st, 2023 so this will be a moot point after one season but I’m a believer that Cincinnati and either Houston or UCF would get the promotion and possibly never look back.

The same could be said for SMU, Memphis, or even Navy after the departure of the other three schools. As for Duke and Georgia Tech… there’s always basketball season?

Duke had success under David Cutcliffe and Steve Spurrier but last I checked, both men are retired. Outside of that, they look like a middle-of-the-pack AAC and not ACC team. It may take the Blue Devils some time to win the promotion.

Georgia Tech has a fertile recruiting territory in Atlanta and should have few problems in an AAC devoid of Cincinnati and Houston or UCF but it could get dicey. The razor thin edge between the bottom of the ACC and the top of the AAC is both a compliment to the AAC and an indictment on a suddenly weak ACC.

3) Big Ten- MAC

Relegated to MAC- Indiana, Northwestern
Promoted to Big Ten- Northern Illinois
Playoff to decide Promotion- Kent St. vs. Central Michigan

These two conferences already have a great partnership. It’s why you see so many games against each other every year. That being said, I don’t think any Big Ten programs would get stuck in the MAC for long. Maybe Northern Illinois could elevate themselves enough with a couple of Big Ten TV checks to stay in the conference for a few years, but I think we will see a lot of quick transitions between these two Midwest conferences. But who knows?

Maybe Northwestern and Indiana go back to being “Northwestern and Indiana” and get nice and cozy playing November games against Miami (OH).

Overall, this partnership would lead to some suddenly high-stakes Illinois-Maryland games in November and an added shot of the next PJ Fleck rowing his boat to a better program on the backs of his emotional post-game interview after winning the MAC-Big Ten Promotional Play-In game. Either way, the ante is upped.

UTSA
Frank Harris #0 of the UTSA Roadrunners evades tackle as he runs with the ball against the San Diego State Aztecs at Toyota Stadium on December 21, 2021 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

4) Big 12- C-USA

Relegated to C-USA- Kansas, Texas Tech
Promoted to Big 12- UTSA
Playoff to decide Promotion- Western Kentucky vs. UAB

This is another conference in transition. With powerhouses, Oklahoma and Texas headed to the SEC and BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF headed into the Big 12, this is a conference already experiencing its own version of Promotion and Relegation.

UTSA is a program on the rise that could eventually fit in nicely to the new Big 12. But the most interesting scenario is Kansas. While I think the Jayhawks may have finally hired the right coach in Lance Leipold, the Jayhawks have been an awful cocktail since Mark Mangino ceased waddling on their sideline in 2009.

Turner Gill, Charlie Weis, Clint Bowen, David Beaty, and Les Miles went a combined 7-99 in the Big 12. That’s a cool .007 winning %. That’s not ideal for a Power 5 football program. Would the Jayhawks fall into Conference USA and stay forever? We may be looking at our first case of TRUE relegation.

2021 Pac-12 Championship
Wide receiver Devaughn Vele #17 and tight end Dalton Kincaid #86 of the Utah Utes celebrate Kincaid’s 11-yard touchdown reception against the Oregon Ducks during the Pac-12 Conference championship game at Allegiant Stadium on December 3, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Utes defeated the Ducks 38-10. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

5) Pac 12- Mountain West

Relegated to Mountain West- Arizona, Stanford
Promoted to Pac 12- Utah State
Playoff to decide Promotion- San Diego St. vs. Fresno St.

The problem with the Pac 12 has never been resources. It’s been fan interest combined with willingness to utilize resources. On Friday, Pac 12 commissioner George Kliavkoff will have been on the job for exactly one year.

So far, I’m encouraged with what the former President of Entertainment and Sports at MGM Resorts International is attempting to accomplish with the conference. I also really like what some of these Mountain West programs bring to the table. Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force, Utah State, Fresno State, and Nevada are all programs I could see having multi-year runs in the Pac 12 in a Promotion and Relegation format. And don’t get me started on UNLV. You can read what I’ve written about that program’s potential.

5 PROGRAMS THAT COULD BE TRANSFORMED BY NIL: CHAD WITHROW

Imagine what some of these programs could accomplish with a Power 5 TV paycheck for a season or two. This plan upsets the status quo and established powers of the sport so it will never be allowed it to happen. But it won’t stop me from imagining a world where we can turn college football into a true
meritocracy.

Chad Withrow is a co-host of “OutKick 360” which airs from 3-6pm ET weekdays
across the OutKick network. Follow him on Twitter @TheChadWithrow.


Written by Chad Withrow

Chad Withrow hosts OutKick 360 and has covered Nashville sports, statewide, and SEC college issues and headlines since 2004.

4 Comments

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  1. Add one key element to Why fans of Irrelevant CFB Programs get excited about their teams …. Hated Rivalries!
    .
    The ACC being a perfect example … UNC – NCState – Duke … are located within a 25 mile circle with alumni in every cul-de-sac within 150 miles. Only their most naive fanatics expect them to compete at the higher levels of Big Time College Football … so they LIVE FOR their head-to-head rivalry match-ups with the yearlong Bragging Rights that one game conveys. …. The prime reason that “Divisions” have been such a terrible idea.

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