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College football relegation! Here's how conferences would change for 2016

What if college football teams had to earn the right to play in the best conferences? You know, like soccer. Here's a pair of updates on the concept after the 2015 season.

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Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

What relegation would allow is the possibility that underperforming teams not living up to the aristocratic standard would be booted into the mob to prove their worth anew, perhaps losing their seats permanently to hungrier underlings.

If screwing someone out of a spot in the penthouse isn't the American dream, we don't know what is.

-- Why college football needs to embrace cannibalism

Four years ago, following a delicious end to the English Premier League season, we crafted a series promoting the glories of relegation and why it would work perfectly in college football. That is, it would create beautiful messes and solve problems while creating others, but that's how we tend to judge beauty in this gorgeously ugly sport.

It would also bring merit to the table.

College football's heavyweights, distributed through five conferences, are in the process of separating themselves from the rest of the sport. They want as big a slice as possible, and they are enacting benefits for players (full-cost-of-attendance scholarships) and for themselves (waterfalls in facilities) other schools can't afford.

These conferences are littered with dead weight. All five -- the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC -- have programs that are there because they chose the right friends 80 years ago, are located near large population bases, or were good right when a major conference was looking for one more team.

Meanwhile, well-run small programs languish because their timing was bad or they don't bring big TV markets.

In the last 10 seasons, since Dan Hawkins left Boise State for Colorado, BSU has gone 15-6 against current power-conference teams and finished in the AP's top 11 five times. CU has gone 19-77 against power teams and attended one minor bowl. Which belongs to a power conference?

Leicester City just won the Premier League for the first time; it is a victory for every underdog and every fan base that wants to believe there's a path for competing with the big boys. That path does not exist in college football. It should.

The basics

In England, the bottom three teams in the Premier League get demoted to the second-level Championship League every year. Three second-level teams -- the top two finishers and the winner of a playoff between the next four -- take their place for the next season.

The same thing happens with teams flipping between the second tier and the third-tier League 1. And between League 1 and fourth-tier League 2. It is a siphoning of weaker clubs and an acknowledgement that everybody, from global brand Chelsea to a team in the 24th tier, is part of the same entity. They make drastically different money, and there is a ruling class, but Football League members are Football League members.

Just like NCAA members could be NCAA members.

How it would look if we'd started it last year

Each power conference would work similarly to a country within the European system. (I'll let you determine which is which, but the Big Ten is definitely England. The SEC is ... Italy? Germany? The Big 12 is Portugal.)

That means each of the five has its own set of affiliated smaller conferences. Let's walk through each tier, from the power conferences to the bottom of Division II.

To get a feel for how relegation would work, each league's 2015 winner and promotion candidate is in bold, while the last-place team and relegation candidate is crossed out. Also, independents are in conferences now.

ACC Tier I
Big 12 Tier i
(Big 12)
Big Ten Tier I
(Big Ten)
Pac-12 Tier I
SEC Tier I
Boston College Baylor Illinois Arizona Alabama
Clemson Iowa State Indiana Arizona State Arkansas
Duke Kansas Iowa California Auburn
Florida State Kansas State Maryland Colorado Florida
Georgia Tech Oklahoma Michigan Oregon Georgia
Louisville Oklahoma State Michigan State Oregon State Kentucky
Miami TCU Minnesota Stanford LSU
NC State Texas Nebraska UCLA Mississippi State
North Carolina Texas Tech Northwestern USC Missouri
Notre Dame West Virginia Ohio State Utah Ole Miss
Pittsburgh Penn State Washington South Carolina
Syracuse Purdue Washington State Tennessee
Virginia Rutgers Texas A&M
Virginia Tech Wisconsin Vanderbilt
Wake Forest

Geographically, these leagues work. If we base each tier on merit, then there are awkward relationships later -- there's no Western team in Tier IV -- but it works here. And since there are 10 FBS conferences, that fills the top two tiers.

Big 12 Tier II
(Conference USA)
Big Ten Tier II
Pac-12 Tier II
(Sun Belt)
Army Charlotte Akron Air Force Appalachian State
Central Florida Florida Atlantic Ball State Boise State Arkansas State
Cincinnati Florida International Bowling Green BYU Georgia Southern
Connecticut Louisiana Tech Buffalo Colorado State Georgia State
East Carolina Marshall Central Michigan Fresno State Idaho
Houston Middle Tennessee Eastern Michigan Hawaii New Mexico State
Memphis North Texas Kent State Nevada South Alabama
Navy Old Dominion Massachusetts New Mexico Texas State
SMU Rice Miami-OH San Diego State Troy
South Florida Southern Miss Northern Illinois San Jose State UL-Lafayette
Temple UTEP Ohio UNLV UL-Monroe
Tulane UTSA Toledo Utah State
Tulsa Western Kentucky Western Michigan Wyoming

The 2015 promotion battles, if we give the higher tiers home advantage:

Houston at Boston College for the right to play in the ACC in 2016, Western Kentucky at Kansas in the Big 12, Bowling Green at Rutgers in the Big Ten, San Diego State at Oregon State in the Pac-12, and Arkansas State at South Carolina in the SEC.

Four or five road teams would probably win spots in Tier I. It would take a few years to properly balance everything, so road teams would win more often than not for a while.

To determine which FCS and Division II conferences are in which tiers, I used a scoring system based on 10 years of playoff results. (Note: This was calculated for the original version of this post, which went up after the 2014 season. No 2015 data is included, in part because it wouldn't change much.) If a team currently in your conference made the first round, you get one point. Second round = two. Et cetera. With five-round structures for FCS and Division II, that means the winner gets six points, the runner-up gets five, and so on.

The top five of those conferences get Tier III spots in the new system, and all fit geographically.

Big 12 Tier III
Big Ten Tier III
(Missouri Valley)
Pac-12 Tier III
(Big Sky)
(Ohio Valley)
Albany Abilene Christian Illinois State Cal Poly Austin Peay
Delaware Central Arkansas Indiana State Eastern Washington Eastern Illinois
Elon Houston Baptist Missouri State Idaho State Eastern Kentucky
James Madison Incarnate Word North Dakota State Montana Jacksonville State
Maine Lamar Northern Iowa Montana State Murray State
New Hampshire McNeese State South Dakota North Dakota SE Missouri State
Rhode Island Nicholls State South Dakota State Northern Arizona Tennessee State
Richmond Northwestern State Southern Illinois Northern Colorado Tennessee Tech
Stony Brook Sam Houston State Western Illinois Portland State UT Martin
Towson SE Louisiana Youngstown State Sacramento State
Villanova Stephen F. Austin Southern Utah
William & Mary UC Davis
Weber State

Battles for placement in 2016's Tier II:

Richmond at UCF, McNeese State at Charlotte, North Dakota State at EMU, Southern Utah at Hawaii, Jacksonville State at ULM. Again, all five road teams might win. NDSU would win by 40.

Almost every member of the next level is in the Eastern time zone, so we'll make a slight change: bump the Pioneer over the Northeast and give the Pioneer to the Pac-12's column, since it at least has San Diego and some Central teams.

Big 12 Tier IV
Big Ten Tier IV
(Big South)
Pac-12 Tier IV
Bucknell Bethune-Cookman Charleston Southern Butler Chattanooga
Colgate Delaware State Coastal Carolina Campbell Furman
Fordham Florida A&M Gardner-Webb Davidson Mercer
Georgetown Hampton Kennesaw State Dayton Samford
Holy Cross Howard Liberty Drake The Citadel
Lafayette Morgan State Monmouth Jacksonville VMI
Lehigh NC A&T Presbyterian Marist Western Carolina
NC Central Morehead State Wofford
Norfolk State San Diego
Savannah State Stetson
South Carolina State Valparaiso

That's Colgate at Rhode Island, NC A&T at Houston Baptist, Charleston Southern at Missouri State, Dayton at Idaho State, and Chattanooga at Austin Peay for the right to play in Tier III next season. According to last year's Sagarin rankings, all five road teams were better, and only Dayton-Idaho State is particularly close.

And now to mix Division II with those last two FCS conferences, using the same playoff-based scoring system to rank conferences.

ACC Tier V
Big 12 Tier V
Big Ten Tier V
Pac-12 Tier V
(Mid America)
SEC Tier V
(Gulf South)
Bryant Alabama A&M Bloomsburg Central Missouri State Delta State
Central Conn. St. Alabama State California (PA) Central Oklahoma Florida Tech
Duquesne Alcorn State Cheyney Fort Hays State Mississippi College
Robert Morris Arkansas-Pine Bluff Clarion Lindenwood North Alabama
Sacred Heart Grambling State East Stroudsburg Missouri Southern Shorter
Saint Francis Jackson State Edinboro Missouri Western Valdosta State
Wagner Miss. Valley State Gannon Nebraska-Kearney West Alabama
Prairie View A&M Indiana (PA) Northeastern State West Georgia
Southern U. Kutztown NW Missouri State
Texas Southern Lock Haven Pittsburg State
Mercyhurst Washburn
Seton Hill
Slippery Rock
West Chester

If the Ivy League participated, it would be in Tier V. For simplicity, we'll say the league abstains. Harvard moving to the Patriot League is too strange to think about. We'll include the SWAC, which also abstains from FCS tournament participation. That adds an awkward SWAC-to-Northern Sun connection, but we'll live with it. And we get the Slippery Rock at Presbyterian battle we've always wanted.

(Mountain East)
Big 12 Tier VI
(Northern Sun)
Big Ten Tier VI
Pac-12 Tier VI
(Lone Star)
(South Atlantic)
Charleston (WV) Augustana (SD) Ashland Angelo State Brevard College
Concord Bemidji State Ferris State Eastern New Mexico Carson-Newman
Fairmont State Concordia-St. Paul Findlay Midwestern State Catawba
Glenville State Minnesota State Grand Valley State Tarleton State Lenoir-Rhyne
Notre Dame College Minn. State-Moorhead Hillsdale Tex. A&M-Commerce Mars Hill
Shepherd Minnesota-Crookston Lake Erie College Tex. A&M-Kingsville Newberry
Urbana Minnesota-Duluth Malone West Texas A&M Tusculum
UVA-Wise Minot State Michigan Tech Wingate
West Liberty Northern State Northern Michigan
WV State Sioux Falls Northwood (MI)
WV Wesleyan SW Minnesota State Ohio Dominican
St. Cloud State Saginaw Valley
University of Mary Tiffin
Upper Iowa Walsh
Wayne State (NE) Wayne State (MI)
Winona State

Welcome to the SWAC, Minnesota State. (I didn't say these alignments were perfect.)

We fill in the final tier by cramming seven conferences into five spots. The promotion candidate in the two-conference regions could be determined by rankings or a head-to-head.

Big 12 Tier VII
(Great American)
Big Ten Tier VII
(Northeast 10)
Pac-12 Tier VII
(Rocky Mountain)
Albany State (GA) Arkansas Tech American Int'l Adams State Bowie State
Central State Arkansas-Monticello Assumption Black Hills State Chowan
Clark Atlanta East Central Bentley Chadron State Elizabeth City State
Fort Valley State Harding LIU Post Colorado Mesa Fayetteville State
Kentucky State Henderson State Merrimack Colorado Mines Johnson C. Smith
Lane NW Oklahoma State New Haven CSU-Pueblo Lincoln (PA)
Miles Ouachita Baptist Pace Fort Lewis Livingstone
Morehouse SE Oklahoma State Southern Conn. St. N.M. Highlands Shaw
Paine Southern Arkansas St. Anselm Western New Mexico St. Augustine's
Stillman Southern Nazarene Stonehill Western State Virginia State
Tuskegee SW Oklahoma State Virginia Union

(Great Lakes) (Great Northwest)
Indianapolis Azusa Pacific
Lincoln (MO) Central Washington
McKendree Dixie State
Missouri S&T Humboldt State
Quincy Simon Fraser
Southwest Baptist South Dakota Mines
St. Joseph's (IN) Western Oregon
Truman State
William Jewell

Worth trying?

Relegation scratches so many itches. I love this sport's silliness, its school-to-school traditions, the 50 million approaches you can take to winning. But the salaries, obnoxious facilities, and athletic director quotes have soured me. So welcome to my fantasy world.

This isn't a world without drawbacks at institutional levels. There could be negative consequences to the game itself.

What we love about college football comes from a lack of fear of losing. Kentucky happily hired human air raid siren Hal Mumme in the 1990s, in part because the Wildcats were already finishing near the bottom of the SEC. There was no harm in trying an experimental offense when the downside was maintaining status quo.

But if the Wildcats had to worry about getting dropped to the Sun Belt, they might have elected to play it safe with endless Bill Currys, hoping to finish eighth and stay in the SEC.

'What happens is that the lower 13 then hire coaches that aren't quite as potentially good, staff that aren't quite as innovative, chairmen who are more risk-averse. And the whole thing kind of conspires to become, not an anti-'Moneyball,' but very conventional ball,' [said 'The Numbers Game' co-author Chris Anderson].

The Eastern Washingtons would still have every incentive to get funky on offense. But if the financial split between the top tier and everybody else gets too large, staying in the middle of Tier 1 becomes a bigger goal than risking to win big. You could end up with more 2015 Illinoises and fewer 1997 Kentuckys.

Still, college football is too unwieldy to become homogenous. We'll still have fun.

How to convince the power schools

Knowing how long it takes to change in college football, let's acknowledge that if this were to happen, it would begin somewhere around 2060. Let's also acknowledge that it isn't going to happen.

You would need to figure out things like scholarship differences. You would need power programs to vote against their short-term self-interest, which never happens in any vote on anything.

So you'd need a legitimate college commissioner. How would that person make the case to the power conferences?


Schools in the bottoms of power conferences would never agree to risk their money flow.

But you could create a less risky environment. Maybe you promise original power-conference members a minimum percentage of the big-money pot even if they fall. Even if a Purdue is languishing in Tier II or Tier III, it is still making enough money that it wouldn't have to cut other sports.

This is unfair to programs starting below the top tier, but ... well ... the current system is unfair.

One last chance

We'd agree to winner-take-all promotion matches, giving Vanderbilt one last chance to stay up by beating Georgia Southern. Put these games on the higher-tier teams' fields. Put the money from these games into the higher-tier conference's pot.

And these games would make money. If you watch April Premier League matches between the 16th-place team and the 19th-place team, you see championship-level intensity.

Rivalry assurance

You would have to create flexible non-conference scheduling. If Indiana or Purdue gets sent down to the MAC, Indiana and Purdue have to keep playing. Same in the lower tiers: Lehigh and Lafayette, Montana and Montana State.

Perhaps you only schedule two non-conference games per year ahead of time, leaving one or two open slots until a scheduling frenzy in January. Maybe you mandate eight-game conference schedules for all leagues so that everybody has four slots available.

Football only ... or not!

For a school like Kansas -- a basketball powerhouse in danger of playing football games in the Southland Conference -- you assure football standing won't affect basketball standing.

You could create a separate structure for basketball, giving programs like the Jayhawks a chance to make up revenue on schools like Clemson or, recently, Missouri.

Junior teams

In some European leagues, teams have the option of using junior teams in lower leagues. VfB Stuttgart II and Mainz II play in the third level of German soccer. Bayern München II and Wolfsburg II play in the fourth.

Instead of having your young hotshots on the practice squad or trying to loan them out, you get development time in your system with coaches you employ, against teams like Memmingen and TSV Buchbach, the lower-FCS teams of the German professional system. It offers a quality opponent for Memmingen, but it also delivers a clear value for the top teams.

This could work in college football.

  • Junior varsity teams? Auburn II in the SoCon. Oklahoma II in the Southland. UConn II in the Northeast. You designate who's on your JV team (with flexibility for moving up to the senior team midseason), and they play a conference schedule. This allows freshmen to a) play the sport they are given scholarships to play while b) playing in a lower-pressure environment that allows them to acclimate to campus. If this requires a larger allotment of scholarships, that's on the table.
  • Or affiliations? Georgia can send 10 players down to Valdosta State for a season. UCLA sends 10 to the University of San Diego. This creates a stumbling block with students attending universities they chose, but perhaps there is a solution, given enough time to spitball.

BTW, we've been doing this for years. Here's how the 2005-2015 simulation stands.

Each year, you find more "What if college football had relegation ..." pieces on the Internet. Just remember SB Nation did it first-ish, and we definitely do it best.

We update a years-long simulation, based in part on the Sagarin ratings, which rate FBS and FCS teams together. And in what is now a 10-season simulation, we get a crystal-clear idea of how this would play out.

This alignment of the tiers is different than above, and real-life conference realignment occurred in the middle of this. It's a mess. It's beautiful.

2015 ACC column

Tier 1

  • Boston College, Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech

BC is in full yo-yo mode between the ACC and second level as Navy rises.

ACC Tier II: Big East/AAC

  • Connecticut, East Carolina, Navy, NC State, New Hampshire, SMU, Syracuse, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa, UCF, USF, Wake Forest

Keenan Reynolds earns Navy a top-tier invitation ... and then graduates. Meanwhile, the New Hampshire yo-yo is in effect as well.

ACC Tier III: Colonial

  • Albany, Army, Delaware, James Madison, Lehigh, Maine, Old Dominion, Richmond, Stony Brook, Towson, Villanova, William & Mary
  • Promoted from Patriot: Fordham

2015 Big 12 column

Tier I

  • Baylor, Houston, Kansas State, Marshall, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Rice, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech

Rice had a good run, but it comes crashing to a halt.

Big 12 Tier II: Conference USA

  • Cal Poly, Central Arkansas, Iowa State, Kansas, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Sam Houston State, UTEP, West Virginia

WVU finally gets back up, and tell me that a Big 12 that replaces Iowa State and Kansas with Marshall and Houston isn't pretty spectacular? (Also, KU is technically one spot ahead of UCA in Sagarin, but let's say UCA played at home on the purple and gray, just to make it interesting.)

Big 12 Tier III: Southland

  • Abilene Christian, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Incarnate Word, McNeese State, Memphis, New Orleans, North Texas, SE Louisiana, Stephen F. Austin, Texas State, UTSA, Western Kentucky
  • Promoted from Pioneer: Northwestern State

WKU and Memphis were both stuck in third-tier hell because of previous awfulness, but WKU finally escapes.

2015 Big Ten column

Tier I

  • Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota State, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Toledo, Wisconsin

Maybe there aren't many elite teams, but wow, are there a lot of top-50 squads. NIU won the MAC West in 2015 but still goes down.

Big Ten Tier II: MAC

  • Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Illinois, Illinois, Illinois State, Indiana, Maryland, Northern Iowa, Ohio, Purdue, Rutgers, Southern Illinois

One MAC team replaces another ... and no, Rutgers doesn't get sent down to Tier III.

Big Ten Tier III: Missouri Valley

  • Eastern Kentucky, Indiana State, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Missouri State, South Dakota State, UMass, Western Illinois, Western Michigan, Youngstown State
  • Promoted from Ohio Valley: Akron.

2015 Pac-12 column

Tier I

  • Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, BYU, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Utah State, Washington

Still vicious, and the most obvious weak link gets replaced by Cal.

Pac-12 Tier II: Mountain West

  • California, Colorado, Colorado State, Nevada, San Diego State, Washington State

Nevada sinks for a second year, but this could have easily been Colorado or Colorado State.

Pac-12 Tier III: WAC

  • Air Force, Eastern Washington, Fresno State, Hawaii, Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, San Jose State, UNLV, Wyoming
  • Promoted from Big Sky: New Mexico

2015 SEC column

Tier I

  • Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Southern, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UL-Lafayette

UL-Lafayette's run at the top finally ends ... saving South Carolina.

SEC Tier II: Sun Belt

  • Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Kentucky, South Alabama, Troy, UL-Monroe, Vanderbilt

Bad year for the Louisianas.

SEC Tier III: Southern

  • Charleston Southern, Chattanooga, Furman, Jacksonville State, Liberty, Wofford
  • Promoted from Big South: The Citadel