Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A unique solution for college football


When the issue first came up it was a stab in the dark, an out-there solution to a problem that didn’t quite exist yet but was just beginning to dawn on most of us. (Truth be told, it was mainly a lifeline for a columnist desperate for something to fill space in the dog days of early August.)

A promotion/relegation system for college football, similar to what is seen in English soccer, was at that point a fantasy when I wrote, on Aug. 3, 2021:

“The college football world is about to be turned upside down again — and, of course, shaken to dislodge any loose change that hasn’t already been grabbed. “So why not go all the way?” My idea, wacky as it might have seemed: A 40-team college football super-league, separated into four tiers and based on won-loss records for the past four seasons. Group of Five schools could qualify if they’d won enough games, and they’d have to keep winning to earn a continued opportunit­y to hang with the big kids. And while the higher tiers would have more available spots in the 12-team playoff, every tier would get at least one.

This idea formed shortly after Oklahoma and Texas announced they would bolt the Big 12 for the SEC in 2024. Little did we know at the time that such defections wouldn’t be isolated incidents.

Flash forward 25 months. The Big Ten (18 teams) and SEC (16) will be the sport’s two behemoths in 2024. The Big Ten and the 17team Atlantic Coast Conference will be coast-to-coast conference­s. The Big 12 rebounded from the loss of its two flagship programs, came away stronger and will have 16 teams when the Pac-12’s Four Corners schools join next year.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 will be down to the Pac-2 — or 2-Pac, if you prefer — and there’s continuing talk that Oregon State and Washington State will utilize the two-year grace period to keep the conference going by themselves next season, working toward the possibilit­y of some sort of merger with the Mountain West Conference.

So, then, what to make of this suggestion from Boise State associate athletic director Michael Walsh? As reported by Amanda Christovic­h of Front Office Sports this past week, Walsh has assembled a plan — complete with a PowerPoint presentati­on — for a grouping of 24 schools in three tiers the Pacific, Mountain and Central time zones, with promotion and relegation just like across the pond.

“Many, many folks are kicking around concepts of relegation/promotion, or mega-leagues,” Mountain West commission­er Gloria Nevarez told Christovic­h, adding, that this was “probably the first I’ve seen of someone really putting pen to paper, and looking at it comprehens­ively.”

Obviously she doesn’t read this column.

But the fascinatin­g part of this concept isn’t so much what it can do for the little guys but how it can be applied to the very top of the sport. Because I can guarantee that the TV executives who now essentiall­y run college football are intrigued by the possibilit­ies.

Even within these newly constitute­d superconfe­rences, there will be significan­t stratifica­tion. For instance, the Big Ten that UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington will join next fall already has its share of bottom feeders. When Fox sets out to determine its marquee matchups, will there be any room for Northweste­rn, 9-25 in conference the last four seasons — even with a 6-1 campaign in 2020 — and reeling from a hazing scandal? Or Rutgers (13-66 in conference since coming aboard in 2014), Nebraska (30-48 in conference in the same stretch) or Indiana (2-16 over the last two seasons)?

And it may not be just records, at least where the Big Ten’s main benefactor is concerned. For Fox, just like with ESPN, it’s about ratings and drawing power and which teams in a conference move the needle. (See: Colorado football, 2023.)

With the move toward super-sized conference­s, I can see the networks prodding their client conference­s toward two- or three-tier systems, to eventually morph into a pyramid for the four power conference­s and ultimately for all 133 Football Bowl System programs. And before you say that’s too many teams to deal with, English soccer’s top eight divisions encompass 412 teams in 19 leagues.

One of the strongest benefits, besides marquee matchups and meaningful games at both the top and the bottom of each league’s standings, could and should be a return to sanity for the non-football sports. Once the pyramid is in place there’s no reason why regional leagues for other sports can’t be rejuvenate­d or revised. Volleyball, soccer, track, baseball and softball athletes should not have to squirm into that Southwest middle seat to get to a conference contest all the way across the country.

But here’s the dilemma: Who can we put in charge to make sure it all happens?

The NCAA can’t do it because it now has little to no influence over college football. I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust Congress to step in and regulate the industry. The closest thing to a power center that college football currently has is Fox and ESPN, and can you really imagine those entities operating in anything except their own best interests, especially involving Olympic sports? Neither can I.

So if nobody else is volunteeri­ng, I’ll be glad to take over as commission­er. After all, the pyramid was my idea in the first place, even if it was borne of desperatio­n.

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