Saving Conferences from the SEC

Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

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That said, it's very good and you should keep reading it. --Mgmt


I'm not one to write the "The Sky is Falling" posts. And to be fair, the renewed realignment drama isn't exactly the end of the world. But it certainly does feel like someday, eventually, the sky will fall.

While powerful brands in college football have always sought each other out, it has never happened to the extreme that we may see in the not-so-distant future. The SEC is on the verge of having 16 members. And, it appears, nothing will stop them from targeting the strongest football schools in the ACC -- Florida State and Clemson most likely -- and eventually the Pac-12 and Big Ten. The SEC's expansion threatens to take all the oxygen out of the rest of college football. It's a hostile takeover by one conference office whether we like it or not.

Will it be next week, next year, or a decade from now? I have no idea. It certainly does feel fairly inevitable, though. The only way to truly prevent this would be for the Big Ten to go on the offense and expand into the strongest football schools on the west coast, kicking the legs out from under the Pac-12 while they're at it. That would mean we have *two* massive leagues that choke out college football instead of just one.

This is ridiculous. We need something in our back pocket that can put an end to all this.

I intend to find an alternative ending where college football power is still spread across multiple relevant, self-organized, stable, regional conferences. There was a lot in that sentence, so let's break it down. I want to make sure we still have multiple conferences that are:

  1. Relevant -- with enough football power that there is some sort of connection to the top teams in the sport.
  2. Stable -- kind of obvious, but no conference feels like it's the next domino to fall in CFP domination.
  3. Regional -- with schools that all belong to some sense of similar geography.
  4. Self-organized -- with individual schools deciding which league they join and what other schools are invited to join them.

We need some new structure for college football that allows the best of the best to play each other while still allowing the old multi-conference structure to thrive.

My solution involves a nasty word that always comes up in conference realignment scenarios... Relegation.

Relegation? Really?

Whenever fans talk about European soccer-style relegation, they typically envision underperforming Power Five teams being relegated down to mid-major status. Northwestern has a bad year a they are suddenly competing in the MAC. A poor performance from Washington State sends them to the Mountain West. Yeah, no. That's a total non-starter. Universities choose who their teams will be playing against. They choose their peers. And they make these peer decisions based on far more than who had more wins last year. Conference membership will be chosen and agreed to between member schools. It's as simple as that.

But, instead of using relegation to shuttle teams between Power Five and Group of Five conferences, let's instead create an ultra-elite top-level in college football and use relegation to shuttle teams in and out of it. Teams roll into and out of the league on an annual basis based on how they perform on the field. Every season, a number of successful teams are added and underperforming teams are removed. This relegation-like system actually can work in college football if:

  • Playing in a top national level has no influence on sports other than football.
  • Teams that are elevated to a top national level retain their conference affiliation and return to that league should on-field performance at the top level regress.
  • Each team's most important rivalries are retained regardless of relegation status.
  • The top level of competition is small enough that there's enough quality football left to make conference play relevant. Dabo Sweeny's off-the-cuff joke about a 40-team league is a bit too big. Only 25 of the weaker Power Five teams would remain. Let's for sake of argument say it's 16 teams instead.

I don't have a good name for this top level, so I'll just call it the Super League.

I'm going to set aside two of the twelve regular season games for those all-important rivalry games and talk about those in a moment. Otherwise, teams give up all control over opponents, scheduling, and TV rights. The Super League handles all of that and distributes TV revenues to the members (who perhaps share a lot of it with their conference mates). Distribution from the College Football Playoff wouldn't be such a bad model. This would require significant adjustments to the current TV rights agreements that are in place since the best teams in each league are being pulled out of most games. But, remember, the alternative is the post-apocalyptic hellscape where the SEC controls all and the other conferences have gone the way of the Big 12.

The Super League has 16 members divided into two 8-member divisions. Each team plays a full 7-game round-robin in their division and three cross-divisional games. That's five home games and five road games. Yes, these teams play fewer home games but we have to assume there's more than enough revenue to make up the difference.

Rivalry Games

So, let's talk about rivalry games. How do we keep these games intact?

Rivalry games should be protected structurally. We aren't just leaving it to schools and conferences to retain these games. Leagues, including the Super League, are stuck with them.

First we have to identify rivalries. So:

  • We can't have everyone deciding they are rivals with Ohio State, Duke, and USC so rivalries have to be agreed-upon by both schools.
  • Rivalries are official. They are a structural agreement that is tracked by a higher power in the college football world.
  • Each school can identify up to three rivals.
  • Two of the three rivalries per school can be protected.
  • If any two of the members have rivals within the league, those become league games. If there are protected rivalry games with teams not in the league, those have to be scheduled. Hopefully, the vast majority of Super League teams have at least one rivalry game in the Super League. For any that don't, only the two protected rival games would be played that year.

    The College Football Playoff

    With so many top teams playing each other in the Super League, it's hard to imagine many teams being needed for a playoff. At the same time, I would want to still have non-Super League teams invited. After all, the whole purpose here is to maintain relevance at the national level as much as we reasonably can. Here's just one option:

    • The playoff is eight teams beginning with four quarterfinals around New Years.
    • Reserve four slots for Super League teams -- perhaps two teams from each division.
    • Retain automatic bids for the two best (non-Super League) conference champions. Remember, these conferences have lost their best teams to the Super League. This isn't always the SEC and either Clemson or Ohio State. In fact, mid-major conferences have a pretty good shot at being included.
    • Leave two at-large spots open to be selected by the CFP committee. The debate here would be between Super League teams that had lost a number of games against very tough competition and non-Super League teams with very few losses.

    Parting Shots

    This is pie-in-the-sky stuff, here. I didn't work through all the mechanics of such a massive change to college football. Here are a few added point that I haven't fully fleshed out but I still think are worth mention.

    The Death Star

    • Would the uber-aggressor in college realignment, the SEC, agree to something that might end their aggression? Well, such a powerful league would probably fill a number of the Super League spots at any given time. And they'd do so while still raking in substantial money from the remaining teams who are left in conference play. While the conference office might not be thrilled, conference members could probably be swayed.


    • I didn't really get into it, but administration of a Super League requires a lot more than just the current playoff committee. Someone is going to need to lay out divisions, schedule games, maintain TV rights, the works. The money would more than pay for it, but college football power brokers would have to work together.
    • Conferences would need to be a lot more agile than they are now. Their membership could ebb and flow from year-to-year so division structure would need to be adjusted on the fly. The same is true for conference scheduling from year-to-year. Again, this is all to ensure their long-term survival, so it should be worth it.

    While I didn't go into huge detail on how to handle promotion and relegation, I will say this.

    • There will be instances where teams would obviously deserve demotion. Maybe that's the lowest team in each division of the Super League. Or maybe it happens whenever a team has few than, say, 3 wins in the league.
    • Similarly, it's not hard to imagine teams that would deserve automatic promotion -- perhaps any team that is chosen for the playoff.
    • For those that aren't so obvious, Super League promotion could also be decided in bowl games. Perhaps each of the remaining 10 conference champions would win their way by beating a lesser-performing Super League opponent.

    On championship weekend:

    • I didn't really talk about what the Super League should be doing while the remaining conferences are playing their championship games. I wouldn't imagine a full slate of league games. I also don't see a need to crown a Super League champion -- that's what the CFP is for after all. But, there's no reason that we can't have a limited number of games that weekend. It's not worth arguing over details for such a pie-in-the-sky concept, but I would argue that winners of these games should be automatically included in the playoff while losers are automatically left out. So, perhaps we adjust the model above to having 2nd and 3rd place teams play each other in a play-in games.

    The End Game

    You might not like the college football reality that I've envisioned. Honestly, I don't either. The important thing is to compare it to the college football world that we'll eventually be stuck with down the road and not the reality we've enjoyed in the past.