Could relegation/promotion work in NCAA Football?

Probably one of the most “American fan-friendly” idea that can be imported from leagues overseas is the idea of relegation and promotion.  In this setup, the bottom number of teams get demoted at the end of the year to a lower level league, and the top number of teams from the lower league are promoted into the higher league.  For example, this year, the 3 worst teams in England’s Premier League will be demoted to the AAA-equivalent Football League Championship, with the top three teams in the Football League Championship taking their spots in the Premier League. On the surface, this ensures some incentive to teams to “play the season out” and can actually add some drama into the late season for teams on the verge of demotion.

For a myriad of reasons this would not work in any American professional sport.  Some of those reasons: television contracts, significant depreciation of capital for owners (who would buy the Jaguars if they were going to end up being a minor league football team?), difficulty retaining fans, etc.  Ultimately, it will likely never happen on the professional sports level.

However, I do think there is opportunity for this to be viable in the current NCAA Football setup, especially with the playoff system that has been implemented for the 2014-15 season.  Let me walk you through the scenario:

The SEC is perpetually dominant, ensuring at least 2 spots in the playoff year in and year out.  Other conferences, in an effort to ensure that schedules are as strong as possible, could implement this system to ensure that their conference champion is all but assured a spot in the playoff.  This would work best with a 16 team conference, where you would split the conference into two 8 team divisions.  The “Champions” division would include the top 8 teams, who would play each other once, and the “Runners Up” division with the bottom 8 teams.  One rivalry across the divisions would be protected (and played on the last weekend of the season), leading to an 8 game conference schedule.  After the season, the bottom two in the upper division would be swapped out with the top two in the bottom division.

What would that look like?  Using my postseason AMSTS Computer Rankings for 2013-14, here’s what the ACC/B1G/PAC could look like, with a few assumptions on how the conferences would expand to 16 teams:

2014 relegation and promotion

(Apologies Big XII fans, I anticipate the B1G going after your schools, but being unable to get the top ones, and settling with Iowa State and Kansas.  Every other conference pillages their regional “little brother” for the best schools / metro areas for TV in my assumptions).  The teams in green actually finished in the bottom half and would have qualified for promotion, while the teams in red finished in the top half but would’ve been relegated.

Looking at this setup, each division would play within itself for 7 games, and one “rivalry-preferred” cross-division game.  Only a handful of rivalries fall outside of their division, Iowa-Iowa State (again, assuming B1G expansion), ASU-Arizona, Washington-Washington State, and Cal-Stanford.

Ultimately, promotion and relegation ensures that the champions for any of these three non-SEC conferences are a part of the playoff discussion.  A team that goes 10-2 in the current ACC may not be impressive, but a team that goes 10-2 playing the best 7 opponents in the conference may have more of an argument.  In addition, it preserves (or perhaps even enhances) television revenues, which are a fundamental cornerstone of the conferences.  Furthermore, it creates an additional revenue opportunity with the possible creation of a “Play-in” game to the conference championship.  In the hierarchical system created, it would be unjust for the bottom division team to earn a berth to play the winner of the top division team with the Conference Championship on the line, so why not have the last week of the season dedicated to the #1 team in the bottom division playing the #2 team in the top, with the winner continuing on to the Conference Championship game.  This match up could supersede the cross-divisional rivalry game, with the displaced teams playing one another instead.  Using the example above, in the last week of the season in the Big Ten, Nebraska would play Michigan State, with the winner playing Ohio State the following week for the Big Ten Championship.  If Nebraska were scheduled to play Maryland as the cross-division game, and Michigan State to play Northwestern, the schedule would be altered and Maryland would play Northwestern.

A secondary benefit to splitting the teams out like this is that it may drum up fan support in some of the worse teams within the conference.  Speaking as a Purdue fan, I would estimate that attendance would go up if Purdue were winning 3-5 games (against lower caliber opponents, mind you) than getting throttled 11 times, as they did in 2013.  Additionally, teams that are in the lower division would have an incentive to play stronger out of conference games, knowing that their conference schedule will appear fairly weak.

Overall, I think this would increase fan interest, while ensuring that a loss early in the season does not take a particular team out of the discussion.  By creating a division that rivals the SEC West, this could increase the competitive balance across the sport and solidify viewer interest all the way into December.

Of course, as a Purdue fan, this might mean I’d have to get really comfortable watching the Boilermakers play the Illini year in and year out.