Last week, ESPN.com held a mock college football draft, where writers selected the 40 teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) that they would like to see constitute a pared down top division, and subsequently divided them into four regional conferences. It was an interesting idea, one brought forth by the NCAA’s inability to put together an effective method of crowning a national champion. A lot of people have spent a lot of valuable time fretting over the jumbled state of the FBS, as if it were some form of national emergency, a tragedy of the first order that oftentimes there is no clear king of college football at the end of January. It is an interesting problem, though.
As the FBS is now constructed, the two top teams at the end of the regular season, according to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) poll (an aggregation of numerous polls and computer programs) play one game for the championship. The regular season generally consists of 12 to 13 games. This is all the time a team has to impress poll voters of their team’s value. The fact that 120 teams are theoretically in the running for the top game, polling becomes an exercise in subjectivity, where how a team appears compared to another, regardless of whether or not they have ever met on the field, can determine placement in the BCS poll. Additionally, there are only a small number of teams that can realistically compete for the championship, while the rest are, well, the rest. This fact was the impetus for the fake draft on ESPN.com.
Another factor that prevents an effective championship system are the numerous athletic conferences that college teams belong to. Each has it’s own schedule requirements, it’s own champion, and it’s own priorities that don’t always mesh with crowning an undisputed national champion. The motivation of the conferences is to pull in cash for the universities they represent, and a revised championship system that may or may not include playoffs could be bad for the bottom line. (I’m not completely denigrating conferences, here. The two big moneymakers for every conference are football and men’s basketball, and the substantial profits they create are also used to support sports that don’t generate revenue. That being said, being unable to crown a champion in football is not the only problem with college sports.)
So, there are a glut of teams in the FBS, forcing subjectivity into choosing a champion, and conferences protecting their interests essentially have veto power over any revision. If neither of these were a factor, does a model exist whereby college football could name a clear and undisputed national champion? Yes, there is.
Across the pond in England is something called the English football league system. A system that governs professional and amateur soccer, the top five leagues (out of dozens representing hundreds of clubs) have 116 clubs, similar to college, and at the end of a season, a clear champion of the top league is crowned. How it works is quite simple, and the model applies easily to college football as a simple thought experiment.
At the beginning of any season, clubs belong to a particular league based on past performance. The top league is the Premier League, consisting of 20 clubs. These are the only clubs eligible for the top championship in English football. At the end of the season, one champion is crowned, and the three clubs with the worst records are relegated to the league below, the Football Championship League. Meanwhile, in that league, the top three clubs, including its champion, are promoted to the Premier League, where they will compete the following season. The bottom clubs in the Football Championship League are relegated to Football League One, its champions are promoted, its dogs relegated, and so on, down through the leagues. It’s a fantastic way of cutting through the clutter that a glut of clubs creates.
In college football, the 120 teams could be divided evenly into five conferences of 24 teams apiece. These conferences would replace the geographical conferences in which most teams currently compete. (Remember, this is a thought experiment. In reality, plucking the football teams from the conferences would be an impossibility.) The new conferences could be called something like ‘Championship Conference,’ ‘Conference One,’ ‘Conference Two,’ and so on. For the inaugural season of this new system, the previous season’s final BCS rankings could be extended to rank all 120 teams after the final bowl games and then used to determine which teams play in which conference.
These teams would then be divided into four divisions consisting of six teams, based on a seeding system. Rules would stipulate that teams play a 12 game regular season, with five games against the other teams in their respective divisions, and three against teams in other divisions. Of the remaining four games in the top conference, two must be played against teams from Conference One, while the other two can be against any team in the various new conferences. These 12 games are mandatory. If a team wishes to schedule a tune-up against a Division I-AA or II team, they can go right ahead. Such games will not count towards their record.
The four games outside of conference can be used to continue some of the great rivalries in college football, even if the teams are not in the same conference in any particular year. For example, Ohio State and Michigan end their regular seasons every year against each other in a matchup that has been rightly called the greatest rivalry in college sports, but in this new conference configuration, the two schools would be in different conferences at least for the first year (if allotments were based on this past season). Allowing for a small number of out of conference games keeps strong traditions such as Ohio State/Michigan alive.
What would also inevitably happen is that at least one of the two games against any out of conference opponent would be used for playing a team far down in the new conference hierarchy, to get an easy win. But teams should not be lulled into complacency by this arrangement. Conference Four teams would be drawn from the same pool as the rest of the conferences, and teams at the bottom of the current FBS stun stronger opponents every year.
Final record, including out of conference games, would be used to determine the top team in each division. In the case of a tie, head-to-head record, then in-division record, then in-conference record, would be used to determine a division champ. The four division champs would then meet in a semifinal for the chance to play in a final championship game.
Additionally, at the end of the season, the four teams with the worst records in the conference would be relegated to Conference One, while the four division winners from Conference One would be promoted to the big show, with identical promotions and relegations extending down to Conference Four (of course, the worst four teams in Conference Four stay where they are, only they find themselves tagged as the worst football teams in the country). And there you have it. A method, wildly impossible but extremely attractive, for fixing how college football could name a national champion.
One of the things that makes this idea so attractive is the prospect of a team, because of the structure of the divisions and the conferences, having lost three or four games yet still getting the opportunity to play for the championship. The incentive to crush lesser opponents is mostly removed, and the quality of the opponent across the line of scrimmage is top of the line for 8 weeks out of the year. Playing in a closed conference with a limited number of teams eligible to be an opponent for eight weeks out of the season creates more head to head matchups that actually matter, so teams can absorb more realistic records and still remain in the top tier of college football.
For example, if the inaugural season of this new system were to begin this year, the colleges represented in the Championship Conference (based on the final AP poll from January, since the BCS did not include bowl results) would be: Florida, Utah, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, TCU, Penn State, Ohio State, Oregon, Boise State, Texas Tech, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati, Oregon State, Missouri, Iowa, Florida State, Georgia Tech, West Virginia, and Michigan State.
Based on a simple seeding system, one of the divisions could consist of Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, Cincinnati, and Florida State. After one season of play, it is not inconceivable that a team like Florida could win this division with three or even four losses, and go on to a championship game. This doesn’t mean this system promotes mediocrity. Instead, it forces the best teams in college football to play each other eight times a year. Conference One being no collection of slouches, either, the number of great games that any team plays in a year could easily be 10. Of course the losses will be spread more evenly.
There are some drawbacks to this system. In England, since the creation of the Premier League, the championship has gone to a small handful of teams year after year. Parity is non-existent in the Premier League, but much of this would be mitigated in the college football system due to the four divisions, the small playoff system, and the championship game, of which the Premier League has none.
Also, it becomes easy to picture some teams bouncing back and forth between one conference and another, year after year, struggling to gain a foothold in an upper conference, as happens to some teams in England. A situation like this could be tough on a program that is trying to establish consistency. That’s the main reason behind promotion and relegation being restricted to four teams instead of say, eight. It would be much easier for a new team in a conference to hold onto its slot for next season if it only had to be better than one team in its division instead of two. Eight team promotion and relegation would create conferences that are in great flux year after year, but it is impossible to determine without it being tried whether or not this would promote parity or allow the top teams in the Championship Conference to distance themselves from teams slugging it out trying to stay relevant just below them.
Finally, and what I think would be the worst side effect of the new conference hierarchy is just that, hierarchy. It is illusion that all teams in the current top division could play for the championship, or at least in a BCS bowl, but there are no written rules that says they can’t. In the new system, a team in Conference Four wouldn’t be able to compete for the national championship until at least the fifth season of play, while a good hire in the head coaching slot has been known to turn a team into a contender in a shorter time frame.
As currently constructed, more than 24 teams can truly compete with each other on the field on a regular basis. There is nothing all that shocking about the fiftieth best team in the country beating one in the top ten. It is a gigantic upset, yes, but games such as that go a long way to determining the national championship just about every year. Teams in the current system can rise and fall based on the giants they slay or the Davids they lose to. In the new system, this would punish the lower ranked teams, since their victories over teams in the top conference won’t help them for at least a year.
One thing that probably wouldn’t be much of a concern is the quality of players that colleges can recruit. In the English system, the Premier League attracts talent with the money it pays out in player salaries, which keeps them stacked with talent. But it is not the Premier League that keeps the lower tiers of English football from having top talent as well. Rather, it is the other top tier leagues of Europe, which compete with the Premier League for resources. In the United States, the new system would not be subject to such lateral competition, while the presence of recruiting rules and scholarships mean that teams from the other conferences will not have to pick off the ash heap of high school football to fill out their rosters.
Such a drastic change to the ordering of the FBS will have side effects, some good and some bad. What makes this idea attractive is that its benefits outweigh the negative aspects that are outlined above, for the simple reason that as currently constructed, college football cannot claim to effectively name a champion. If that is the sole goal, this new system addresses that effectively, while still allowing for teams to improve and eventually take their place among the giants of college football. Indeed, the other great selling point for this new system are the endless great matchups week after week at the top. What it recognizes is that not all teams are created equal, and while Cinderella does come along occasionally, keeping intact a broken system for her rare appearances is foolish.
That being said, this new system only works by completely dismantling established college football hierarchy. It has to be asked, if this level of reform is what it takes just to make sure a school gets an untarnished trophy and a fan base gets some bragging rights, is it worth reforming the bowl system at all?