College football realignment has been the talk of the town since Oklahoma and Texas decided to make their way from the Big 12 to the SEC. As the long-term impact of this shift plays out, the debate around realignment, playoff expansion, and the pros and cons of super-conferences will surely continue to heat up.
Truly no one knows how this will play out over the next few years, and there is no crystal ball to give us the answers, so any analysis of the impact of realignment is purely speculation at this point. And while there are some aspects of super-conferences that I like, overall I think they would hurt college football.
With that said, if we do find ourselves in a hypothetical college football world of super-conferences down the road, the only real solution is a system of relegation.
Maybe the lack of sleep from all my 3 a.m. Olympic-viewing has finally caught up with me, or maybe I’ve just been watching too much “Ted Lasso,” but I think relegation would be the only way to keep things interesting in a super-conference system.
It doesn’t seem entirely out of the question that within a few years, the football landscape could involve one very large elite conference of 20-30 teams, with the remaining schools falling into a lower league. The elite conference would be comprised of schools like Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan — all the teams with strong recruiting classes, national title chances, and the opportunity to boost players’ NFL prospects. Any remaining teams would be bumped to the lower league.
While this system would be great for top players looking to feed into the NFL, it would be terrible for schools and players in the lower leagues, and it would do absolutely nothing to benefit the fans.
Sure, we currently have a rotation of the same four to six teams in the playoffs every year. This is one of the major arguments for playoff expansion. But if we wind up with super-conferences, some of those lesser programs like Rutgers or even Tennessee wouldn’t be given the chance to play with the big boys. That might seem like it would make the games better, but it also takes away many of the opportunities for major upsets. I don’t know about you, but I love a major upset (unless Ohio State is the one losing, of course).
Relegation would raise the stakes and ensure that the elite league reflects the current landscape of football each year. The bottom teams of the elite league would be relegated to the lower league at the end of each season, while the champions of the lower league would bump up for the following year.
It wouldn’t make sense to use relegation across all sports, though the thinking seems to be that if super-conferences are the way of the future, the rest of college athletics would maintain the current conference system and super-conferences would be a football-only setup. And certainly there are many kinks that would need to be worked out, including any financial challenges.
It’s also possible this would create a revolving door where the same four or five teams rotate between the elite league and the lower league annually. But at the same time, relegation leaves room for a lower program to have a stand-out season and prove why they should be able to compete with the likes of the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide. And conversely, it gives the mediocre teams in the elite league something to play for — if you can’t pull out a few big wins, you’ll have to spend some time playing teams that are more on your level. That is the kind of energy that can create a great upset or a great storyline.
If we never find ourselves in the world of super-conferences, which I hope we don’t, then relegation is certainly not the future. But if they become inevitable, as many people seem to think they are, then relegation is the best way to ensure the excitement of football season doesn’t disappear with the Power 5.