What if We Radically Reorganized College Football?

Suspend your disbelief, and hear me out. 

Every year, as the college football season is being played, I watch the beginning of the college basketball season, featuring premier non-conference match-ups. Look at the Champions Classic, featuring Kansas vs. Duke and Michigan State vs. Kentucky on opening night. UNC @ Gonzaga and Kentucky @ Texas Tech were just another pair of elite non-conference match-ups. In other, less mainstream sports, such contests between the best teams in the country take place regularly, but not in college football…there’s a few top games, but premier non-conference clashes are rare yet spectacular occasions. 

OK. Now pause. Imagine a college football season with top-25 match-ups every week, one-score thrillers, and some of the best possible competition coming to every stadium every Saturday. Let me introduce a college football season based on the set-up of English soccer, and once more hear me out. 

Say all you want about how everyone starts the season 0-0, and everyone has a chance to win the national championship. We know that’s not true, because obviously there’s about 90-100 teams that just don’t have the talent each year. And we already know that no undefeated Group of 5 team will make it into the 4-team College Football Playoff, so let’s cut to the chase and accept that any given year, there’s really maybe 15-20 teams with any kind of realistic chance at chasing down a national title. So what if we let those 15-20 teams (plus maybe a few extra) duke it out all season, finishing up with an 8-team playoff of battle-tested college football teams. 

In the English soccer scene, there is the English Premier League, followed by the English Football League, which is divided into three divisions. To jump into the next division, you have to place in the final three, while if you finish in the bottom three, you are relegated down into the next division. Let’s see how that could be implemented in college football. 

130 teams, 5 divisions

There are 130 division-1 FBS football teams. Let’s divide those 130 teams into five divisions, and teams can move between divisions based on their finish in the prior season. Each team’s schedule will be played within that division, keeping games largely very competitive. We can stop digging our eyes out and watching Rutgers get pummeled by the rest of the Big 10 each season, or watching Bowling Green take on Notre Dame, or any of the other countless blowouts that plague our Saturday afternoons. 

The Season Set-up

As mentioned, each division has 26 teams with two conferences of 13 squads each. Potentially you could divide them geographically, or, to maximize equality of competition, set up the conferences based on ranking. The season is a complete round-robin of those 13 teams. In the top division, the top four teams in each conference advance to a Playoff. 12 regular season games with a 15-game maximum (as there is now). Relegation status could be determined, but for this hypothetical let’s say the bottom eight teams in each division drop down, with the playoff qualifiers getting promoted. 

Bowl Games

The biggest issue facing most college playoff expansion ideas is how to keep the financial profits of the insane number of bowl games (there were 40 in 2019). So how do we keep that? Let’s count the quarterfinals in the top division as bowl games, bringing us down to 36 necessary games. The next 8 teams in the top division, and the top 16 teams in each of the other divisions qualify for bowl games. We can figure out the scheduling specifics later. The point is, we have the same number of bowl games, and we still have a semifinal and championship in the top division to play. So there shouldn’t be pressing financial concerns with this format, and all the 6-6 teams still get their bowl games. 

What would this look like in 2020

So, let’s think about this; what would the top division look like in 2020? By the final AP Poll of 2019:

Conference AConference B
LSUClemson
GeorgiaOhio State
OregonFlorida
AlabamaOklahoma
Penn StateMinnesota
Notre DameWisconsin
BaylorAuburn
UtahIowa
MemphisMichigan
NavyAppalachian State
CincinnatiAir Force
UCFBoise State
TexasTexas A&M

I mean, come on, how is that not enticing? Boise State, App State, UCF, Memphis and all the loud-mouthed Group of 5 teams have a chance to take on the premier programs they’re always saying they can beat. You get the best of the SEC (LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M) without dealing with Vanderbilt and Arkansas. You get Clemson without the rest of the ACC. The best of the Power-5, the best of the Group-of-5, 12 weeks of heavyweight clashes and a well-deserved top four in each division at day’s end. No strength of schedule debates, no need at all for the controversial CFP committee. Just a battle of the titans every single week on the gridiron, with eight successful and battle-tested squads emerging from the chaos into a single-elimination bracket. Record-breaking TV ratings, sellout stadiums (in a future world with a COVID-19 vaccine) – what’s not to like? 

There’s obviously kinks in this system, which is why it’s a very rough draft of an idea, but the theory behind it is pretty intriguing. Small-name schools get a legitimate and unbiased shot at the title, powerhouses duel every weekend, and we have a much-needed expanded playoff. The top division gets refreshed with 8-10 new teams each season, breathing new life and match-ups into each season. Questions remain – do we want to go with smaller conferences? We could go with 22 teams. That allow for teams to schedule two of their own games, including a rivalry game, and maybe hosting a FCS or small program. 

Alright, you can un-suspend your disbelief now. It will almost certainly never happen, but forgive me? I’m just a bored college kid living in a bleak, largely sportsless world, let me have a little joy.

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