One of the most fascinating ideas for college football reform is that of instituting a promotion/relegation system. For several years our colleague Bill Connelly has annually outlined what promotion and relegation would look like, going back to 2005. In Connelly's alternate universe, teams such as Houston, North Dakota State, and Louisiana-Lafayette are in the sport's highest echelon while life has become miserable for Syracuse, Kansas, Kentucky, and others.
It's a true meritocracy. And while it's a very, very good stab at the concept, perhaps even one which acknowledges everything college football stubbornly refuses to relinquish, it's still not enough. (Sorry, Bill.) But we'll get to that in a bit.
Obviously, making something like this happen would be a daunting task even if college football was governed by a federal cabinet-level agency. There's the desperate grasp on "tradition" which holds college football together. Schools are bound into historical groupings, and they have rivalries they don't want to lose, and so on. There's also the whole "money" thing. It's not that this system wouldn't be profitable. It would. Oh, dear, it would. It's the existence of binding contracts which hold all these little islands together both in the individual sense and the web woven by their intertwining business arrangements.
As a result, any model one tries to envision has to inherently assume that these barriers are broken down. And that's where Connelly's structure fails to go far enough, instead throwing bones to the established order in an effort to make the idea somehow palatable as if that would work. It wouldn't; for promotion/relegation to ever happen, the entire system's got to come down.
It would mean the end of the conferences as we know them, and frankly I fail to see where this is an issue anymore after realignment. We're sitting here without Missouri and Nebraska and playing games against West Virginia and TCU, and I think that while we might not be perfectly content with that, we're all still pretty much okay with it.
It would also mean the end of some storied rivalries, but here's where we look east and see that this isn't actually a problem in the soccer structure, anyway. Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United are still the bitterest of rivals even though it seems like they've only gotten to play a handful of meaningful games against one another in decades. They dream, they yearn, they itch for the day when they will again be reunited in the same tier of English football. (Or at least the team that's in a lower tier does.) In that respect, well, Kansas will surely feel the same way, right?
Lastly, it would mean a decoupling once and for all of football from the remainder of a school's athletic program. Even if we were to somehow make this happen, the conference system and championship systems as they currently stand are actually perfectly suited for basketball and non-revenue sports. Sure, there might be some tweaks here and there, but nobody has ever complained that it's just not fair that Tulsa has no chance to compete. That, of course, is because they do. But for many reasons, not least of which is the necessity of a brief schedule and the inability to play three games in one week, football is vastly different. That, combined with the financial disparity between football and everything else, sort of demands it be treated as a separate entity.
The first problem with Connelly's structure is that it's uneven and imbalanced. There are leagues with a dozen or more teams, leagues with just seven; it's chaos. As with the other issues here, that's because Connelly assumed you'd have to keep the conferences together to get buy-in.
The solution: either blow the whole thing up and start with an even and balanced structure, or get there by doing what soccer systems do when they decide to expand or contract the size of a league. They do so in the most elegant of manners: by promoting more or fewer teams in a given year, whichever is appropriate, in order to achieve the desired result.
Another issue the five-pronged approach. Now, single tiers simply wouldn't work for a couple of reasons which are actually valid rather than just being hidebound traditionalism. If each tier only had, say, 13 teams, it would be financially untenable. You'd have schools which are perennially in that area where they're a top-25 squad but rarely a top-10 team, and they'd effectively be consigned to financial chaos. If this were the way the system had worked since the dawn of time (or, you know, 1900), it would be different. But college football is a large enough operation that we, the fans, will actually try to watch at least parts of as many as two dozen games per weekend. So we can stand to have our tiers be wider.
I digressed a bit there, and basically argued that there's nothing wrong with Connelly's five prongs, right? But there still is a problem: it's five, and not four. Solution: a top tier consisting of four 13-team leagues, whose champions (and, if you're really feeling generous, runners-up) get to vie for the national championship. No wild-card entries, no arguments over who belongs, no muss, no fuss. And each tier below follows the same model, only instead of getting to play for the national championship those teams get to be promoted or at least vie for same.
The third issue is the promotion system itself. Connelly has it set up so that promotion candidates have to beat relegation candidates to force a change. That's okay in and of itself, but I'd go one step further: the champion of each lower tier automatically moves up, and the last place team in each higher tier automatically moves down. It's the second-place team from the lower tier which plays the 12th-place team from the higher tier.
Having said all that, we're not going to offer a detailed alternative proposal today; we'll address that on a later date. We're already at 1000 words, and still have two conferences to briefly preview. And hopefully Bill doesn't hate us now.
North Star Athletic Association Preview
|2014 Standings and Info|
|17||Valley City State University Vikings||Valley City ND||6-0||9-2|
|Dickinson State University Blue Hawks||Dickinson ND||5-1||7-4|
|Jamestown College Jimmies||Jamestown ND||4-2||5-5|
|Presentation College Saints||Aberdeen SD||3-3||6-4|
|Dakota State University Trojans||Madison SD||2-4||6-5|
|Waldorf College Warriors||Forest City IA||1-5||3-7|
|Mayville State University Comets||Mayville ND||0-6||2-9|
Once upon a time, there were two leagues. The North Dakota Collegiate Athletic Conference and the South Dakota-Iowa Conference had been around since prohibition, and had each lasted over 80 years. With dwindling membership in both leagues -- five schools which had previously been members of one of the two conferences had moved to NCAA Division II, and another half-dozen had closed down -- the two leagues merged into one: the Dakota Athletic Conference.
It was a decent conference, too. For a time, they even had an actual national television contract, which is probably a surprising detail. But realignment knows no bounds, and the bug again hit. In 2011, all but four schools left, and the conference collapsed.
After two years of essential independence, those four schools reformed as the North Star Athletic Association, which now enters its third season of official play having added another three members. (Well, six, actually, although Bellevue and Viterbo don't play football and the University of Winnepeg is only a member for baseball. Yes, that Winnepeg.)
Valley City State is, and has been even back into the DAC days, the class of the league. The Vikings reached the NAIA Playoffs last year, losing in the first round to #1-ranked Carroll (MT) 49-0. Valley City littered the North Star all-conference team with nine selections; six of them return for the 2015 campaign, including junior QB Kurtis Walls, the NSAA offensive player of the year. They remain the team to beat.
Dickinson State rejoined their former pals from the DAC last year after a flirtation with the Frontier Conference was cut short because travel had simply become a nightmare. (You try playing road games on the Oregon coast when you're an NAIA team from North Dakota. Spoiler: they ain't chartering jets.) They promptly became the primary challenger for the title, with their only league stumble being a 22-17 loss to the Vikings 22-17 -- in Valley City. The two teams were basically on level terms, in other words. This season could go either way for the Blue Hawks; they only had four first-teamers and lost three, but five juniors return after earning second-team nods.
Jamestown slipped after sharing the 2013 crown with Valley City, but the fall wasn't precipitous. They return three of five first-team selections, including 2015 defensive player of the year LB Jarelle Miller, and a couple of seconds including QB Beau Eriksson. They're probably not a serious title challenger, but should also easily remain in the top half of the league.
Presentation left Division III in 2013 to join the NAIA, which is basically unheard of these days. The Saints had an adequate debut season in the NSAA, earning four first-team nods. Only two return, however, and only one of their five second-team selections returns. Odds are the Saints will regress in 2015.
Dakota State will likely be the benefactor of Presentation's regression. Although the Trojans only return two first-teamers, five underclassmen earned second-team recognition. That experience will come in handy.
Waldorf had been the doormat in the Mid-States Football Association, winning only two games in five years. The Warriors bailed for what they perceived as an easier path in the NSAA. Well, it worked, I guess, as they managed to not finish in last place. Only one first-teamer returns, as well as only one second-teamer -- and he's their punter. Expect the Warriors to slide into the cellar.
Mayville State suffered through an absolute disaster in 2014. The Comets were 6-4 in 2013, and had long been at least competitive. But last year, the bottom fell out and the result was a winless conference slate and a miserable 2-9 overall mark, including failing to win a single game at home. The Comets don't return much talent in 2015, either; only one first-team selection and a pair of second-teamers. Still, history would tend to dictate that they should, at the very least, escape last place.
Game of the year: Setting aside some tasty non-conference games -- the most important of which is Dickinson's visit to Rocky Mountain on August 29 -- the biggest game of the conference schedule will be at Dickinson on September 26 when Valley City pays a visit. Home field was the difference last year; can the Blue Hawks take charge?
Mid-States Football Association Preview
|2014 Standings and Info|
|2||Marian University Knights||Indianapolis IN||5-1||11-3|
|Siena Heights Saints||Adrian MI||5-1||6-4|
|University of Saint Francis Cougars||Fort Wayne IN||4-2||6-5|
|20||Robert Morris University Eagles||Chicago IL||3-3||8-3|
|Taylor University Trojans||Upland IN||3-3||5-6|
|University of Saint Francis Fighting Saints||Joliet IL||1-5||4-7|
|Concordia University-Michigan Cardinals||Ann Arbor MI||0-6||3-8|
|6||Grand View University Vikings||Des Moines IA||5-0||10-2|
|4||Saint Xavier University Cougars||Chicago IL||4-1||10-3|
|18||William Penn University Statesmen||Oskaloosa IA||3-2||7-4|
|Saint Amrbose University Bees||Davenport IA||2-3||5-5|
|Olivet Nazarene University Tigers||Bourbonnais IL||1-4||2-9|
|Trinity International University Trojans||Deerfield IL||0-5||3-7|
And you thought you were all done with realignment.
The Mid-States had won three straight NAIA titles courtesy of Marian, Saint Xavier, and Grand View. They tried to make it four, but Marian -- who dispatched defending champion Grand View in the quarterfinals -- fell 55-31 in the championship game against the high-flying offense of Southern Oregon.
The profile of the league takes a hit in 2015, however. Grand View and William Penn are gone, decamped to the Heart of America. (That means Kansas folks will get more familiar with both schools. Stay tuned for Friday.) In their place, two independents with very new football programs join the party: Lindenwood-Belleville and Missouri Baptist. It's not a huge hit, but it's a hit, and the quality of the league will diminish somewhat.
The two new schools will join the Mideast League, while Robert Morris and Saint Francis (IL) move to the Midwest. Now, instead of having two schools with the same name in the same division of the same conference, they're just... in the same conference. Progress!
Note: The conference refers to the divisions as separate leagues, and while most teams play at least two cross-league games, only games within the division count in the conference record.
Marian has reached the NAIA title game twice in three years, and are thus cemented as the class of the conference. Although they lose MSFA-Mideast offensive player of the year, running back Tevin Lake, they return five first-team selections, including 2014 All-American offensive lineman Zach Mitchell. They're the prohibitive favorites in the Mideast.
Siena Heights came out of nowhere to claim a share of the Mideast crown last year. They were rewarded with six first-team nods, but all save DB Darius Price have graduated. Included in the losses: All-American DL Kyle Connors. You can guess what that, combined with the Saints' 1-4 non-conference record, probably means for 2015.
Saint Francis (IN), a perennial playoff participant, hit a rough patch last year. It may not get better, as five of the team's six all-conference selections have gone away, with senior WR Cam Smith the only holdout. Kevin Donley is a hell of a coach, however; he's been in charge of four quality programs over the past 40 years, racking up 278 wins and two NAIA coach of the year honors. In short, the Cougars are expecting about the same thing Kansas State is this year: a season which is still respectable, but gratingly subpar.
Taylor has long been just outside the MSFA's power structure. They're the sort of team which frequently gets a few votes in the poll, but can never really break through, and can't break the stranglehold on top of the division. They only return two first-teamers, although one is All-American DB Adam Sauder. They should still benefit from realignment, as three clearly inferior teams are behind them now.
Concordia (MI) had one first-team selection (and All-American), LB Takari Johnson. He's gone, and Concordia may remain in the cellar despite the addition of Missouri Baptist.
Lindenwood-Bellevile joins the league, bringing with them their candy-cane striped field. The Lynx, from Belleville, Ill., suffered through a 2-8 campaign last year as an independent, and just last week hired a new head coach. Rich Carlson, who formerly coached at Valparaiso and also started the football program at Ohio Dominican (now a D-II power) takes over from interim head coach Byron Gettis. Yes, former Kansas City Royal Byron Gettis. (This is your test to see if you've read this far.)
Missouri Baptist struggled through their first season of football, going 1-10 as an NAIA independent. But that schedule was terrifying: four D-II schools and two non-scholarship FCS squads tested the upstarts. They did win on Homecoming, against a Haskell program which dropped football this spring. It was a rocky year, but they may have enough in the tank to finish ahead of Concordia.
Saint Xavier, the 2011 NAIA champs, will be the favorite in the Midwest League, with four of their seven MSFA Midwest first-team selections returning -- and six second-teamers. Lost to the Cougars, however, is All-American DL Greg Hayward. Still, Mike Feminis has won over 140 games in 16 seasons at Saint Xavier. That's about 20 times as many games as they won in the eight years prior to his arrival. Sound familiar?
Robert Morris (IL) was maddeningly inconsistent last year. They beat D-III power Wisconsin-Oshkosh. They beat Saint Xavier. But they lost to Siena Heights (the game which signaled the Saints' rise last year) and struggled with doormat Concordia. This year, they'll be without All-American RB Lamont Wims and three other MSFA first-teamers; only junior OL Cory Chojnowski returns from that group. The bright spot, and the inescapable observation, is that the Eagles played well against the Midwest League and now they're in the Midwest League. That's an indication that they're probably Saint Xavier's closest challenger this year.
Saint Ambrose returns only one first-team honoree, but it's probably worth remembering that Grand View and William Penn dominated that list last year. The Bees have often been ranked and received playoff bids, and the departure of the division's two bullies won't hurt. They may even challenge for the title.
Saint Francis (IL) also moves west, but brings a lack of talent with them. Only one returning player was a Mideast all-conference selection in 2014, and they also lose All-American OL Kenny Smith. However, they do have returning second-team QB Trace Wanless, and the Mideast was a vastly tougher league last year. Will the move translate? Given the bottom end of the Midwest, it's likely.
Olivet Nazarene went 2-9 and had an All-American linebacker in Brandon Ruemler. That's life in the MSFA. Ruemler's gone, though, and he was the Tigers' only all-conference selection. Three second-teamers return, and they should avoid the cellar, but it won't be a glorious fall outside Kankakee.
Trinity International didn't even have a first-team player. Two second-teamers return, but 2015 is going to be pretty miserable for the Trojans.
Game of the year: It's actually on opening day, as Marian and Saint Xavier clash in a cross-divisional contest between league favorites August 29. To put this in relative perspective, it's sort of like if the season opened with Ohio State and Wisconsin going at it. Level of play aside, this is a huge game. Last year, the Cougars won 65-38.
And that brings us to the end of today's festivities. Tomorrow, we'll have the Mid-South Conference and -- more importantly -- the KCAC. Who's the favorite? Ottawa? Friends? Sterling? Bethany? Tabor? I don't know yet! Find out with me tomorrow.
Reminder: we're taking good mailbag questions as fodder for the lead portion of this insane proposition. Give me your best shot, people!