How Geographic Conference Realignment, Promotion and Relegation Could Improve College Football

By Matt Gutridge on August 13, 2022 at 7:05 am
Ohio State would play in the Archie Griffin Division of the Midwest Conference.

With chaos changing the infrastructure of the conferences we once knew, it is time for somebody to step up and stop the madness.

This summer, news broke of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten. Just over a year ago, Oklahoma and Texas jumped from the Big 12 to the SEC. With the departure of the Sooners and Texans, the Big 12 invited BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to join the conference.

When all of the dust from the movement settles, teams from the Midwest will be traveling to California to play games in the Big Ten. West Virginia, UCF and Cincinnati will be in Provo, Utah competing against BYU in the Big 12. 

It is time to stop this insanity.

There are 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Using the 68 teams who will be in the Power Five conferences as of next year along with Notre Dame, the three service academies and the top eight teams from the “all you others” (based on their overall records from the last 10 years), we can create four conferences of 20 teams with two 10-team divisions and all teams playing in a reasonable geographic footprint for regular season games.

Below, we break down how those four conferences – East Coast, Midwest, Southern and West Coast – could be constructed, then lay out a plan for a new-look College Football Playoff and how the other 51 teams could also have a chance to earn their way into the new Premier League of college football. You can also take a look at the 80 teams that make up those conferences and how they map out geographically in the interactive map below. (Click the square in the upper left corner of the map to look at each division individually.)

Midwest Conference

Archie Griffin Division

Ohio State 117–13 (.900) 3
Notre Dame 97–31 (.758) 6
Cincinnati 87–40 (.685) 13
Michigan State 83–42 (.664) 17
Michigan 81–42 (.659) 22
Toledo 79–42 (.653) 28
Northwestern 69–54 (.561) 53
Indiana 51–68 (.429) 94
Purdue 43–75 (.364) 111
Illinois 39–79 (.331) 118
Overall 746–486 (.606) 46.5
Note: Overall rank is based on total wins, not winning percentage.

With the mandate of one team outside of the current Power 5 programs being included in each division, and making the new divisions as geographically friendly as possible, we can’t keep all of the original Big Ten intact. 

However, the Archie Griffin Division does contain seven of the Big Ten's original members. Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Toledo replace Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

On the Ohio State front, the Buckeyes will have competitors in the same league from the state of Ohio for the first time in program history. Cincinnati and Toledo will get a chance to claim their spot as the best team in the great state of Ohio. Winning 79 games over the last 10 years blasts the Toledo Rockets onto the big stage.

The Game will remain intact. Ohio State and Illinois will also play for the prestigious Illibuck Trophy (provided neither Michigan nor Illinois gets relegated). Michigan will continue its family feud against “little brother” Michigan State and renew its rivalry with Notre Dame.

Teams in the Archie Griffin Division hail from four states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The farthest trip any of the 10 schools has to make in divisional play is the 280-mile trek between Ohio State and Northwestern.

To put that in perspective, Ohio State is 720 miles away from Nebraska and 1,985 from USC/UCLA.

Barry Sanders Division

Wisconsin 93–36 (.721) 8
Oklahoma State 90–39 (.698) 11
Iowa 82–44 (.651) 21
Northern Illinois 78–49 (.614) 31
Kansas State 76–50 (.603) 39
Minnesota 72–51 (.585) 46
Missouri 69–56 (.552) 56
Nebraska 62–60 (.508) 68
Iowa State 56–69 (.448) 81
Kansas 18–99 (.154) 130
Overall 696–553 (.557) 49.1

A mix of former Big Ten and Big 12 teams comprise this division. Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin join Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Oklahoma State along with Northern Illinois in this mashup of cornfed states.

The 620-mile trip between Minnesota and Oklahoma State is the farthest among the 10 teams in this division. In the current Big Ten, the Gophers are 1,000 miles away from Rutgers. When USC/UCLA join, Minnesota will be 1,550 miles from the newcomers.

Iowa vs. Iowa State and Minnesota vs. Wisconsin headline the rivalries in the Barry Sanders Division. The Kansas Jayhawks and Kansas State Wildcats have played each other every season since 1902 and the rivalry game for the Governor's Cup will remain intact.

East Coast Conference

Jim Brown Division

Penn State 82–43 (.656) 20
Marshall 80–47 (.630) 26
Navy 73–54 (.575) 44
Pittsburgh 72–57 (.558) 47
West Virginia 68–56 (.548) 58
Army 63–62 (.504) 67
Boston College 58–66 (.468) 79
Syracuse 51–71 (.418) 95
Maryland 48–69 (.410) 101
Rutgers 44–77 (.364) 109
Overall 639–602 (.515) 64.6

The Jim Brown Division of the East Coast Conference has Penn State as its headliner and Marshall as the promoted program.

Army and Navy will continue the tradition of playing in the final week of the regular season. The “Backyard Brawl” is revived with Pittsburgh and West Virginia facing each other yearly. Pittsburgh also gets to take on Penn State for Pennsylvania bragging rights.

The travel footprint for the Jim Brown Division is relatively tight. The division consists of two schools from Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The remaining two teams hail from Massachusetts and New Jersey.

On paper, the Jim Brown Division is currently the weakest of all divisions. Penn State should reign supreme for the foreseeable future, though a realistic shot at claiming a division championship could help revive programs like Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia.

Lawrence Taylor Division

Clemson 120–17 (.876) 2
Georgia 106–28 (.791) 5
Appalachian State 80–26 (.755) 24
Virginia Tech 73–56 (.566) 45
North Carolina State 70–55 (.560) 51
South Carolina 67–58 (.536) 59
North Carolina 66–60 (.524) 62
Duke 62–64 (.492) 71
Wake Forest 60–63 (.488) 74
Virginia 51–71 (.418) 96
Overall 755–498 (.603) 48.9

On the other side of the East Coast Conference is the Lawrence Taylor Division, which is anchored by Clemson and Georgia.

A similarity between the two divisions of the East Coast Conference is that the school qualifying from outside of the P5, Appalachian State, has 80 wins over the past decade, the same number of wins as Marshall.

With three schools holding losing records over the past decade, the Lawrence Taylor Division is the third-weakest of the eight divisions. However, the Coastal is loaded if these conferences and divisions carry over to basketball season.

Schools from North and South Carolina contribute seven of the 10 programs in this division. Georgia and Virginia are the other states represented, making the L.T. Division one of the tightest geographic divisions.

The Tobacco Road rivalry remains as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State will play in their triangle of hate. Clemson and South Carolina will now face each other as divisional opponents, while Virginia and Virginia Tech remain in the same division.

Southern Conference

Bo Jackson Division

Alabama 128–13 (.908) 1
LSU 90–37 (.709) 10
Texas A&M 85–41 (.675) 15
LA-Lafayette 83–46 (.643) 18
Baylor 80–47 (.630) 27
Houston 77–47 (.621) 35
Auburn 77–52 (.597) 38
Mississippi St. 74–54 (.578) 42
Mississippi 69–54 (.561) 54
Arkansas 49–73 (.402) 99
Overall 812–464 (.636) 33.9

Like William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864, it's now time to head south and put the Southern Conference in its place, starting with the Bo Jackson Division.

Seven of the 10 schools in the Bo Jackson play in today's SEC. Baylor and Houston leave the Big 12 and Conference USA while Louisiana Lafayette is the non-Power 5 school. 

With Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M at the top, it is not a surprise that this division is rated as the best when based on the average rating of the 10 teams.

Geographically, the teams are from the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Having multiple teams in each state will lead to natural rivalry games, including the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl.

The farthest distance any of the teams in the Bo Jackson Division will have to travel is the 770 miles separating Texas A&M from Auburn.

Deion Sanders Division

UCF 87–40 (.685) 14
Florida State 85–42 (.669) 16
Florida 80–46 (.635) 25
Memphis 78–49 (.614) 32
Miami 77–49 (.611) 36
Louisville 77–50 (.606) 37
Tennessee 62–61 (.504) 70
Kentucky 61–63 (.492) 72
Georgia Tech 58–66 (.468) 78
Vanderbilt 47–74 (.388) 102
Overall 712–540 (.569) 48.2

On the other side of the ledger, the Deion Sanders Division has a slightly larger geographic footprint. The schools are located in four states that span from Kentucky down to Florida.

Rivalries are sprinkled throughout this division. The heat will be turned up when Florida, Florida State and Miami play each other. UCF is also in the mix and will have a chance to prove its place in the Sunshine State.

The 920-mile trip between Louisville and Miami is the farthest for any of the schools in the Deion Sanders Divison. In fact, for all of the schools outside the state of Florida, the trip to Miami will be their most distant travel game.

West Coast Conference

Earl Campbell Division

Oklahoma 107–24 (.817) 4
Boise State 95–31 (.754) 7
BYU 81–48 (.628) 23
Utah 78–45 (.634) 29
TCU 74–51 (.592) 41
Air Force 70–51 (.579) 50
Texas 70–55 (.560) 52
Texas Tech 58–65 (.472) 77
Arizona 53–66 (.445) 91
Colorado 44–73 (.376) 107
Overall 730–509 (.589) 48.1

Geographically, the West Coast Conference is the most difficult to keep travel distances reasonable.

Teams in the Earl Campbell Division will rack up the frequent flyer miles as the teams stretch from Texas to the south, Idaho and Utah to the north and Arizona to the west.

Over 1,300 miles separate the Texas Longhorns and Boise State Broncos. That is quite the distance, but the Broncos are currently over 2,800 miles away from Mountain West opponent Hawai'i.

TCU, Texas, and Texas Tech will battle to be the best in the Lone Star State, while Utah and BYU are conference mates for the first time since 2013. The Red River Rivalry remains intact.

Ronnie Lott Division

Oregon 91–36 (.717) 9
San Diego State 89–39 (.695) 12
Stanford 82–43 (.656) 19
Washington 78–45 (.634) 30
USC 77–47 (.621) 34
Arizona State 71–50 (.587) 48
UCLA 65–56 (.537) 63
Washington State 63–56 (.529) 65
California 48–67 (.417) 100
Oregon State 44–74 (.373) 108
Overall 708–513 (.580) 48.8

The original Pac-10 is almost reunited. Nine of the teams in the Ronnie Lott Division are from the original Pac-10. Since Arizona is the team furthest to the east, the Wildcats get bumped. 

The addition of San Diego State gives the Ronnie Lott Division five teams from California. With 89 wins over the last 10 seasons, the Aztecs have the second-most wins of any team in this division.

USC and UCLA remain rivals in this division, while the Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State and the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State still rage on. The Big Game featuring Cal and Stanford will also continue its 124-game history.

Regular season and playoff format

All schools in this new college football landscape will play a total of 12 games. There will be nine conference games and three non-division contests. All non-divisional games must be played during the first three weeks of the season, and Premier League teams must play all of their games against other Premier League teams.

The team with the best regular-season record in division games in each division will play in their conference’s championship game. Non-divisional games will not count in the division standings – even if they are played against teams in the same conference – though they will factor into each team’s College Football Playoff résumé.

The winners of each conference championship game will earn automatic bids into the new CFP, which will also feature two wild card teams chosen by a selection committee for a six-team playoff. The conference champions selected by the committee as the top two seeds will get first-round byes; the third seed will play the sixth seed and the schools ranked fourth and fifth will battle it out in the quarterfinals. 

The No. 1 seed will play the lowest-seeded first-round winner and the No. 2 team will face the higher-seeded opening-round winner in the semifinals. All first-round and semifinal games will be held at the home stadium of the team with the higher seed, while the championship will continue to be played at a rotating neutral site. 

Promotion and relegation

With 80 teams playing in the Premier League, there are 51 FBS teams on the outside looking in. So, what happens to the teams that aren't in the four new conferences?

The leftover schools will be divided into four “lower” conferences based on geography. Each lower conference will be assigned as a feeder to one of the four premier conferences. Three of the lower conferences will have 13 teams and the Lower East Coast Conference will have 12 squads.

However, there is good news and a glimmer of hope for the schools in the four lower conferences. Promotion Thursday.

At the end of each season, one team from each lower conference will be promoted to the Premier League. On the Thursday before the Premier League teams play on Championship Saturday, the lower conferences will have Promotion Thursday.

Lower Level Conferences
Akron Florida Atlantic Colorado State Buffalo
Arkansas State Florida International Fresno State Charlotte
Ball State Louisiana Monroe Hawai'i Coastal Carolina
Bowling Green Louisiana Tech New Mexico East Carolina
Central Michigan North Texas New Mexico State Georgia Southern
Eastern Michigan Rice Nevada Georgia State
Kent State SMU San Jose State James Madison
Miami, Ohio South Alabama Texas San Antonio Liberty
Middle Tennessee South Florida Texas State Old Dominion
Ohio University Southern Miss UNLV Temple
Western Kentucky Troy Utah State UConn
Western Michigan Tulane UTEP UMass
Tulsa UAB Wyoming  

The two schools with the best record in each lower conference will battle it out for the golden ticket out of purgatory. The winner of this game will bump up to the Premier League conference associated with the winning team’s lower conference.

For example, let's say Bowling Green and Ohio University are the two teams with the best records in the Lower Midwest Conference at the end of the regular season. The Falcons and Bobcats will face each other on Promotion Thursday, hosted by the team with the better regular-season record. The winning team gets promoted to play in the Midwest Conference.

If a team goes up, a team must go down.

Each of the four conferences in the Premier League will have a relegation game between the bottom teams of each division.

How does this work? Let's go out on a limb and say the Purdue Boilermakers are last in the Archie Griffin Division and the Kansas Jayhawks are the bottom-feeder of the Barry Sanders Division. The Jayhawks and Boilermakers will hit the field for a battle to the Midwest Conference death.

This game will take place on the Friday before Championship Saturday. The winner stays in the Midwest Conference. The loser drops down to the Lower Midwest Conference, with the Promotion Thursday winner joining their division.

It is very conceivable for there to be more excitement surrounding a conference's relegation game than its championship. Wouldn’t you be glued to the set if one of the blue-blood schools had a down year and found itself on the brink of going down a level?

Final thoughts

Placing schools in conferences and divisions based on geography will benefit collegiate teams across all sports. Teams will spend less time on the road and schools will save money on travel costs. 

Eight divisions of 10 teams will make every divisional game played during the last nine weeks of the season of importance in the race for division titles. And there will be intrigue at both the top and bottom of each division as the teams at the bottom of the standings fight to stay in the Premier League.

Having four conferences ensures that each conference champion has a spot at the table in the six-team playoffs, giving conference championship games more weight than ever before. 

Six teams qualifying for the playoffs will add the drama and discussion college football thrives on. Which two conference champions will be rewarded with the byes? Which two teams that didn't win a conference championship will earn the wild card spots? Any playoff with more than six teams will dilute the importance and urgency of winning a conference championship.

Relegation and promotion will bring new teams and new life into the sport we love, giving everyone a chance to compete at the highest level while forcing teams to perform well each year to remain at the highest level. Promotion Thursday, Relegation Friday and Championship Saturday will give college football fans three consecutive days of intrigue in the first week of December.

College football typically changes and evolves due to reaction instead of planning and direction. It's time for the sport to make logical changes and improvements with foresight in mind. It's time for geographically based conferences. It's time for relegation and promotion. It's time for the College Football Premier League.

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