By Chris Mahr
In the years that I’ve been following college football, I can’t remember a weekend where so many FCS or nascent FBS programs either beat or came close to beating much more established counterparts.
Wisconsin, the two-time defending Big Ten representative in the Rose Bowl, needed a late defensive stand to escape with a five-point win over Northern Iowa. William & Mary came within two points of defeating Maryland in a 7-6 loss. Wake Forest (Liberty) and Indiana (Indiana) also barely avoided big upsets.
Other FBS schools weren’t so lucky. Texas State, in its first FBS season, upset a potential BCS darling from 2011 (Houston). Youngstown State (Pitt), Tennnessee-Martin (Memphis), McNeese State (Middle Tennessee State) and Eastern Washington (Idaho) also defeated established FBS teams.
Early-season surprises such as these are nothing new. Every college football fan remembers where they were when they watched or heard about Appalachian State’s victory over No. 5 Michigan at the Big House in 2007. Same with James Madison’s 21–16 upset at No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010.
But with more and more lower-level teams demonstrating that they deserve to play more often with the FBS big boys, it’s time to consider a merit-based system of promotion and relegation in college football.
Why should a team’s ability to compete against the best college football teams in the land be contingent upon how much money they’re willing to sink into a hypothetical transition to the next level? Villanova, coming off an FCS national title in 2009, determined one year later that it wasn’t worth the financial trouble to move to the Big East and fulfill all the FBS requirements.
Meanwhile the four programs making their FBS debuts in 2012 — Texas State, UT-San Antonio, South Alabama and UMass — are hardly world beaters (TSU’s victory over Houston aside). Yet they’re playing at the highest level of college football because they emptied their pockets, while cost-conscious teams of Villanova’s caliber are left playing FBS teams only once or twice a year.
The right to be a full-time FBS team shouldn’t be something to be bought. It should be something that’s earned.
So how would a promotion- and relegation-based system work?
The FCS powers have done an admirable job of establishing their staying power. Youngstown State won four national titles under Jim Tressel in the 1990s. Georgia Southern won six from 1986 to 2001. And Appalachian State won three straight in the 2000s (2005–2007).
Each year, the FCS semifinalists tend to included teams like these. These teams should be promoted as a reward for their staying power and simultaneously replaced with the four worst FBS teams as averaged by the AP, Coaches and Harris Interactive Polls.
These four new FBS teams would then play their first season as independents. If they survive two seasons at the FBS level as deemed by the aforementioned promotion and relegation rules, they will be allowed to join a geographically-convenient conference with full NCAA approval/support.
As for the list of FBS requirements new programs must adhere to? Some rules, like the average attendance of at least 15,000 fans per football game, are silly and should be done away with. Others are more serious and would allow FCS programs to pass on their FBS invitations.
If a team promoted to FBS does not last two seasons, they can rejoin the FCS conference they were a member of prior to their promotion.
Meanwhile, the relegated FBS teams will play their first and (if necessary) second seasons at the FBS level as independents. If they fail to move back to the FBS after two seasons, they will also be allowed to join a geographically-convenient conference with full NCAA approval/support.
As with any drastic plan, there are many holes in my argument that would need to be shored up. Is it fair to recruits/players on a team to be subjected to such drastic uncertainty when it comes to their college careers? What about the potential for conferences to be overrun with too many teams (or left with too few)? And wouldn’t the demotion formula generate similar controversy as the BCS?
The fact of the matter is that conferences are growing so drastically — and with such little regard for geography — that, in a matter of time, the process of losing or gaining members will barely matter. And the excitement in giving FBS’ bottom-feeding teams something meaningful to play for would create excitement in the sport where there is none.
Most important, it would create a meritocracy in a sport whose identity is shaped more and more by who has the most money. Tell me what college football fan wouldn’t love seeing that.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.