Every year we seem to get news of teams switching conferences, debates as to which teams deserve to play for the national championship, and doubt whether the BCS (of which I'm personally a fan) truly crowns a national champion in the first place. The following is my idea of how to structure the NCAA in a fair way to give all teams a chance and keep the field organized and logical. Of course, this idea, with such wide sweeping changes, would be unlikely to every be formed but I can dream.
Four Major Conferences
As labeled above, these are the SEC, the Big 12, the Big 10, and the Pac 10. These labels are just a reference to the strength of these four regional conferences. The ACC and Big East don't fit neatly in the regional divisions. The conferences that would result in these splits would not closely resemble the conferences as they currently stand, however. Each regional conference would consist of 16 teams split into 8 team divisions (east/west or north/south).
Example SEC Teams
|Alabama||Georgia||North Carolina State|
|Auburn||Georgia Tech||South Carolina|
|Florida State||Mississippi State|
As you can see, this conference is packed. Adding so many good teams to the base of the SEC would make this a very difficult conference to play in and actually leads to my biggest critique of this system.
Example Big Ten / North Eastern Teams
|Boston College||Michigan State||Virginia|
|Kentucky||Notre Dame||West Virginia|
A much more reasonable conference. Also, Notre Dame would have to start playing well with others in football. This system has no place for independents.
Example Pac 10 / West Coast Teams
|Arizona State||Oregon State||Washington|
|Boise State||Southern Cal||Washington State|
I couldn't quite fill this list. The remaining 3 teams would likely be strife with relegation (see below). The thirteen teams named include some good competition, however.
Example Big 12 / Central Teams
|Colorado State||Oklahoma||Texas A&M|
|Kansas||Oklahoma State||Texas Tech|
Even in the larger format, I'm afraid this conference would still be dominated by Texas and Oklahoma. This conference, too, would probably see frequent shuffling of the same teams with relegation. Which brings me to...
This is the biggest idea taken from European soccer. Each of the four conferences would have a division I and division II with the former consisting of the premier teams. The top two teams from division II would move up into division I at the end of the season and the bottom two teams of division I would be relegated to division II. The third from last from division I and the third from top division II teams would play a playoff game where the winner gets to stay or move into division I and the loser remains or is relegated to division II. This system is how the German Bundesliga works and is similar to many other soccer leagues in Europe and is not without critique but I think works quite well.
One of the biggest criticisms of the BCS currently is that the major conferences have a strangle hold on the big bowl games. In a league with relegation, teams like Boise State, TCU and Utah don't have to go courting the current BCS conferences to try and get a spot to be included in the major postseason games--it's built into the system instead. Other teams that haven't produced a good football team in 20 years would move down a tier allowing them to play more meaningful competition and have a chance at a winning season.
It's worth noting that these I and II divisions would only apply to football. Duke, for instance, could be a division I basketball team and a division II football team. That's if basketball chooses this system at all. It might make sense to adopt some other system or keep the current system in place.
A True Playoff (With a Meaningful Regular Season)
One of the complaints I have with the idea of tacking on a 8+ team playoff to our current system is I believe it would devalue the regular season. There would be little reason to schedule a difficult slew of teams because the closer you are to unbeaten, the more likely you'd be included in some kind of playoff. With this system, the regular season becomes a type of playoff.
Each conference consists of sixteen teams split into two, eight team, divisions. The best team out of each group of eight would meet the best team in the other division in a conference championship (and every conference would finally have a championship game). The winners of this championship game would play the champions of the other conferences in a four team playoff game at the end of the year. Seeding could be determined by national championship history with the top seed going to the conference that last won a national championship.
Effectively, the playoff begins on the first day of fall football. The first round of 64 would play eight round robin games to reach the quarterfinals (the conference championship games). The next stage would be the semifinals (the conference champions) and finished by the finals.
This would have some interesting side effects for the regular season. Each team would play their 7 conference divisional teams. The team with the best record against these teams would be crowned the divisional champion. Tie-breakers would consist of head-to-head play, away game records and then total conference record. Each team would furthermore play 2-3 games against the other division in their conference. The remaining 2-3 games would be games against teams in different conferences altogether.
These non-conference games would be really interesting. Because they wouldn't actually impact a team's chances to win a national championship, they would effectively be an exhibition game. Teams could choose different strategies for scheduling these games. Some would keep up long standing, long distance, rivalries (like Notre Dame-USC). Others might choose some weaker teams to build confidence and provide experience for younger players (like is often the case now). Others could play other big name teams to create revenue and media exposure (e.g. a Michigan-Texas game or a Ohio State-Alabama game).
The Post Season in General
This kind of system could still produce a rich "bowl"-like post season. There would be the seven total single elimination "playoff" games between the quarterfinals and finals. The teams beaten in the semifinals could play a 3rd place game. The four teams that lose in the quarterfinals can play a consolation three game tournament. The 14th place division I team has to play the 3rd place division II team to determine relegation which would produce four more meaningful post season games. That's a total of fifteen meaningful post season games (which is much more than we have now) and plenty to accommodate the tradition-laden bowls we currently have (think a Chick-Fil-A SEC Championship bowl game or a Cotton Bowl Big 12 championship game). It also wouldn't add a significant amount of post season games for teams to play. Some teams would play the same amount of games a year they do now where the champion and runner up would play one additional one. Teams currently without a conference championship would play one more game.
The biggest critique has to be the unequal level of competition between conferences. Basically, the SEC becomes extremely hard while the Pac 10 / Big 12 keeps the same basic difficulty they have now. Some of this could be helped by where exactly you draw the conference borders. Honestly, Louisiana and Arkansas could go to the Big 12 to give the SEC some breathing room and toughen up the Big 12 a little but, as a big fan of the SEC, I'd have a hard time giving up good SEC teams.
Another obvious critique regards relegation. It certainly allows some mobility to allow a good team to be rewarded but I'd be afraid that the bottom level teams would never spend more than one or two years in the division I before dropping back down.
Of course I haven't talked about how unpopular some of this would be. Teams on the cusp (especially in the SEC like Vanderbilt or Kentucky) would get knocked down to lower division of football which would make fans very unhappy. Teams like Boise State would have a much harder time producing undefeated seasons if they had to play all the teams in the Pac 10 instead of just one or two of them. I'm sure there are hundreds of small issues and plenty of large legal and economic ones. But this is effectively just a thought exorcise and I don't really like thinking of legal and economical things. Thoughts?