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Playoff Won't Fix All Of College Football's Problems

by Joe Jenkins
Jul 16, 2013 11:28 AM EDT



When the FBS presidents approved the four-team playoff last year, everyone outside of John Saunders celebrated the death of a system that was inequitable, exclusionary and characterized as the worst possible way to determine a championship short of picking teams out of a hat. 

We should be excited. The playoff will make college football better in a number of ways. For the first time ever, the national championship game will be decided on the field and not by voters and computers. If it seems like this should be common sense, remember that before the BCS, the presidents figured a good old fashioned popularity contest should decide the top team in the country. Getting teams to settle anything on the field is serious progress. 

Don’t fall in love with this playoff format just yet, though. There’s still a year before the system goes into place and already storm clouds loom on the horizon. One of the biggest problems we saw with the BCS will persist with the playoff: the inability for mid-majors to compete with the traditional powers. An SEC school with one loss will, in all likelihood, still get the nod over an undefeated team from the Mountain West due to strength of schedule. 

Even the common fan knows it requires much more talent to negotiate a season SEC than it does the MWC. The problem is that BSU can’t actually do anything about their SOS. Not when 67 percent of their schedule is determined by the conference in which they play. They are contractually obligated to play an inferior schedule. 

There’s an elegant solution to this problem, and all college football needs to do is look to the other kind of football to find it.

For the uninitiated, relegation is the process used in various sports throughout Europe, but the best-known example is the English Premier League. Successful teams in the EPL remain in the league while the bottom three teams are "relegated," or demoted, to the lower division, the Football League Championship. The top three teams from the FLC are rewarded for their good play and are promoted to the EPL to replace the teams that were sent down. 

Pretty simple, right?

Instituting a system of relegation logistically is impossible in the current football landscape. But for one moment, let's sit back and pretend we’re dealing with unpaid amateur athletes playing for not-for-profit educational institutions and that hundreds of millions of dollars aren’t at stake. 

What's not to love about relegation?

Schools like Kentucky would have to earnthe opportunity to play in the SEC, while relative upstarts like Boise State would be rewarded for having the best winning percentage in the country during the last five years (.924). A late-season game between Indiana and Illinois becomes a lot more interesting when the loser spends the next few years in the MAC.

The idea isn’t that Florida Atlantic should always be on par with Alabama, but if the Owls manage a run of success — even in the Sun Belt — they deserve the opportunity to compete against anyone. Relegation would allow the upward mobility that college football needs while ensuring every conference remains as competitive as possible.

Instead, we’re left with a system that operates based on divine right and allows a school like Washington State to reap the benefits of playing in the Pac 12 even though they’ve only won 12 games during the last five years. BSU has won 49 more during the same span, but probably won’t get a sniff at the national playoff until the next round of conference expansion lands them in the Pac-14. 

So celebrate the playoff. Things certainly will look nicer on the surface. But it won’t take long before we realize little actually has changed.