The College Football Pyramid

Standings Updated: September 5, 2018
Originally Published: August 27, 2014
By Erik Pitzer
with foreword by James Irwin

Introduction | Regions | Simulated Standings

I'm a realist. I know this will never happen. So does Erik Pitzer. The College Football Pyramid won't ever exist beyond a hypothetical for many reasons. College football, even in moving away from the Bowl Championship Series, is too far gone for a geographically-based conference restructuring to work.

But it would be fun. And it still presents a compelling argument that making college football better is about more than replacing a two-team playoff with a four-team playoff.

The introduction of the superconference, a direct product of the BCS, is what makes a College Football Pyramid impossible, and what makes the College Football Playoff (a four-team tournament set to launch this season) a bit of a sham. Power in college football is hoarded. The College Football Playoff now simply doubles the BCS (congratulations, America, it's twins!), continuing the evolution of a system where wins don't matter as much as who does the winning and losing.

A new playoff will help change the future of how championships are won, but it still exists within the environment the previous system created. No sport in America slants the deck so absurdly, and so universally, in favor of an elite faction of its teams (organized into conferences) than college football. The system has reached a point where the statistic used in every major sport to measure success—the win—is no longer a level gauge. Boise State's wins aren't the same as Oregon's wins; Oklahoma's aren't the same as Central Florida's. Alabama—the gold standard of college football—now stands on a level all by itself. If Alabama goes 12-0, Alabama gets a reserved spot in the College Football Playoff, regardless of how many other 12-0 teams exist. And it does so because it plays in the Southeastern Conference, because of who it beats, and because Alabama is Alabama.

College football has created a system that values status of conference over status of team. In 2009, six teams finished the regular season undefeated (five of them were still undefeated after conference championship weekend). How did the BCS solve that five-for-two musical chairs scenario? It admitted Alabama and Big 12 champ Texas to the national title game, pitted 12-0 TCU and 13-0 Boise State against each other and gave unbeaten Cincinnati a de facto road game against one-loss Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The BCS viewed, and the College Football Playoff will continue to view, conference affiliation as a deciding factor for who plays for the national title.

This cannot be the litmus test, especially in a sport with so many teams, so few games and major disparity between strength (and perceived strength) of conference. A formula that can work? In their book, "Death to the BCS," Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan outline a 16-team playoff of 10 autobids and six at-large bids for college football's 10 Division I-A conferences. That’s a nice start to creating a proper-sized playoff field.

The College Football Pyramid takes it one step further: restructuring conferences into eight regions, destroying the old, rigid organizational levels and—in a nice twist taken from European soccer (among other international sports)—creating a promotion/relegation system for teams between a region's tiers.

It's a little creative, a little fair, and provides incentive. It also preserves some semblance of geographic reality for an athletics program, because, you know, it doesn't make much sense that West Virginia's volleyball team plays at Baylor, at home against Kansas State and then at TCU between Oct. 22 and 29 this fall. (That, by the way, is either four multi-hour flights or 5,000 driving miles in seven days.)

And what of conference affiliation? It's worth noting that LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Missouri and South Carolina all would have qualified for Pitzer's 16-team College Football Pyramid playoff last year (based on head-to-head results where possible, and Ken Massey's matchup predictor from his ratings system elsewhere). And they would have done it as representatives of four different regions, which demonstrates not only the geographic absurdity of the SEC (and it isn’t even the worst offender; the aptly-named American Athletic Conference is my favorite), but also the arbitrary nature of conference power.

Conferences derive power from teams, not the other way around. They may be necessary administratively, and they certainly provide collective strength and protection for teams, but they don't need to be this powerful. Pitzer's formula also removes the need for conference championship games, which I'm sure would make Jim Delany's head explode. And the mobility of teams up and down ensures each region's strength is determined by on-field performance of its teams, not a reflection of its brand equity.

It'll never happen. No chance.

But it would be fun.

–James Irwin

* * *

Now then, onto the breakdown...

Region Map

Most international leagues that employ promotion and relegation have size on their side. The United States of America is too large to exist as a single, nationwide league on every level. Because competitive transparency requires each team to play one another an equal amount of times—once, in this case—we must split up the country into eight neatly England-sized regions.

We included all 405 NCAA football programs from Division I (FBS and FCS) and Division II for this project. The distribution of teams in their intial tiers were established primarily on current classification: Most FBS teams start in Tier 1, most FCS teams start in Tier 2, and most Division II teams start in Tiers 3 and 4. Discrepancies to that rule were simply judgment calls based on recent performance and overall program success. The best part? Any argument surrounding a team's initial placement has an opportunity to be vaildated with on-field performance!

Pyramid Diagram

Okay, so maybe "pyramid" isn't the perfect term. Though I suppose it has a better ring than "The College Football Bulging Trapezoid." Nevertheless, the concept is simple: Finish last place in your 10-team division, you're going down. Finish first, you're moving up.

For this scenario, we stop at Tier 4. If you want to get even more imaginative, feel free to envision a Tier 5 with Division III programs, or a Tier 6 with NAIA/NJCAA/CCAAA programs.

Postseason

We're not here to beat the dead horse that is the college football postseason debate. In Tier 1, we're using a simple 16-team "Death to the BCS"-esque model where eight region champions and eight at-large teams face off in a single elimation tournament. Tiers 2 and 3 could do the same thing, and perhaps allow for "stealing" a promotion spot if an at-large team ends up winning the national championship for a given tier. Tier 4 gets a bit trickier, as five of the eight regions must incorporate their own playoff system to determine who earns promotion.

Next: View the Regions »

Introduction | Regions | Simulated Standings

About the Authors

Erik Pitzer resides in the Atlantic Penn region and is the resident bracketologist at NoBowls.com. Follow him mixing business and pleasure @pitz2.