Promotion/relegation in college football? A revolutionary idea could help save the Pac-12

By | September 20, 2023

The Pac-2 Bowl will take place at the Palouse this Saturday night.

The remaining two members of the imploded Pac-12 conference, Oregon State and Washington State, meet in a game of top-25 ranked teams. Amid a slew of mammoth matchups this weekend, the Pac-2 battle is slipping under the commotion despite the stakes.

The Cougars are 3-0, ranked 21st and defeated Wisconsin with FCS-turned-Power Five dual-threat quarterback Cameron Ward. The Beavers are 3-0, ranked No. 14 and have allowed 33 points in three games with former Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei manning the offense.

But the interest in these two programs lies outside the field. As they team up for a court battle for the survival of the Pac-12, their future affiliation with the conference is in doubt.

Will they dissolve the Pac-12 and join the Mountain West?

Will they merge with the Mountain West under the Pac-12 banner to preserve the league and its assets?

Will they rebuild the Pac-12 by eliminating more members of the Group of Five?

Or… They will do something unconventional, creative and, some might say, downright eccentric. Will they dive both feet into a pool of uncertainty, overhaul the way college conferences are structured, and remake the industry’s long-standing model?

“We need to think differently,” said a Mountain West athletic director who wished to remain anonymous. “We’re always trying to fit things into a box and we’re always late to the party. How do we deal with this?”

The Pac-2’s response, some say, should be to create a two-conference partnership with the Mountain West around a model similar to European soccer leagues, using a relegation and promotion system for soccer (and potentially other sports ).

Could the Pac-12 survive in a new format?  (Illustration by Yahoo Sports)

Could the Pac-12 survive in a new format? (Illustration by Yahoo Sports)

The goal is to create high-stakes matchups, scheduling alliances and a points system to fuel interest and excitement in the lower level of college football. In theory, such a system would make these lower-resource football programs more attractive to linear and streaming partners in a world where the industry relies on such revenue to survive.

“It’s time to admit what college football is: an entertainment product,” one Mountain West administrator said.

Officials who spoke to Yahoo Sports for this story did so under the agreement of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions between the remaining two Pac-12 schools and the Mountain West schools.

As the parties continue to deliberate over options, there may not be a resolution for weeks until a Washington County court resolves a dispute between the Pac-2 and 10 other schools over control of the league’s decision-making powers. This includes control over the conference’s liabilities and assets, two important factors in determining the future course of action for the Beavers and Cougars.

The relegation/promotion idea is just an idea, for now. While the concept has been explored by many officials in both the Pac-2 and Mountain West, it is just one of several possible options in the early stages of consideration.

“It’s really brilliant,” said a Group of Five athletic director. “The reason this wouldn’t happen is that people wouldn’t get into something if they were at risk of missing out on something big [like being relegated]. But the economic aspect could make sense.”

The first step

The idea is not entirely out of place.

Developing an English-style system in college football is a long-talked-about endeavor for powerhouse football programs that appear to be consolidating into a couple of leagues. The thinking of many in college sports is that the top 30 to 50 most valuable college programs will split off and form a semi-professional division that could one day feature such relegation and promotion.

But what if the other Did you guys do this before them?

Preserving two separate conferences is perhaps the most important part of this concept. The Mountain West and Pac-2 would form a partnership around a relegation system for football and be run by a single commissioner, although their membership could vary – at least in football – on an annual or semi-annual basis.

The conferences, if kept separate and recognized as such by both the NCAA and the College Football Playoff, would be:

  1. Preserve the millions of dollars in assets that exist within the Pac-12, including at least $50 million in NCAA basketball tournament shares, more than $40 million in reserves, and more (Pac-12 network infrastructure, etc.).

  2. Maintain automatic qualifying berths in the NCAA championship tournaments for the champion of each league in all sports except football.

  3. Maintain revenue distribution from the CFP for each league (a real question).

The idea starts with the Pac-12 and Mountain West each having at least eight members for a total of 16 teams. Think of it as a Pac-12 division and a Mountain West division under the umbrella of this football relegation partnership.

At present, the two leagues combine 14 member football players. For regional purposes as well as historical success and resources, the State of North Dakota and the State of South Dakota are obvious expansion targets.

Every year or two, two teams from each conference are relegated and promoted: two promoted from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 and two relegated from the Pac-12 to the Mountain West.

To start Year 1 in this concept, Oregon State and Washington State remain in the Pac-12. The two expansion additions agree to merge starting at the bottom level, Mountain West. How are the other 12 schools divided: six in the Pac-12 and six in the Mountain West? Is it based on conference rankings over the last decade or two? Is it based on overall revenue figures? Is this a made-for-TV NBA-style lottery drawing?

However it is done, things could get complicated politically.


The goal here is to create interesting, high-stakes matchups for fan experience and television purposes, relying on the previous season’s rankings and the current season’s rankings to orchestrate the pairings.

A team’s schedule would include two non-conference opponents, seven intra-conference games and three crossover games. For example, in Year 1, Oregon State plays two scheduled non-conference games, seven games against all other Pac-12 teams and three games against those in the Mountain West.

The results of the previous season determine a pecking order for organizing matches, such as:

– a rematch of Week 1 of the previous year’s Pac-12 championship game.

– a Week 1 game between the two teams promoted from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 and two teams relegated from the Pac-12 to the Mountain West.

– A Bracket Buster Weekend in early to mid-November, where pairings are determined two weeks in advance and based on the current rankings with the intent of setting up exciting crossover matchups.

The entire season develops in a crescendo of a final week which includes three matches:

– A relegation game between the sixth- and seventh-ranked teams in the Pac-12. The loser is relegated to the Mountain West. The eighth place finisher in the regular season is automatically relegated.

– A promotion game between the second- and third-place teams in the Mountain West. The winner is promoted to the Pac-12. The Mountain West regular season champion is automatically promoted to the Pac-12.

– The Pac-12 championship game, in which the winner has a significant chance to advance to the recently expanded College Football Playoff.

Washington State and Oregon State face off on the football field this weekend, but the schools are teaming up in an effort to keep the Pac-12 brand alive.  (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Washington State and Oregon State face off on the football field this weekend, but the schools are teaming up in an effort to keep the Pac-12 brand alive. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)


Invariably, the differentiating factor from one conference to the next is money.

In theory, the conferences would enter into a joint media rights agreement that would distribute higher base revenue to Pac-12 teams and lower base revenue to Mountain West teams, with an incentive structure that provides bonuses for completing a school in the ranking.

For example, if the leagues entered into a media rights deal worth $100 million per year, the Pac-12 programs would earn 60% ($7.5 million per school) while the Mountain West schools would earn the remaining 40% ($5 million per school). Schools could receive bonuses for winning each championship and being promoted from the Mountain West to the Pac-12.

That’s where the real problem lies, one conference administrator said. With relegation, budgets will change, dropping to $3-5 million per year. This is a problem for athletic directors in annual budget projections. There must be a balance in the basic distribution that allows for annual budgetary projections.

“If a school receives $15 million this year, it will have a $15 million budget next year,” the conference official said. “Well, if we go backwards, we can’t do that.”

There are many more problems and unresolved issues with this concept.

For example, what happens to men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports? An administrator suggests relegation in every sport. Another believes relegation should extend only to football and basketball teams, leaving Olympic Sports to create a regionally based schedule among the 16 teams.

After all, one sports director said, football is responsible for at least 90% of media rights deals anyway.

One of the key questions: Will the NCAA and CFP consider separate conferences?

How the ranking is handled is another unresolved question. The natural way is to win percentage and tiebreakers. But what if college football started using a soccer-style points system?

Three points for each victory. One point for missing overtime. Zero for any other loss.

Should a bonus point be awarded if a Mountain West team beats a Pac-12 team?

The questions persist. The issues are unresolved.

But as the Pac-2 Bowl unfolds Saturday night, the two programs, off the field, have a chance to dive into an unconventional, creative and, yes, perhaps eccentric model.

Will they do it?

“Everything is on the table,” said a highly placed source familiar with the discussions between the leagues. “We are evaluating many options. This included.”

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