Can You Imagine a Pac-12 Where the Bottom Teams Are Relegated to FCS?

Jake Curtis

What if we realigned all the football conferences and relegated teams to a lower division if they don't perform well? Suppose, for example, Cal doesn't do well for a few seasons, and gets demoted to FCS (Division I-AA) status and has to work it way back to the FBS level? Would Cal fans stand for that?

It's a wild idea, one initiated by Sports Illustrated, which, just for fun, reorganized college football into 10 conferences with 12 teams apiece, grouped by geopgraphic proximity.

Every team plays every other team in its conference, with the conference champions of the 10 conferences and two wild-card choices advancing to a 12-team playoff for the national title. There would be no conference championship games.

Pat Forde performed the mythical realignment chore, and what he came up for the new Pac-12 does not differ greatly from the current Pac-12. It would consist of the old Pac-8 teams (Cal, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, USC and UCLA) and four Mountain West teams (Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada and San Diego State). The notion that this realignment would curtail travel costs hits a snag with the inclusion of Hawaii, but more on that in Tuesday's story.

For now, let's focus on the idea of relegation, because I love how this could play out.

You will notice that San Jose State has been demoted completely out of the FBS level, leaving out of any of the concocted conferences, putting the Spartans in the FCS, presumably in the Big Sky Conference.

There are mechanisms with Forde's system for teams to be relegated out of or elevated into the 10 FBS conferences. He suggests doing it every three years; I'm for every two years.

***(Click here for the entire Sports Illustrated story on the hypothetical realignment and the conference groupings Pat Forde came up with.)

This is how it would work in my scenario: The wins and losses of all teams in a conference over a two-year span would be added up, and the two teams with the worst records in the Pac-12 would be demoted to FCS status, perhaps putting them in the Big Sky Conference. Then the top two teams from the Big Sky Conference, based on a two-year win-loss record, would join the Pac-12.

It may sound too radical to gain acceptance, but it works nicely in a number of sports, most notably the English Premier League in soccer, where the bottom three teams are demoted to a lower level and the top two teams and a playoff winner from a lower division are elevated to the Premier League.

***Click here for a story on whether this hypothetical conference realignment would be good for Cal

There is often a situation where a college football team's hopes of winning a conference title are dashed halfway through a season. But the thought of relegation will make its remaining games important. Even if a team seems safe from relegation one season, it may want to build up a few wins in that season in case it goes completely in the dumper in the second year of the two-year cycle.

The teams that finish with the two worst records over a given two-year period would be banished to the Big Sky FCS conference, while the top two teams from the Big Sky would be elevated to the Pac-12. 

The incentive to avoid relegation and pursue elevation would be significant, given the revenue, prestige and exposure differences between FBS and FCS football.

The biggest problem may be arranging a schedule when a team is relegated to a lower division since nonconference opponents are scheduled years in advance. That can be acommodated to some extent by simply giving the relegated team the same schedule that one of the Big Sky elevated teams had for that next season. A rivalry game could still be included as a nonconference game. In other words, if Stanford or Cal were relegated they could still play each other as the one nonconference game.

Let's see how this would work, if we use the 2018 and 2019 seasons as an example.

Oregon State and UCLA both had 7-17 records over those two seasons, the worst of the 12 teams in the reconfigured Pac-12. They would be demoted to the Big Sky Conference, replaced by Weber State (21-7 over two years, including 14-1 at home) and Eastern Washington (19-8, including 13-0 at home and a berth in the 2018 FCS national championship game). UCLA would play the 2020 schedule assigned to Weber State with a nonconferene game against USC, while Oregon State would take Eastern Washington's schedule, with a nonconference game against Oregon.

UCLA might wreak havoc in the Big Sky, but could get back to the new Pac-12 in two years. 

The biggest casualty may be coaches' security. It's hard to imagine a coach not getting fired if his team is relegated to the FCS. Of course, coaches get fired at an alarming rate already.

What if Cal had a two-year slide that pushed it into the Big Sky Conference? Would Golden Bears fans come to Memorial Stadium see games against Big Sky teams such as UC Davis or Cal Poly? Well, 44,168 watched Cal get past UC Davis 27-13 in 2019 as the Bears had to rally from a 10-0 deficit. And we'll see what the Sept. 12 game against Cal Poly this season draws, assuming there is a game on Sept. 12.

The one drawback is that the inclusion of Weber State (Ogden, Utah) or Northern Colorado might ruin the geographic proximity that the realignment sought. In that case you could limit the possible elevation to the six West Coast teams in the Big Sky -- Eastern Washington, UC Davis, Cal Poly, Portland State, Saramento State and San Jose State.

I like the relegation idea, mainly because games late in the season become important for every team, even those near the bottom.

Will it ever happen? Probably not, but I remember not long ago university presidents were dead set against a playoff to determine a national champion, claiming the number of games needed would compromise the educational priorities. Well, LSU, Clemson and Hawaii played 15 games last season.

Here is the way the Pac-12 would break down in the Pat Forde model, with the team in parenthesis being the one nonconference opponent:

Cal (BYU)

Stanford (Northwestern)

Washington (Utah)

USC (Notre Dame)

UCLA (Arizona)

Oregon (Boise State)

Washington State (Wyoming)

Oregon State (Arizona State)

San Diego State (New Mexico)

Hawaii (Army)

Nevada (UNLV)

Fresno State (Utah State)

Cover photo of 2019 Cal-UC Davis game by Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports