College football’s probably never going to embrace relegation, even if it would make a ton of sense and be good for the sport’s overall competitive health. There are two main obstacles that render relegation a non-starter: money and pride. If your bank account and reputation both benefit from the conference you’re in right now, why would you risk losing that, with the possibility that you’ll never return?
Thankfully, my bad idea factory of a brain has churned out another perfect gem: the Conference Exchange Program. At its simplest, it’s exactly what you think it is. Conferences swap teams with one another for a season in the interests of broadening culture and just mixing things up a little bit temporarily. The devil, of course, is in the details, so let’s address those.
1. Picking Equal Teams
We’re trying to give schools new experiences, not upset the existing balance (or imbalance) in the galaxies of the college football universe. Our exchange schools need to be roughly equal, and we’re going to measure that using Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings, which account for variables like tempo and opponent in ways that win-loss records or total offense don’t. And because teams aren’t quite the same from one year to the next, we’re going to use a three-year average of each team’s SP+ rating to look for good exchange candidates. Looking at the numbers for 2017-2019, here are a few interesting pairs:
- Auburn (23.1 average rating) and Penn State (also 23.1)
- UCF (16.5) and Utah (16.1)
- USC (13.56) and Miami (13.23)
- Memphis (11.67) and Michigan State (10.83)
- South Carolina (9.16) and Appalachian State (9)
- Nebraska (3.5) and Louisville (3.43)
- Georgia Tech (-0.93) and Colorado (also -0.93)
In theory, swapping any of these pairs does not impact the strength of a conference, a division, or any team’s overall schedule difficulty. Going off the slightly less-numeric rating system of “my gut,” none of those exchanges feel like they’d be wildly out of balance.
2. Keeping Schedules Simple
Teams don’t normally just play conference opponents, though, so we’ll have to figure out what this means for non-conference slates. Fortunately, the best answer is also the simplest – just swap schedules, too. Take that USC/Miami grouping. If we exchange those teams in 2021, the Trojans would host Appalachian State, Michigan State, and Central Connecticut and start the year with a neutral-site matchup against Alabama. Miami’s new non-conference schedule would include home games against San Jose State and BYU and a road game at Notre Dame.
Yes, a road game at Notre Dame, because we will not be making exceptions for any rivalry games. Swap with Iowa State and you’re playing Iowa in September; swap with Mississippi State and you’re in the Egg Bowl. That also means traveling trophies stay on the line. Imagine Memphis beating Michigan and then taking the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to Tennessee with them, where it will live for a year until one of its natural owners liberates it!
3. Money Doesn’t Travel (Mostly)
Remember how loss of revenue was one of our primary barriers to implementing regulation? We have to address that concern here by keeping one thing almost entirely out of the exchange – conference distributions. An SEC school won’t give up millions in conference television money to go play in the Pac-12, and we’re not going to make them.
Bowl season, however, is going to be an exception. Many conferences pool the bowl payouts their teams receive, make special dispensations for individual team expenses, and then distribute the rest evenly. The Playoff sends $6 million to a conference for every semifinalist it has and $4 million for each team in a non-Playoff New Year’s Six Bowl. The teams we exchange are going to be part of their temporary conference’s bowl payout structure, whether they contributed to that bowl money or not.
Does that leave open the possibility for, say, a team to temporarily join the Big Ten, go 3-9, and still get a chunk of Rose Bowl change? Yes, but that’s already a reality we live with. Why not spread the unearned wealth out? This also avoids the strange scenario where an exchange team makes the Playoff but the team they briefly replaced reaps the financial reward.
4. Exchange Teams Get Full Privileges
Once we make these swaps, we do not qualify them or asterisk them in any way, shape, or form. If UCF and Utah trade places, UCF can win the Pac-12 South, play for the conference title, and snag a Rose Bowl invitation. Utah can go undefeated and then be furious that they’re only ranked seventh. (This will be familiar to you from not that long ago, Utah.) Swap Auburn and Penn State and, for a year, the Big Ten Network gets to highlight the Kick Six as one of the conference’s greatest achievements. Cam Newton? A leader and a legend, dang it, and a representative of everything that makes the conference weighty with history.
And once the exchange year is up, each team goes back to its home conference, having learned a little about life ... and a lot about love.