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RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer
Published: 22 September 2023

Now that the Power Five is about to become the Power Four, the schools left out of the recent consolidation of wealth produced by conference realignment are looking at creative ways to stay relevant.

An idea floating around the Mountain West Conference calls for the creation of a multi-tiered conference or alliance of leagues that would use a promotion-and-relegation system akin to what is done in European soccer. Yahoo Sports first reported the existence of the proposal and Front Office Sports obtained the detailed presentation of a plan put together by Boise State associate athletic director Michael Walsh.

Right now, it’s just an idea.

“I’m open to anything that elevates the Mountain West,” said Commissioner Gloria Nevarez, whose league is most often associated with Oregon State and Washington State — the only two Pac-12 members committed to the battered league past this season.

A relegation approach is a complicated if inclusive way to reach what might be the best next move for the two schools and other top programs in the so-called Group of Five conferences: A best-of-the-rest, football-only conference that ignores geography and focuses on maximizing TV dollars and securing access to the College Football Playoff, which will expand from four teams to 12 next year.

Feeling left out

The wave of conference realignment that washed away most of the Pac-12, sending 10 members scattering to three other conferences starting next year, has left schools outside the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences facing the reality that if they have not been invited to the VIP room yet, they won't be anytime soon.

As the rest of major college football plots a course for what's next, Oregon State and Washington State — who will play Saturday in Pullman, Washington — want to rebuild the Pac-12 and keep control of the tens of millions of dollars in assets the conference still has.

A partnership with Mountain West schools makes sense, but how does that work if there is more value in the Pac-12's brand and business?

Revenue sharing

Ideally for Oregon State and Washington State, they would keep the Pac-12 open and invite new members. Essentially, create a best-of-the-rest conference that would peel from the top of the Mountain West (Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force, etc.) and maybe even the American Athletic Conference (Memphis, Tulane).

The problem is that it would cost $34 million for a Mountain West school to join another conference next year. The exit fee for the AAC would likely be at least $18 million. Complicating matters, the Mountain West and AAC have TV deals in place for another couple of years. The Pac-12 has nothing for 2024.

That leads to unusual proposals like a 24-school, three-tiered conference conglomerate in which teams are grouped by performance. Revenue would be distributed based on success, which might sound familiar to folks in the ACC, and schools would move up and down based on yearly football results.

“I think it's intriguing,” said Bob Thompson, a former Fox Sports executive. “It creates storylines and if people have figured anything out about college football this year by Mr. Sanders (Colorado coach Deion Sanders), storylines matter.”

Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes said major college athletics seems to be moving away from equal revenue sharing in conferences and toward rewarding schools that drive value for television networks, heavily invest in football and have success on the field.

“There’s some merit to look at some form of hybrid model that supports that," Barnes said. “We see it working and in a similar fashion in Europe, and certainly it’s worthy of our study.”

Building an all-star conference

There is also plenty of skepticism for such a plan. Division I already has a top-tier Bowl Subdivision with myriad ties to postseason games and revenue and a Football Championship Subdivision, which has had a 24-team playoff for a decade.

“We don’t believe in relegation,” American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Relegation from what? We’re all FBS.”

The goal is to get the best teams in a conference playing each other more often, which creates value for potential television partners and, in theory, a playoff-worthy resume for the champion.

The second part is particularly important with the College Football Playoff's imminent expansion. Right now, the format calls for the top six conference champions to be in the field along with six at-large selections.

The CFP management committee meets next week. Changing the format is up for consideration. If there is one fewer FBS conference because the Pac-12/Mountain West become one entity, changing the 6-6 model to a 5-7 is possible.

Changes to the model currently require a unanimous vote from the 10 commissioners. Aresco said he is prepared to fight to keep the six mandatory champion bids.

The 12-team CFP is in place for the next two seasons as a temporary solution that works around existing contracts. The greater threat to CFP access for Group of Five conference schools lies beyond 2025; they have to be worried the power conferences will try to squeeze them out, starting in 2026.

How about four conference champions and eight at-large selections? Or forget automatic access and make it 12 at-large selections, which is what the juggernaut SEC has always preferred.

Staying relevant

Playoff access is critical for schools outside the power conferences that already make do with far less revenue.

“That's a key way you stay nationally relevant is to have a shot at the playoff,” Aresco said. “It helps you recruit. It helps in every way.”

Aresco became commissioner of the Big East when it was being whittled down by realignment back in 2012. The conference eventually rebuilt and rebranded as the American.

Back then, Aresco tried to get Boise State, San Diego State and BYU to join a coast-to-coast conference, which seemed outlandish at the time. Now, everybody's doing it.

A big-tent solution with relegation and promotion is an interesting idea, but for the high-performing football programs outside the big four, the future might banding together and leaving some of their less valuable conference-mates behind.

In other words, more consolidation.

If there is another wave of conference realignment in the next few years, the result could be a conference that ends up looking a similar to what Aresco had in mind.

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