Relegation Simulation: Rewriting College Football History

We have been having some fun this week at SB Nation, walking through the ins and outs of the promotion-and-relegation system of world soccer and why it would or wouldn't work for college football. My contribution: a rough, seven-year, four-tiered simulation that encompasses the FBS ranks and a good portion of FCS. The result: Akron falls really far, Howard Schnellenberger adds "SEC coach" to his resume, and the Pac-12 is suddenly the deepest conference in the country.

Anyway, it's a fun way to kill some time, even though the top conferences would obviously never agree to such a thing.

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14 comments, Last at 22 May 2012, 9:50am

#1 by Mort (not verified) // May 17, 2012 - 9:09pm

The sport I would *love* to see relegation with is Hockey. But frankly, it's a fun exercise no matter which sport.

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#3 by White Rose Duelist // May 18, 2012 - 8:59am

The Kings don't quite have the rivalry with Detroit to play the Man City role, though despite the preseason hype, they'd be as unlikely a champion.

Of course, the problem with promotion and relegation in hockey (and many other North American sports) is that the lower-tier teams are affiliated with pro teams. When the Binghamton Senators get promoted to replace the Blue Jackets, how does the league handle their games against Ottawa?

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#6 by BaronFoobarstein // May 18, 2012 - 2:37pm

It seems to me that the practice of elevating players from farm teams and demoting from primary teams to farm teams as practiced in baseball and hockey is akin to relegation.

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#8 by Thomas_beardown // May 18, 2012 - 5:44pm

Not really because it doesn't incentize the owners to win. The Pirates owner is perfectly happy to be last in the division every year and collect his luxury tax check.

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#7 by Mort (not verified) // May 18, 2012 - 5:37pm

I suppose there's sorting out with regards to pro affiliations.

Still, Seeing the Boston Bruins against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (or someone equally obscure) would be awesome. Plus many of the southern teams would probably die off after relegation, which is something we all want anyway.

(P.S. Go Winterhawks!)

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#10 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 19, 2012 - 10:02pm

Unfortunately, Canadian teams would be dropping just as fast as southern teams + Columbus and Islanders.

Edmonton, Montreal, and Toronto have all finished last in the last 3 years.

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#4 by Kal // May 18, 2012 - 12:31pm

Said it over at the mothership, but this was awesome. A great way to demonstrate not only why relegation is needed but how awesome it would be.

Plus Washington takes it in the shorts, so I'm good with that.

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#5 by AnonymousBoob (not verified) // May 18, 2012 - 1:40pm

Relegation really works in college basketball, with more teams and more parity. Still though this is pretty freaking sweet.

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#9 by Theo // May 18, 2012 - 7:58pm

The key is to regulate the distribution of the player pool. On soccer it's easy: the richest teams win the most leagues.

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#11 by cisforcookie (not verified) // May 20, 2012 - 1:54pm

I think this does a pretty good job of showing what an awful idea relegation really is, as though european soccer hadn't already shown this. (I love to _watch_ soccer at any level, but the existing structure of european national leagues and the champions league has had a horrifically deleterious effect on the quality of soccer as a whole, all while propping up the 1 percent of games between the few teams with the financial resources to buy the best players)

Unlike the current ncaa system which permits teams to have bad years, and all teams have bad years, a relegation system puts downward pressure on a team that is already on a downward swing. Teams that might end up on the bubble, and in a small sample-size sport like football that means probably half the teams in every conference, are vastly worse off under such a system, while the teams at the very top are significantly advantaged. Even for a decent program that puts on a good product, the risk of possible relegation--and resulting hit to recruiting, alumni fundraising, and tv revenues--is itself likely to harm recruiting by incentivizing stars to only attend schools at low risk of relegation; harm alumni fundraising by disincentivizing expensive long-term investment in the team (why build expensive training complexes and skyboxes if you expect random shocks to your current accounts? we're already seeing university programs slashing sports expenditures with the recent economy) and making the "tradition" aspect less interesting with the yearly changes in opponents; and harm television revenues as fans lose interest in watching bizarre matchups that change every year and as schools with large and wealthy alumni bases get relegated in favor of unknowns that happen to have better teams. This effect only gets worse and worse as the relegation system progresses because, as the dead weight of conferences get relegated away, the remaining teams in the bottom half become more and more comparable, meaning all have higher and higher risk of having a bad year and finishing in last place--with the associated coach firing, expense slashing, player transfers, etc-- putting more and more pressure on top recruits to go to top schools where they will be in the best situation to stand out and become professionals. Just as european soccer has been turned into a laughing stock ruled by a gilded elite, a relegation system in the ncaa would destroy rather than aid competitive balance.

The difference between NCAA football and NCAA almost everything else is that the primary function of NCAA wrestling and fencing and swimming is to determine who the best individual wrestlers, fencers, and swimmers are while the function of NCAA football is to put on a pleasing television product that will attract viewers and encourage alumni donations. Trying to force "quality matchups" on football will destroy it.

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#12 by eli10nyg (not verified) // May 21, 2012 - 1:54pm

Promotion and relegation exist in European football as a result of the organic growth of football clubs through the years and the need to maintain the link between the lowest amateur leagues up to the professional ranks. To blame this system itself for issues with the game in Europe shows a lack of understanding of the the development of sport there.

American sporting structures exist in a historically more transient society with rich owners yielding the power to govern the games at their highest level since the beginning. Promotion and relegation would not work in American sport at any level nor should they but I appreciated the author's simulation as an interesting perspective.

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#13 by cisforcookie (not verified) // May 21, 2012 - 8:37pm

i'm not saying there isn't a historical reason. I have no solution for how to "fix" european soccer. I just think there's a lot of evidence that the results, if applied to american sports, would be disastrous. I think the simulation did a good job of showing just how volatile such a system can be and just how quickly it gets out of control. In reality, I think the actual results would be far worse because of the forces I described, none of which were present in the simulation for obvious and understandable reasons.

I also disagree with the premise that such a system would lead to better incentives to win. There are already gigantic financial incentives for teams in all sports to succeed. Winning coaches get more money, winning players get drafted higher, winning university presidents and athletic directors have more job security and get paid more. The fact that Duke and Northwestern and Vanderbilt tend to get their butts kicked at football can be better explained by their desire to enforce something resembling academic standards for their athletes. Graduation rates at top programs are laughable thanks to letting in a lot of kids who aren't ready for college and then ensuring their failure by overloading their schedules with practices and traveling, to say nothing of the practice of pulling scholarships, which I've heard of but don't have numbers on. (

I agree that it was an amusing simulation, but my read of the article was that the author was arguing in favor of such a system, like it was a good idea, not like it was a peculiar thing we might find funny to study in a lab.

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#14 by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 9:50am

"my read of the article was that the author was arguing in favor of such a system, like it was a good idea"

I had the same take, and based on some of the comments above, it appears that other readers did as well. My conclusion was also the same as yours -- that this article actually demonstrates what a horrible mess a relegation system would be.

I also think the article undersells just how much of a non-starter this topic would be. The article names Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Duke, and the like as teams that would oppose this system. No, ALL teams would oppose this system. If this were put to a vote of every team in D1 college football, you'd be lucky to get 5 yea votes. Who would benefit from this system? Big conference school gets relegated, and sees its entire athletic budget (not just football) crushed. Small conference school gets promoted, and either has to increase its football budget many times over to keep up, or gets humiliated on a weekly basis and sent right back down. Or, even better, a big dog like USC gets a bunch of games vacated, and a lawsuit is launched by Washington State (or whoever), saying that USC should have been relegated instead of them. TV wouldn't benefit either -- TV wants ratings, and only cares about quality matchups insofar as they lead to ratings. Hence Notre Dame's bloated TV deal. I'd even say that we the fans, as a whole, care less about quality matchups than traditional rivalries. Again, ratings.

College football would adopt the rules of Blood Bowl before they'd even discuss implementing a relegation system.

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