One of my petty gripes about college football as it’s currently constructed is that only a few teams have legitimate chances to become national champions. Scheduling is done by the schools themselves, not by any universal or national schema, so if Alabama wants to play a couple of “cupcakes” along the way, that’s fine – if some conferences want to play eight league games, others nine, that’s just the way it is. Even within a conference, it’s hard to balance out the opportunities: Auburn has to face Georgia and Florida as its cross-division opponents this season, whereas their rivals don’t.
Another of my petty gripes is the idea of “fantasy” sports, which separates the individual players from the goals of their team. A great player often sacrifices their own statistics for the benefit of their team; it’s almost cliché for a star to respond to such an interview question with some version of “All that matters is that we win; it doesn’t matter who gets the glory”. So to construct a game based on something that the players themselves aren’t focused on is sort of preposterous at best, and hypocritical at worst.
Better to focus on the team’s results instead. But if the teams are playing unfair schedules…?
That’s where we come in.
We’re going to host three versions of a “fairer” version of conference set-ups and use the ELO-FF rating system to balance out the competition and “fantasize” how that might turn out using the results of the actual games to simulate the, ah, simulated games. The details and the division of teams will come out later (we won’t start any of the fantasy versions until the week of September 22), but here are the basic plans.
(1) There’s a version of 140 FBS teams (that is, the 130 actual teams and ten of the best FCS clubs we’re moving up for balance) that we’re dividing up into 14 evenly balanced conferences with exactly ten teams in each. We’ve done our best to balance each conference with stronger and weaker teams, keeping teams together geographically. Then, we’ll take the champions of each of these fourteen conferences, plus two wild cards, and hold a 16-team, single elimination tournament to determine the national champion. Trying the sample version of this “Smarter Balanced Athletic Conferences” from last year’s teams and games ended up producing a fascinating 16-team bracket, and the final four ended up being the exact same teams as the CFP produced (Alabama over Georgia, with Oklahoma and Clemson in the semis)!!.
To give you an example, here’s our “GREAT LAKES” conference line-up: Akron, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, North Dakota State, Toledo, Western Michigan, and Wisconsin. We never have more than one FCS team per conference; we have five Group of Five teams (and a range within those) and four FBS teams (one very strong one, two medium strong, one lower half team). Geographically, there are five teams in Michigan and five within shouting distance of it. All fourteen conferences are about like this. Are they perfect? Of course not. But they’re pretty good.
And starting on Sept 22, we’ll take the current ratings for each team, adjust them by the team’s actual performance that weekend (if they do well, their score improves, etc.), and match them up with another team in the conference. (There is already a schedule – each team plays five home and four road games, or the reverse – and of course every team plays every other team once.) The results will be presented each week in Following Football, and the standings updated each week. The last week of conference play is November 17th; the first week of the tournament is Thanksgiving week (so we’ll be using those results for the Round of 16); the second week comes in December (we’ll be using the conference title games, which most of our quarterfinalists will be playing in – if not, it’s no different than any other bye-week). The semi-finals come from the bowl games, and the finals follow that.
How do you play fantasy with this? Any way you want to! Draw teams randomly; draft teams alphabetically; however you choose to attach yourself to teams is fine! Personally, we aren’t attaching ourselves to anyone, but just enjoying seeing what happens when every team gets a fair shot at the national title!
(2) On the other hand, we’ve also created a “relegation” model for the college football world. If you’ve ever watched the Premier League soccer (“futbol”) from England, you’ll know they have a 20-team league where every team plays every other team (twice, in this case, home and away), and the champion is determined from that. There are other leagues of 20-24 teams each layered below them, and at the end of the season, three to six teams from the top of a lower league are exchanged for the bottom three to six of the league right above it. For example, at the end of the 2017-18 season, the last three teams in the Premier League were Swansea City, Stoke City, and West Bromwich Albion. They were dropped down to the lower “English Championship League”, and in their places came Wolverhampton, Cardiff City, and Fulham. (The other seventeen teams remained in place.) Cardiff and Fulham had both been in the Premier League before, both being dropped down last in 2014. Wolverhampton, on the other hand, came UP from the league below that in 2014, and have now succeeded in moving all the way up to the top league and can now play for a championship. (After four games, they’re currently in 11th, with a record of one win, one loss, and two draws.)
We’ve done the same for college football.
The “Division 1 Relegation” arrangement has four regions, and each region has a series of five nine-team conferences where at the end of the season, the bottom one or two teams will be knocked down into the level below, while the top one or two teams will jump up into the league above. There is a sixth level, but it’s more complicated for several reasons; similar relegations will take place there too.
We have placed 36 teams in the top level (“Conference One”) in four regions, the West, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. Technically, this year, those are the only teams that can win this season’s national championship. (Go ahead – convince us that more than 36 teams could realistically win in the REAL world this season. Go on…) But if a team is really good in Conference Two, then they can finish first or second and move into Conference One the next season, whereupon they could win it all at the end of the season
Here there are nine teams in each conference. Every team plays everyone else once – each team has four home and four road games. There will be a bye, by necessity. We also start this league on September 22, and play through the week before Thanksgiving to determine conference standings. (We’ll use a similar if not identical system to “play the games” as we did in the SBAC, using the team ratings and then adjusting those using the team’s actual game that week.)
Following that, the four regional conference champions (West, MW, SE, and NE) play a four-team playoff very similar to the “real” CFP to determine the overall champion. This will happen in Conferences One through Five, and it’ll all be finished by the first week of December. (There will also be relegation games, as the Premier League does, but these will determine if one or two teams move from league to league. First place definitely trades with the last place team above them; whether the second place trades with the second to last depends on a game between the two teams.)
Let’s give you another sample. Here are Conference One and Two for the Northeast Region:
ONE) Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Pitt, Virginia Tech, West Virginia.
TWO) Boston College, Indiana, Marshall, Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers, Syracuse, Toledo, Virginia.
There will be some barn-burners every single week in Conference One! That’s partly why we don’t feel badly about putting the bye in there! But at level two, every game should be competitive as well! This set-up would make the ridiculous fifty-point spreads we see a thing of the past! (Unless they schedule themselves preseason games like that, which they probably would.) But during the conference season, every single game would be a competitive one, in theory. And if one team wasn’t up to snuff? They’d be relegated downwards to the level of their ability. And vice versa!
Right now, for example, Boise State is playing extremely well. It’s at level two, so it can’t win a national title. (It can’t in the real world, either, because it’s a group of five team.) But if it wins its conference this year, it would move up to Conference One next year. (The flaw in this, of course, is that without their four-year QB starting next year, they’re probably doomed to return to level two the next year. But at least they’d be allowed a chance to move up with the big boys!).
(3) The “FBS Relegation” is very similar to that; in fact, it’s identical at the Conference One level. The difference is that for simplification. only the 130 teams from the FBS are considered.
So now, there are only three levels. Conference One is still precisely the same, with the 36 best FBS teams all being Power Five clubs. But to make the balance work out, there are now ten teams in the four Conference Two regional leagues, instead of nine. And finally, there are SIX Conference Three leagues with nine each, which makes the relegation a little more complicated (we’ll deal with that when we come to it.).
All of these will start on September 22, and we’ll lay out the divisions and regions well before then. We intend this to be a lot of fun for everyone who wants to play along, so join in! More details will be posted soon!