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Let’s Talk About Relegation

A New Model for CFB or Impossible Theory?

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The 2019 Vanderbilt football season is over after a preseason of high hopes from both fans and players. It was fraught with bad losses and expected ones, and only one win that showed enough promise to wonder what happened in the other 11 games.

In the end, head coach Derek Mason has been retained for reasons that are explicitly opaque and obviously transparent. That kind of performance and management has led many to suggest Vanderbilt doesn’t care about competing in College Football but maintains a program to receive the financial benefits of playing in a major conference.

Inevitably, at the end of the year, as stock is taken across the Power Five at who is good and who isn’t, a question emerges. “Should Vanderbilt [or bad Power Five program] be relegated?” Based in the Euro model of futbol leagues, the question is a theoretical one that implies teams would compete better when faced with losing their conference affiliation (and the dollars that go with it).

For Vanderbilt, it’s a dumb question for a variety of reasons. The first, Vandy isn’t historically the worst team in their conference, and they are far from the worst of Power Five Teams. They are much closer to completely average than they are anything else.

Historically, there are 13 teams in the power five that have played 1,100+ games and have a winning percentage under .500. That means that 20% of the member conferences fall into a losing program category. If you account for teams at winning percentages above .500 but under .549 (an arbitrary number that to me indicates the definition of average), there are 13 more teams. Forty percent of the Power Five is average at best.

Here’s the chart with team, winning percentage, and conference.


Team Winning Percentage Conference
Team Winning Percentage Conference
Wake Forest 0.412 ACC
Indiana 0.419 Big 10
Northwestern 0.451 Big 10
Iowa State 0.452 Big 12
Kansas State 0.453 Big 12
Oregon State 0.47 Pac 12
Kansas 0.479 Big 12
Mississippi State 0.494 SEC
Duke 0.495 ACC
Vanderbilt 0.495 SEC
Washing State 0.495 Pac 12
Rutgers 0.497 Big 10
Kentucky 0.498 SEC

Relegation is a fun idea to apply to a limited number of relatively equal soccer franchises in a big system of competing leagues that act as a giant regular season for a shot at the elite level league, but it doesn’t float in College Football. In CFB Historic advantages and disadvantages are in play, conferences aren’t all created equal, and the changing landscape of our current system makes it easy to determine who is elite, but not who is the worst- okay, Rutgers. But even that is difficult because a decade ago, they weren’t.

The reason people bag on Vanderbilt is the same reason that people think Texas is an elite program. It’s a historic perception that is highlighted by the conference they play in and the changing landscape of college football.

Modern CFB is defined by money the university has and is willing to spend on facilities and support staff, a fertile recruiting base, and elite coaches. That’s it.

Some people explicitly site these reasons (Bud Elliot keeps a running tab on schools with enough blue chip talent proven to win), but most fans implicitly perceive them and assume their school has everything they need.

Counting money is difficult because not all universities are public, and if they are, then their booster organizations aren’t. If money was everything, then places like Oregon and Oklahoma State would contend more than they do. Yet, conference money is a real thing, and any and all attempts to maximize the revenue streams are employed (TV Networks, broadcast contracts, licensing deals, conference championships).

The coaching question might be the most important. There are five head coaches in CFB right now who have won a national title- Dabo, Saban, Jimbo, Mack Brown, and Les Miles. Consider the scramble for coaches right now- USCw (maybe?), FSU, Mizzou, BC, Arkansas, Ole Miss, USCe (probably). Everyone wants the guy who can leverage what their university has to win in their conference and on the national level.

So in the case of Vanderbilt, there is an assumption that the University is loaded with money but won’t spend it. That the conference is too hard, that recruiting is too difficult, and that no coach wants to come into a losing situation.

Therefore there is no reason why they should be kept in the conference. Why not bring in Memphis or App State or [insert mostly successful Group of Five program in the Southeast, specifically a state that doesn’t have the SEC footprint]?

In a vacuum, that may work. It’s hard to admit, but in the theory of cutthroat competitive CFB that is beholden only to a professional league model, relegation should work. Kick out NCSt, Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Kansas, Rutgers, Northwestern, Stanford, Arizona, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas. Replace them with ten Group of Five programs that have been playing football half the time of everyone else and aren’t necessarily better but just good enough to get a shot. But that’s not how CFB is comprised, nor is it how it is competed today.

More on that tomorrow.