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Simulating the World Cup of College Football

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What if we put the 32 best college football teams through a group stage and knockout round? Let’s simulate.

Discover Orange Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This is a really bad, impractical idea. The logistics of a 64-team tournament with uncertain outcomes, teams with the largest rosters of any major American sport, and unpaid players? Much less one with brutal contact every game? It starts at absolute nightmare, and that’s before we get to the politics.

The idea works for a lot of reasons, too. College football already runs on stupid ideas, illicit cash, and inequalities. As in soccer, there are probably only seven or eight teams capable of winning it all. Throw in the constant boil of deranged tribalism, and this should seem familiar to anyone who pays attention to either sport.

Also, fantasy gives me license to make up whatever I want. Don’t be the person complaining about how unrealistic dragons are in a story that starts with “OK, so dragons are real.”

First, let’s break up college football’s map, FIFA-style.

The World Cup of College Football breaks the map into five groups, similar to FIFA’s six regional confederations.

United States American Football Association (USAFA)

Representing the Southeast, USAFA is the biggest, richest, and most overrepresented. Roughly comparable to UEFA in soccer, USAFA constitutes the entire old SEC along with quality chunks of the ACC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and American.

Yes, they named themselves after the entire country. They like to do that. They also made it a dumb and redundant name in order to make sure everyone knew it was American. This is also something they like to do.

Like its European counterpart, USAFA has fixed the terms of the tournament to suit its own interests. USAFA will receive the most bids, get the largest share of the money, and win most arguments.

Football Union — Texas (FUT)

Essentially the legacy confederation from the Big 12 and Southwest Conference, FUT centers around the political and financial pull of Texas, mainly the University of Texas at Austin. The name also spells out “eff UT,” which is definitely not a bit of petty revenge the other members of the FUT slipped in during founding meetings.

Mid-Western College Football Federated Amateur Union (MWCFFAU)

The old Big Ten and MAC must have an overly descriptive, bulky name. They are very literal and Midwestern, and need a title as immovable as a beef-swole fullback rumbling to the hole on an iso play. “MWCFFAU” might be awkward, but it sure does hold down a good chunk of a business card. Also they tried fancy names once, and everyone still makes fun of them for it.

The MWCFFAU is comparable to CONMEBOL in soccer. It produces champions and makes money hand over fist, but leans hard on two or three teams. Ooh! And Argentina is Michigan!

Western American Conference (WAC)

The WAC lives again! This version of the Pac-12 folds in the Mountain West and one or two independents, attempting to consolidate the mostly significant power of West Coast college football. By “mostly significant,” I mean “loses out in most football decisions come negotiating time, but still produces good teams.”

Probably most comparable to the Confederation of African Football, in that it produces some truly entertaining teams before bombing out of group play or the Round of 16.

North Atlantic Football Federation (NAFF)

The leftovers from the ACC and American make up the NAFF, particularly the Mid-Atlantic members of the ACC and the Northeastern members of the American’s ancestor, the old Big East.

Be warned: The direct comparison is Oceania.

To make this something like a World Cup, these teams would have to play their conference-mates in a qualifying process.

This takes years in real life, and even simming it out with a fully built series of superconferences begins to bring up rules, analytical issues, and — gasp! — MATH.

Let’s allow others to do that for us. To get the top 32 teams in all of college football in 2017, I used Bill Connelly’s 2017 S&P+ numbers. A full explanation of his formula and methods can be found here, but in summary: It takes powerful predictors of a team’s success, balls them up into one tidy metric, and gives a solid idea of a team’s quality. S&P+ performs well against Vegas and happens to pass the eyeball test; the final AP top 10 for 2017 matches nine of the top 10 S&P+ teams. Connelly’s S&P+ projections are the basis for the results you’ll see below.

There is another key: geography. UEFA gets 14 spots (with one for host Russia) in the 2018 World Cup. Of the top 32 teams in S&P+, about half could reasonably be called “Southern.” The rest of the distributions also match up reasonably well.

Qualifying teams by region:

United States American Football Association (USAFA): 15 spots

Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, UCF, Auburn, FAU, USF, Miami, Louisville, Appalachian State, Memphis, LSU, Arkansas State, Mississippi State, and Troy

FUT: three spots

Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU (Note: No Texas Longhorns in the division named for Texas Longhorns)

Midwestern Football Union (MFU): eight spots

Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Ohio, Michigan State, Michigan, and Toledo

Western American Confederation (WAC): five spots

Washington, Fresno State, Boise State, USC, and Stanford

North Atlantic Football Federation (NAFF): one spot

Virginia Tech. That’s it. Penn State could be here, yes. However, the big money of the MWCFFAU bought them off years ago.

Next, put these teams in groups.

FIFA has tried using its global rankings, messed with drawing teams from geographical pots, and made something very simple very complex. FIFA is good at making FIFA necessary.

We’ll go a little easier and a little rougher. I’ll just take 32 teams and toss them into a randomizer. The rough part: I just took 32 teams and tossed them into a randomizer.

This kind of trainwrecking is indicative of how college football works anyway. Edit: It is better, because at least the lowest-ranked teams in this draw are demonstrably good.

It’s not pretty on paper. Why? BECAUSE IT IS BEAUTIFUL ON PAPER, THAT’S WHY. Teams are listed in their groups in no particular order.

Group A

  • Appalachian State
  • Washington
  • Oklahoma State
  • LSU

A solid group, with good matchups all around. Appalachian State is the Australia. We just hope they try hard in a respectable loss.

Group B

  • UCF
  • Miami
  • Stanford
  • Notre Dame

Another solid group top to bottom, with UCF playing the spoiler in a kind of South Korea-ish way to someone’s Germany. (For maximum comic effect, it should be their neighbor to the south, Miami.)

Group C

  • Fresno State
  • Ohio State
  • Michigan State
  • Michigan

This one either shows the limitation of random grouping or validates it through comedic potential. Either way, it gives Michigan a new way to finish third.

Group D

  • Florida Atlantic
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Arkansas State

Again, there’s some clumping here, but this happens in actual college football all the time. Lane Kiffin vs. Nick Saban is here, and it ends with some of the bitterest clock-bleeding and sideline pouting ever witnessed.

Group E

  • Ohio
  • USC
  • USF
  • Mississippi State

Intriguing, if only because USC as theoretical favorite is all kinds of unpredictable.

Group F

  • Auburn
  • Boise
  • TCU
  • Troy

Easily my favorite group. All four teams are really good at what they do, aggressive as hell, and fun to watch. If this were soccer, all four would find a way to not qualify, or to go to the next round and lose to a defensive-minded bore, 1-0.

Group G

  • Toledo
  • Wisconsin
  • Virginia Tech
  • Oklahoma

That’s three — three! — opportunities for Oklahoma to do something bizarre and disappointing in a postseason situation.

Group H

  • Clemson
  • Memphis
  • Penn State
  • Louisville

Maybe the real group of death, especially if played by 2017 Louisville with Lamar Jackson at QB.

The results of all games will be simulated using Bill’s S&P+ stats, combined with a randomizer.

In order to figure this all out, we will use some custom spreadsheet magic from Bill Connelly, smash each team’s statistical profile and expected win percentage into another’s, and then ask for one random outcome. For example: Clemson’s S&P+-adjusted win expectancy when matched up against Memphis is about 64 percent. For every three rolls of the Clemson-Memphis randomizer, Clemson should be expected to win twice, but we’re only rolling it once.

College football no longer has ties, making group play a bit easier. Rather than allotting points, we can just rely mostly on wins and head-to-head outcomes. If a tiebreaker is needed past that, we’ll figure out point differential.*

* Will this encourage teams to blow lesser teams the hell out? Undoubtedly. Is this any different than the way things already work in either sport? Not really.

On to group play.

Like in the World Cup, the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout stage of 16.

Group A results

Appalachian State loses to Washington and LSU, but stuns Oklahoma State. The Cowboys did cough one up to Central Michigan in Stillwater in 2016, so losing in a one-off against a giant-killer makes some sense.

Washington beats Appalachian State, loses to LSU, and beats Oklahoma State. LSU’s defensive line met Jake Browning. It didn’t go well!

Oklahoma State loses to Washington and Appalachian State, but beats LSU. Oklahoma State is 100 percent good for losing to App State but also hitting LSU in the last game of qualifying, when they really had nothing to lose. Perfectly on brand.

LSU beats Appalachian State and Washington, but loses to Oklahoma State. LSU never being perfect is part of the LSU deal.

LSU and Washington advance to the Round of 16. LSU wins the group, with head-to-head win over Washington.

Group B results

UCF beats Miami, Notre Dame, and Stanford. Look, it’s math vindicating UCF and shaming every hater who made fun of their national title. Also, that’s 3-0 against private schools. UCF remains the defender of the middle class.

Miami beats Notre Dame and Stanford, but loses to UCF. It’s a burn, but Miami doesn’t care as long as they beat Notre Dame.

Notre Dame beats Stanford, but loses to UCF and Miami. Falling out of group play is bad, but there are things to comfort Notre Dame here.

Stanford goes 0-3. Stanford going winless is most of those things.

UCF and Miami advance to the Round of 16. UCF wins group outright.

Group C results

Fresno State loses to Michigan and Ohio State, but upsets Michigan State. Fresno getting the upset would require Michigan State’s offense turning to sludge. This only happens every third game to Michigan State, so yeah, this could happen.

Michigan State beats Ohio State and Michigan, but loses to Fresno State. Upside of losing to Fresno? DISRESPECT-MINING BONANZA FOR MARK DANTONIO.

Ohio State beats Michigan and Fresno State, but loses to Michigan State. Buckeyes probably beat Michigan and Fresno State 45-10 each, then lost to Sparty by a score of 10-7.

Michigan beats Fresno State, but loses to Ohio State and Michigan State. Well, that isn’t even a simulation, is it?

Michigan State and Ohio State advance. Michigan State wins group.

Group D results

FAU loses to Alabama, upsets Georgia, and beats Arkansas State. FAU upsetting Georgia is the funniest thing the computer spat out, and there isn’t even a second place. Actually, there is a second place, and it happens in Group D, too.

Georgia beats Alabama, but loses to FAU and Arkansas State. Ideally, the sequence goes: Georgia beats Alabama to avenge a loss in the national title game; confident in advancing, has an incomprehensible loss to FAU; and needing a win and terrified, commits seven turnovers against an equally stunned Arkansas State. For maximum effect, Georgia nearly comes back, misses a two-point conversion, and dings a field goal off the upright at the end of regulation.

Alabama beats Arkansas State and FAU, but loses to Georgia. Of course Alabama has a loss that ultimately doesn’t matter.

Arkansas State loses to FAU and Alabama, but beats Georgia. Arkansas State is like any overmatched team that qualifies for the Cup. They’re just here for blood.

Alabama and FAU advance. Alabama wins group.

Group E results

Ohio: Loses to USC, beats USF and Mississippi State. Let one — just one! — MAC team in the building, and this is what happens.

USC: Beats Ohio, loses to Mississippi State and USF. A result so improbable, we’ll have to assume the computer had “a team-wide stomach flu outbreak” as a variable.

USF: Beats USC and Mississippi State, loses to Ohio. If that Ohio game is the last one and they already had a bid to the knockout stage secured? That’s classic World Cup match-management, Bulls.

Mississippi State: Beats USC, loses to Ohio and USF. Yeah, it’s Mississippi State. Entirely plausible that they knock off USC, then spit the bit.

USF and Ohio advance. Ohio wins group.

Group F results

Auburn: Beats TCU and Troy, loses to Boise State. Auburn would totally be one of those soccer teams for whom they had to make anti-collusion rules. Doubly true if Alabama were involved.

TCU: Beats Troy and Boise State, loses to Auburn. TCU is the charismatic, tactically unique soccer side that can advance only to lose to a dull 4-4-3 coached by a 70-year-old manager with tax issues in four different countries.

Boise State: Beats Auburn, loses to TCU and Troy. Very appropriate of Boise State to lose to Troy, the Boise State of Lower Alabama.

Troy: Beats Boise State, loses to Auburn and TCU. The Trojans are a crab pulling Boise State back into the small-school crab bucket here.

Auburn and TCU advance. Auburn wins group.

Group G results

Toledo: Beats Wisconsin and Oklahoma, loses to Virginia Tech. In case anyone doubted the randomness element, there you go. Maybe the Rockets have a generational talent at striker or something.

Wisconsin: loses to Toledo, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech. So this can only be interpreted as “QB Alex Hornibrook shreds every ligament below the waist on the second play.”

Oklahoma: Beats Wisconsin, loses to Virginia Tech and Toledo. See: Oklahoma postseason escapades.

Virginia Tech: Beats Wisconsin, Toledo, and Oklahoma. Repping Oceania proudly, Hokies.

Virginia Tech and Toledo advance; Virginia Tech wins group.

Group H results

Clemson: Beats Penn State and Louisville, but loses to Memphis. Tiger-on-Tiger crime is real.

Memphis: Beats Clemson, but loses to Penn State and Louisville. Hmmm, very Memphis to upset the possible champion, then tank the next two games.

Louisville: Beats Penn State and Memphis, loses to Clemson. Bobby Petrino is already negotiating with South Korea for their head coaching gig.

Penn State: Beats Memphis, loses to Clemson and Louisville. James Franklin is getting a red card for arguing with the refs in the loss to Louisville. This tourney doesn’t even have red cards, but he’s getting one nonetheless.

Clemson and Louisville advance; Clemson wins group.

The knockout stage is seeded just like the soccer version.

The Group A winner meets the Group B runner-up, the Group B winner meets the Group A runner-up, and so on.

Round of 16

Miami beats LSU. The Canes are one of those Scandinavian teams still winning 1-0 for no apparent reason.

UCF beats Washington. The I-Drive Revenge Tour continues, probably in front of an empty stadium, via both teams being at opposite ends of the nation and getting five days notice on where to meet.

Michigan State beats FAU. Hey, FAU, you got out of group stage and helped knock Georgia out. Don’t call it anything but a rousing success.

Ohio State beats Alabama. Cue all the William Tecumseh Sherman jokes from Ohio State fans.

Ohio beats TCU. The biggest stunner of all. We’ll guess that three players on TCU’s offense were struck by lightning while Ohio played in rubber cleats. Officials missed the lightning strike, because at least once a World Cup, the officials miss something as obvious as lightning hitting three players. (And probably give a red card to one of the stricken players, to boot.)

USF beats Auburn. Losing to livestock is a bittersweet moment for any Auburn fan. (It’s happened before, though.)

Virginia Tech beats Louisville. VT is repping Oceania like a kaiju stomping out Tokyo.

Clemson beats Toledo. Everyone watching at home from the Glass Bowl is still proud of you, Toledo.

Quarterfinals

Miami beats UCF. On form for the Sweden of Dade County to eliminate a brilliant UCF on something like a 52-yard field goal as time expires. The score is probably 20-17.

Ohio State beats Michigan State. The score is a nerve-wracking 17-16, as always. For Michigan State, that 16 is four field goals and two safeties.

USF beats Ohio. Our long national nightmare of living in fear of “Ohio, World Cup Champion” is over.

Clemson beats Virginia Tech. VT, you were such a pretty kaiju, but Clemson brought a big ol’ huntin’ robot to take you down.

Semifinals

Ohio State beats Miami. And right on schedule, the serviceable Scandinavian team exits. They’ll talk about your bravery in Copenhagen for years.

Clemson beats USF. I like to imagine this as Quinton Flowers getting USF to the 1-yard line, then having a game-tying TD throw bounce off the hands of a wide receiver and into the third row with zeroes on the clock.

Third-place game

USF beats Miami. An AAC team winning is exactly what the third-place game is for: moral victory. (Also: Not the first time this has happened, either.)

Final

Clemson beats Ohio State, just as has happened in two of the last four IRL postseasons and could happen again in 2018.

Notice that this all worked a lot like the real World Cup.

This is all an exercise in win probabilities. But those are based on real things like roster depth, recruiting, player development, on-field performance, and the results of devoting cash resources to a sport.

USC and Georgia didn’t make it out of group play, Alabama and Ohio State lost games, and teams like Ohio and FAU got moments in the sun, sure. That happens in a big tourney with group play, a knockout stage, and just enough randomness built into the equation to allow for some genuine foolishness. Yet even with that, everything built toward what was in the end a pretty predictable ending.

The fun part of using a format from a completely different sport was how similar the results mirror international soccer’s. Everyone is theoretically invited, there are moments, and then in the end we finish with something that looks a lot like the script always looks. In the end, that’s also the depressing part. In both international soccer and college football, there are only so many teams that have a reasonable shot at winning a title.