Relegate This: Where Indiana And Illinois Spend Half the Aughts In The MAC

(Bumping this up -- and reopening comments -- because it's Relegation Week at the SBN mothership this week. I also added 2011 data to this post. -- Ross)
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If you've been following the action in European soccer at all over the past few weeks, you've likely been gripped by the drama of the annual promotion/relegation battles that pop up in every league. Relegation adds immense drama to games involving bottom-dwelling teams -- they're fighting to remain at their current level and not only maintain current levels of prestige, but (more importantly) maintain current levels of income; the drop in filthy lucre for teams that drop down a level can be immense. From the standpoint of pure competition, it's also a much fairer system than what we see in American sports, since strong play is rewarded (with opportunities to compete in more lucrative leagues) and poor play is penalized (by being forced to play in less lucrative leagues). Conversely, in American sports, poor play is either not penalized (i.e., college, where Indiana can flounder along for an entire decade but collect the same fat checks from the Big Ten conference as the teams that win the league) or actively rewarded (i.e., pros, where teams like the Pirates, Clippers, and Lions are rewarded with high draft picks to enable them to select the best incoming talent).

I freely acknowledge that relegation will, of course, never ever happen in American sports, at either the professional or collegiate levels. The formats of leagues here are simply too different and there are just too many entrenched interests working against it, no matter how much it might liven things up or create fairer overall systems. But that doesn't mean that we can't still imagine a parallel universe where relegation does exist in America.

College football works fairly well for this thought exercise, since it's already evolved into a heavily tiered system: there's a top flight of BCS schools, a second flight of non-BCS schools in the FBS, a third flight of FCS schools, and so on. Since this is an Iowa blog, I'm going to confine this exercise to the Big Ten and I'm going to use the MAC for the second division, since it's a collection of schools in Big Ten states that all play in that mid-major, non-BCS tier.

It should go without saying, but this is going to be a very limited look at the promotion-relegation issue, mainly just breaking down which teams would have been sent down from the Big Ten each year and which teams from the MAC would have been promoted to replace them. I'm not going to attempt to take a look at this cumulatively, since that would require genuinely creating another universe; the snowball effect of having promotion and relegation in practice would be massive. Coaches from relegated schools might get fired sooner, while coaches from promoted schools might be more apt to stay put. Players from relegated teams might seek to transfer away. The effect on recruiting would be huge. And so on. Plus, it's possible to imagine that in some years a Big Ten might not just yo-yo back into the Big Ten after a year in the MAC -- there were some really awful Big Ten teams in the '00s and it's no sure thing that they would have won the MAC. In that case, we're suddenly dealing with a situation where there are two former Big Ten teams existing in the MAC, and then things start to get really bananas. I'm going to try to avoid venturing down that rabbit hole too far.

Relegation candidates from the Big Ten were determined by looking at conference records in each year; where there was a tie I opted for the tried-and-true main tiebreaker of soccer leagues the world over -- goal differential (or point differential for our purposes). This meant that some teams who had bested the other in head-to-head match-ups wound up being relegated anyway, but hey: maybe they should have tried being less shit in their other games.

Promotion candidates from the MAC were determined by taking the winner of the MAC Championship Game. I could have used the same approach as I did for the Big Ten, and just taken the team with the greatest in-conference record, using point differential to break ties where needed, but that seemed less useful for multiple reasons. One, the MAC schedule is even less balanced* than the Big Ten schedule during this time period, given that they had more teams**. Two, taking the winner of the MAC Championship Game was simply cleaner -- and in some ways, more fair than taking the regular season champion. Three, it was bears some resemblance to the promotion systems in European soccer; in England for instance, the third promoted team for the English Premier League is determined by a four-team playoff (the other two promoted teams are the top two finishers in the second division standings).

* The balance issue is particularly irksome, since one of the reasons promotion and relegation work so well in soccer is because the schedules are perfectly balanced in most leagues: teams play every other team twice, once at home and once away, and that's it. (Scotland is a notable exception here, but Scotland is weird.) Some schedules might be more favorable than others in terms of when certain teams are played, but that's unavoidable; there's never a situation where one team would play one of the top teams in the league, while another team wouldn't play that top team at all. Unfortunately, college football schedules are anything but balanced; in many leagues teams don't even play every other team and even in leagues where there is a true round-robin schedule, the home-away splits can be tricky and unfair. This is also why I looked at just conference records in determining teams for promotion and relegation; conference schedules in college football are far from perfect, but they're infinitely more fair than looking at non-conference schedules, which are all over the map in terms of home/away splits and competitive balance.

** Membership fluctuated wildly in the MAC in this ten-year span. Marshall and UCF were members -- and then they weren't. Then Temple was a member and so on. And please don't ask me why some years some MAC teams played eight games and some played seven. The MAC makes my head hurt sometimes.

Enough preamble. Onwards and upwards!

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2001: Northwestern beat Minnesota, 23-17, but they also lost to Indiana and Iowa by 35+ that year. Thus, in our parallel universe, Northwestern goes from just missing out on a trip to the 2001 Rose Bowl after the 2000 season to being relegated to the MAC after the 2001 season. Needless to say, in this universe, potatoes are not the starch of choice. (FUN FACT: the yuca is the starch of choice over there.)

As a general disclaimer, I'm not going to profess to be an expert on the MAC teams that earn promotion in this parallel universe. I follow Big Ten football closely and pay attention to the MAC only when the semi-annual Big Ten-MAC Challenge rolls around in September and if I happen to be exceptionally bored on a Wednesday evening in October. Our first promoted team is the 2001 Toledo Rockets, who went 9-5 in 2002 and made a repeat trip to the MAC Championship Game. They lost both games against big boy competition (31-21 to Minnesota, 37-19 to Pittsburgh), but the closeness of the Minnesota loss makes it seem like they might have been reasonably competitive in the Big Ten.

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2002: A barnburner! Northwestern avoids relegation in 2002 partially because they bested Indiana, 41-37. They held only one Big Ten team under 30 points (co-champions Ohio State, strangely enough), but fortunately for them Indiana was even more pathetic.

Our MAC representative this year is Marshall, who rumbled to a 11-2 mark in 2002. In 2003, they went 8-4, losing only to Tennessee (34-24), Toledo (24-17), Troy (33-24), and Miami (OH) (45-6). That included a 27-20 win over Kansas State in Manhattan -- a Kansas State team that went on to drub Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game and play in the Fiesta Bowl. They would have been an interesting team in the 2003 Big Ten, particularly considering one of the most wretched Big Ten teams of the '00s took the field that year. Speaking of...

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2003: There was no need for tiebreakers this year; instead we got the '03 Illinois Fighting Illini, the first of the three 0-8 teams to emerge from the Big Ten in the '00s. This particular incarnation of pure suck was the penultimate tango for Ron Turner in Champaign -- yes, penultimate, as in second-to-last. Despite going 0-8 in the league (with a point differential of -205) and 1-11 overall, he was allowed to return for another year, either because A.D. Ron Guenther forgot he existed, or because it would have cost too much to fire him, or because the glow of a trip to the Sugar Bowl lasts just long enough to gloss over even an 0-8 disaster two years later. The Illini cracked 20 points only twice all season and had just one game decided by fewer than 17 points (a 17-14 loss to Indiana). Four Big Ten teams scored 40+ against Illinois, including an Iowa offense led by Nathan Chandler. So, yes, they were truly awful.

As for our MAC representative... lordy, would it have been fun to get even crazier and somehow put the 2003 Miami (OH) team into the Big Ten. Because that squad was arguably the finest MAC team of the '00s -- if not ever. They went 13-1 and swept through the MAC with aplomb (8-0, a +250 point differential). We're a little more familiar with this particular MAC team, too, since Iowa played them -- and handed them their only loss, 21-3, in a game where Roethlisberger threw four interceptions. But the Iowa defense was not only the best they faced all year (by a wide margin), it was one of the finest in the Big Ten, too. It would have been fascinating to see how Big Ben & Co. would have fared with Big Ten teams that year. As far as the 2004 Miami (OH) squad, they were solid -- 8-5 and a return trip to the MAC Championship Game. They didn't fare well against big boy competition, though: a 43-10 loss to Michigan, a 45-26 loss to Cincinnati, and a 17-13 loss to Iowa State in the Independence Bowl.

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2004: Look at the improvement! The Illini cut their point differential almost in half and -- gasp! -- even won a game (over fellow cellar-dweller, Indiana, 26-22). Sadly, that wasn't enough to enable Ron Turner to keep his job -- and it wasn't enough for them to avoid relegation in our parallel universe, either. This Illinois team was certainly more competent than the '03 squad; they had three losses of ten points or less and allowed only one opponent to crack 40 points against them. But they still weren't very good.

The MAC representative this year is Toledo, who went 9-4 and cruised through the MAC. They were very, very poor against BCS competition, though: a 63-21 loss to Minnesota, a 63-14 loss to Kansas, and a 39-10 loss to Connecticut. They were skilled at beating teams as good or worse than them, but woefully out of their depth against everyone else. The 2005 Rockets were a little better (9-3), but they didn't play a single BCS team which makes it hard to discern if they were really much better than the '04 squad that would have crashed and burned in the Big Ten. On the other hand, the team they would have been vying with to avoid relegation in '05 was truly horrible...

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2005: Illinois went 0-8 with a point differential of -257, easily clinching worst in the conference (dis)honors. In fact, they make a pretty compelling case for being the worst Big Ten team of this entire era. The staggering level of their badness is almost too much to comprehend, but let's try. They cracked 20+ points just twice and were held to 10 points or less on four separate occasions, including back to back weeks in which they scored two (2) and three (3) points, respectively. They conceded 36+ in every single conference game, including 40+ in four conference games, and 60+ (!) in two of those games. They were astoundingly uncompetitive in Big Ten play. And yet somehow they managed to win two games that year against FBS competition, Rutgers and San Jose State. Still, in Big Ten play, they were absolutely atrocious and it's hard to envision a team more deserving of relegation than this putrid squad.

In 2005, parity hit the MAC, as no team went better than 6-2 in league play and a 5-3 Akron team won the MAC Championship Game. Buyer beware, though: that Akron team went 7-6 overall and got absolutely drilled on more than one occasion. It's one thing to lose 49-24 to Purdue on the road or even 51-23 to Miami (OH) in Oxford; when you lose 20-0 at home to Army, well, I question your quality. Things didn't get better in 2006, either: they went 5-7, although that did include a 20-17 win over North Carolina State that gave them a BCS league scalp. Still, any team that loses five games in MAC play is not one that we can have much faith in for this exercise.

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2006: Michigan State and Illinois both went 1-7 in the league; Michigan State had a point differential of -93, while Illinois had a point differential of -65. Finally the long Illini relegation nightmare is over! They only won a single league game in 2006 (over relegation-bound Michigan State, coincidentally), but they were markedly more competitive: five of their Big Ten losses came by 11 points or less, including three games by seven points or less. In hindsight, perhaps their breakthrough in 2007 wasn't quite so shocking. (No, wait, it was: going from 2-10 to 9-4 is still pretty damn gobsmacking.) Strangely enough, their worst margin of defeat (24-7) came at the hands of a fairly mediocre Iowa team.

While Illinois improved from historically awful to merely pretty crappy, Michigan State bottomed out in the miserable end of the John L. Smith era. The '06 Sparty squad wasn't wholly miserable -- they opened the year 3-0 -- but things went sour after a pair of three-point losses to Notre Dame and Illinois. Those losses, plus a pair of close losses to Purdue and Penn State sandwiched two ugly losses to Michigan (18) and Ohio State (31). Still, what really did in MSU were not those blowouts at the hands of the Big Ten's alpha dogs (recall that in 2006 Michigan and Ohio State spent part of the year as 1-2 in the nation). No, what sunk their battleship were blowout losses to Indiana (46-21) and Minnesota (31-18). Losing to Indiana by 25 points is never a good idea. FUN FACT: 2006 was also the only year in the Aughts when Iowa flirted with relegation, going 2-6 in league play. Fortunately, Iowa's penchant for close losses (and blowout wins over Illinois and Purdue) kept them on the right side of the relegation line (their -18 point differential would have given them the edge in any tiebreaker situations).

Our MAC representative this year brought some fresh blood to the mix, as the Dan LeFevour Era desended upon the MAC and Central Michigan took top dog honors, going 7-1 and adding on wins in the MAC Championship Game and Motor City Bowl. They didn't claim a BCS scalp, but they weren't far off either, losing 31-24 to Boston College and 45-36 to Kentucky (as well as 41-17 to Michigan). Unfortunately, there was definite regression for the Fightin' LeFevours in 2007, as they went just 8-6 (although they did claim another MAC title). The most troubling aspect of their '07 season was their performance against the big boys, though: they lost 52-7 to Kansas, 45-22 to Purdue, 70-14 (!) to Clemson, and again to Purdue, 51-48 in the Motor City Bowl. But the 2007 Chippewas bring us another interesting "what if;" in our universe Brian Kelly bailed for Cincinnati after the 2006 season. In this parallel universe, does he stay in Mount Pleasant for a chance to guide a LeFevour-led Central Michigan through the Big Ten in 2007? Food for thought.

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2007: Minnesota went 0-8 with a point differential of -121, the third and final squad to pull the reverse perfect season in the Big Ten during the 2000s. Yet despite that ignominious 0-8 mark (and the 1-11 overall record), Minnesota can make a compelling case that they weren't as bad in 2007 as we recall -- and that they certainly weren't the worst Big Ten team of this period. Their -121 point differential would be just the 10th worst point differential during the '00s and they were competitive fairly often: three of their Big Ten losses were by 7 points or less, even though their defense was such a leaky sieve that they conceded 40+ five times. They were a lousy team and they deserved to be relegated (for losing to Indiana by 20, for losing to Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic, and for losing to North Dakota State)... they just weren't the worst Big Ten team of the era.

Meanwhile, the MAC brings us Year Two of the LeFevour Experience, which was already summarized a few paragraphs above. They were worse, Brian Kelly had bailed, and major conference teams treated them like a goddamn pinata. And yet they still managed to win the MAC that year because, well, someone had to take the crown. The '08 Chippewas weren't dramatically better; they went 8-5 and ended the year on a three-game losing streak. They did fare better against BCS competition, though; after getting blitzed 56-17 by Georgia, they narrowly lost to Purdue (32-25) and beat Indiana (37-34). On the other hand, they also lost to Eastern Michigan that year, 56-52.

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2008: Amazingly, this is our first sighting of Indiana in the relegation spot since 2004, when Illinois was just barely worse. A year after the spirit of Hep and the "Play 13" quest guided the Hoosiers to a 7-6 season and a trip to the Insight Bowl, the bottom fell out on Indiana when star receiver James Hardy departed for a so-far completely anonymous NFL career and scandal swallowed up fellow star player Kellen Lewis. Minus Lewis and Hardy, the Hoosiers were a sorry lot and the scorelines in their games reflects that point. Only one of their seven losses was by less than ten points. They scored fewer than 10 points in four games. In five of their Big Ten games, they conceded 42+ points, including two games where they gave up 55 points and another game where they gave up 62 points. In two of the three games where they didn't give up 42+ points, they gave up 34 and 37 points. They gave up 45 points to an Iowa team with an inexperienced quarterback and a coaching staff that barely threw a pass in the entire second half. The 2008 Indiana game, remember, was the one where Jewel Hampton -- the back-up running back -- ran for 100+ yards and 3 touchdowns. They were an utterly horrendous defensive team and barely any better on offense.

2008 brought one of the more unexpected MAC champions, as Buffalo knocked off 12-0 Ball State in the MAC Championship Game on the strength of five forced turnovers (including four fumbles that led to 28 Buffalo points). Ball State was trying to make a challenge to the '03 Miami (OH) team's claim as the best MAC team ever, but they crashed and burned spectacularly at the finish line. During the season they had been a juggernaut, amassing a gaudy +167 point differential and steamrolling the MAC competition they faced. They scored 40+ four times, had a margin of victory under 15 points only once all season, and won five league games by 20+ points. But it all came tumbling down in the Championship Game. The Buffalo team that beat them was no juggernaut; they had a point differential of only +33, lost by double-digits to both BCS teams they faced, and beat only two MAC teams by more than ten points. They had a nice run, but they would have been punching significantly above their weight in the Big Ten, a notion borne out by their middling performance (5-7) in 2009. They were crushed by Pittsburgh (54-27) and lost four of their first five games. A hard luck run near the end of the season (three losses by a combined seven points) made them look a little worse than they were, but for all intents and purposes, they were a slightly above-average MAC team that happened to catch fire at the best possible moment in 2008 (in the second half of the MAC Championship Game).

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2009: At last, an old money team tastes the bitter tears of relegation sorrow in our parallel universe. The '09 Michigan squad improved their record from the first year of the RichRod regime, going from 3-9 to 5-7, and they began to find a semblance of an offense -- but the defense regressed spectacularly, despite having all-conference talents like Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren in the squad. Michigan started the season strongly, going 4-0 and narrowly losing to Michigan State (in OT) and Iowa (on an interception at the end of the game). After a 63-6 throttling of Delaware State, they stood at 5-2 and their future seemed to be bright and ever-so-shiny. And then the situation imploded in stunning fashion and they lost five in a row. Only one of those losses came by less than 11 points, too. Penn State, Wisconsin, and Illinois (!) all battered Big Blue for 20+ point wins, which proved to be the difference in casting Indiana down to MAC hell and instead sending down a true college football blue blood. I'm guessing that in this parallel universe, the RichRod Era doesn't make it to Year Three.

After a one-year hiatus, the Central Michigan Fightin' LeFevours reclaimed the top spot in the MAC and did so in emphatic fashion, sweeping through the field of contenders with a point differential of +191. After a closer-than-expected season-opening loss (19-6) to Arizona in Tucson, the Chippewas rebounded with a surprising 29-27 win over Michigan State that ignited their season. The only game they lost the rest of the way was a 31-10 pantsing at the hands of Boston College at the midway point of the conference season. In MAC play, they had only one margin of victory less than ten points, they put up 40+ on four teams (including two 56-point performances), and generally dominated the competition. Unfortunately, 2010 was far less kind to Central Michigan: they stumbled to 3-9 behind a new coach (their prior coach, Butch Jones, had once again taken Brian Kelly's sloppy seconds, this time at Cincinnati) and logged only two MAC wins (both over their fellow directional Michigan schools, oddly enough). Granted, they also lost three MAC games by seven points or less (and came out on the wrong end of a few close calls in non-conference play as well, including a 30-25 loss to Northwestern and a 38-37 loss to Navy), but the losses of Jones and LeFevour were simply too much for this CMU team to bear.

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2010: Ah, back to our old friends in Hoosier-land. It's really not surprising that Bill Lynch was given his walking papers at the end of the 2010 season when you look at how uncompetitive the Hoosiers were in so many of their losses (and the sheer quantity of losses also became a factor; when you go 3-21 in Big Ten games over three years, there's really nowhere to hide when the reaper comes calling). The 2010 Hoosiers weren't as hopeless as the '08 squad: three of their losses came by seven or fewer points (including their coulda, woulda, shoulda loss to Iowa) and the offense perked up slightly (they scored double-figures in every game, although scoring 17 or fewer points in four games is pretty poor, particularly for a team as defensively frail as Indiana). And, to be fair, that -150 point differential is skewed a bit by that hellacious 83-20 loss they suffered against Wisconsin; over one-third of their total conference point differential came from that one game, which is a little unlucky. But they also lost by 28 to Ohio State, by 30 to Illinois, and by 17 to Penn State -- they were still pretty shitty. The '09 Hoosiers were a bit of a hard-luck team (four losses by 11 or fewer points and the deceptive 18-point loss to Iowa); the '10 Hoosiers were just lousy.

In 2010, the MAC featured a third straight team to make it through the regular season 8-0 (following in the heels of '08 Ball State and '09 Central Michigan), as Northern Illinois pulled off the feat. Unfortunately their magical season suffered the same disappointing ending as '08 Ball State, as they lost a heartbreaker to Miami (OH), 26-21, in the MAC Championship Game. Prior to that game, though, they were the best MAC juggernaut this side of the '03 Miami (OH) squad, racking up a frankly insane +255 point differential and putting forth an offensive blitzkrieg week in and week out. In one three-week span, they put up 195 points and outscored their opponents by 141 points. In three games. Prior to their title game stumble, they had only played one MAC game with a margin of victory of seven point or less, a 28-21 win over Western Michigan, and they had scored 50+ four different times. They did well against big boy opposition, knocking Minnesota around on their way to a 34-23 win, and narrowly losing to Illinois, 28-22. But they also lost to Iowa State, 27-10, in their season opener, which is generally a foreboding way to start the season.

As for the team that actually did win the the MAC last year (and, thus, promotion honors in our parallel universe), Miami (OH) was mostly just a MAC-good team. They took care of business in the league, although rarely in impressive fashion: five of their league wins were by a touchdown or less and they failed to score more than 28 against a single MAC foe. Alas, they were poor against big boy competition last year: they lost 34-12 to an offensively-challenged Florida team and then got spanked by Missouri (51-13) and Cincinnati (45-3). The early preseason projections have them again being a top team in the MAC, even with a new coach (Mike Haywood went off to be head coach of Pitt for about two weeks, before a domestic abuse charge put a kibosh to that), but their struggles against BCS-level teams in 2010 makes us leery of their 2011 potential.

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2011: It's another sad year in Hoosier-land; Kevin Wilson's first year at Indiana was -- somehow -- even worse than the Lynch Era at Indiana. Say what you will about the Mad Gum Thrower, but at least he never went 0-fer in B1G play. Indiana's -195 point differential was also the the fourth-worst total of all the Big Ten teams looked at in this era (only the '08 Indiana team and the '03 and '05 Illinois teams had worse totals). Indiana's best bet at a B1G win was actually their first opportunity, a 16-10 loss to Penn State in early October. They were tied 3-3 at halftime and Penn State needed two late scores to win. Otherwise, Indiana's best shot at a win was a 33-25 loss to Purdue in the season finale. They lost by double-digits in their other six B1G losses and gave up 55 points or more in three losses. Only Minnesota truly rivaled Indiana in badness and they managed to nab two B1G wins, first when Jerry Kill managed to outsmart Kirk Ferentz and later when they got to play an utterly demoralized Illinois team. But hey, sometimes you need a lucky break or two to avoid the relegation curse.

Meanwhile, a year after their promotion efforts were thwarted by a surprise upset in the MAC Championship Game, Northern Illinois gets over the hump and into the B1G in 2011. The '11 Huskies weren't the juggernaut that the '10 Huskies (seriously: +255 point differential!) were (they had a much more modest +96 point differential) and their MAC promotion hopes really came down to a pair of narrow wins: an insane 63-60 shootout win over MAC West co-champions Toledo and a 23-20 win over Ohio in the MAC Championship Game. As wild as the first game was (and any aficionado of mid-week MACtion still has fond memories of that Toledo game), the second game may have been even crazier: NIU stormed back from a 20-0 halftime deficit to score 23 points in the game's final 21 minutes, capping their rally off with a game-winning field goal as time expired. Otherwise, we were thisclose from Frank Solich getting a chance at REVENGE~! against Nebraska in the Big Ten in 2012.

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