How the SEC impacts the college football playoff in 2014

sec_west_week11_2014After week 11 of the college football season, the selection committee for the playoff has only one SEC team in its top 4. Undefeated Mississippi State tops the rankings, but TCU jumped over Alabama for the 4th and last playoff spot.

Is the strength of the SEC finally catching up with the conference? After week 11, four of the top six teams in my team rankings hail from the SEC West. All 7 teams are in the top 20. As these teams beat each other up, it seems doubtful any team will have few enough losses to make the playoff.

However, the numbers suggest the SEC will most likely get 2 teams in the playoff. Let me explain.

Mississippi State at Alabama

Mississippi State has enjoyed a magical season in which they remain undefeated and QB Dak Prescott has shot up the Heisman polls. However, life gets more difficult as they travel to Alabama this weekend.

Alabama looks like the most balanced team in the nation. I rank offense and defense by taking yards per play and adjusting for schedule. Alabama has the 7th and 2nd ranked offense and defense respectively. Miami, a team discussed later, is the only other team with two top 10 units.

In contrast, Mississippi State has the 9th ranked offense but the 37th ranked defense. Quarterback Blake Sims and the Alabama offense should get their points against this defense.

In The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions, which aggregate a number of predictors, Alabama is an 11 point favorite to beat Mississippi State. The markets started by favoring Alabama by 7, but this spread jumped to 9.5.

The glory of not playing in the SEC championship game

However, a Mississippi State loss does not eliminate them from the college football playoff. They could still win the SEC West since Alabama must play a tough Auburn team in two weeks. Overall, Mississippi State has a 34.9% chance to win the SEC West.


But Mississippi State doesn’t have to win the SEC West. If they lose to Alabama, they will drop in the committee rankings but perhaps not too far. Remember, this would be their first loss, and the committee might keep them in the top 4.

If Mississippi State wins their remaining games but finishes 2nd to Alabama in the West, they won’t play in the SEC championship game. But this is a good thing. The selection committee drops teams after a loss, just like the polls. This means it’s bad to lose late in the season. Mississippi State can’t lose the last week of the season if they don’t play.

We saw this type of phenomena in the BCS era. In 2011, Alabama lost to LSU during the regular season and finished 2nd in the SEC West. They stayed at home the last week of the season but earned the second spot in the national title game over Oklahoma State.

Auburn at Georgia

The SEC East could also have huge implications for the selection committee. This weekend, Auburn travels to Athens for a game against Georgia. Both teams feature high powered offenses that should score plenty of points.

Georgia gets running back Todd Gurley back for the game. This is one factor that drove the markets to open with Georgia as a 2.5 point favorite.

However, you have to wonder how much impact Gurley will have when his backup Nick Chubb has averaged 6.7 yards per carry. Our ensemble predictions give Auburn a slim 0.5 point edge on the road.

Despite trailing Missouri in the SEC East standings, Georgia (7-2, 5-2 SEC) has a 49.4% chance to win the division. This probability will only go up if they beat Auburn in their last SEC game. Missouri (7-2, 4-1 SEC) still has 3 conference games, two against tough SEC West opponents (Texas A&M and Arkansas).


If Georgia wins the East, they will most likely be a significant underdog in the SEC championship game. However, Georgia almost certainly makes the playoff if they win the game. The current 15th ranked team in the committee rankings would have earned a top 4 spot, which will make it even more impossible for the committee to determine the top 4 teams.

Ensemble predictions

Here are a sample of the ensemble predictions I’ve been working on with Mike Craig, my partner in the prediction service.

The first number gives a predicted point spread, and a negative number implies a win for the home team. The second number is the total points scored.

Florida State at Miami (FL): -2.1, 59.1.

Nebraska at Wisconsin: -6.6, 54.9.

Michigan State at Maryland: 8.0, 55.3.

Rice at Marshall: -22.2, 63.5.

Indiana at Rutgers: -7.1, 60.5.

Memphis at Tulane: 10.6, 45.6.

Akron at Buffalo: 4.2, 54.9.

Missouri at Texas A&M: -7.2, 56.2.

Toledo at Northern Illinois: -1.0, 64.9.

San Diego State at Boise State: -15.6, 53.2.

Virginia Tech at Duke: -3.5, 45.4.

Texas at Oklahoma State: -0.9, 45.7.

Wake Forest at North Carolina State: -16.8, 43.4.

Mississippi State at Alabama: -11.0, 55.7.

Temple at Penn State: -13.3, 38.8.

Auburn at Georgia: 0.5, 66.7.

Ball State at Massachusetts: -2.4, 60.4.

Miami (OH) at Central Michigan: -11.6, 49.3.

Southern Miss at UTSA: -8.3, 47.4.

North Texas at UTEP: -1.2, 51.2.

All of these math predictions are available to members of The Power Rank.

Predicting the college football playoff after week 11

College football playoff prediction after week 11My latest projections for the likelihood that each team makes the college football playoff are up on Bleacher Report.

Each week, I take the latest committee rankings and simulate the remainder of the season. The method uses analytics to determine a win probability for each game and captures potential match ups in conference championship games. To read more on my methods, click here.

Over on Bleacher Report, I also provide analysis on the results. Here are the 5 hot topics of the week.

  • Alabama is still your SEC favorite
  • Ohio State shows the power of an upset
  • The pool of Contenders is shrinking
  • The lack of a Big 12 championship game is a huge advantage
  • Pac-12 bias on the committee

To read the article, click here.

Ensemble predictions for week 11 of college football

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How safe is Florida State from an upset to Louisville?

Screen shot 2014-10-30 at 1.51.39 PMFlorida State won the national championship last season. With Heisman winning QB Jameis Winston’s returning for this season, the Seminoles looked poised to repeat as champions.

On the surface, things look fine for Florida State. They have beaten Clemson (without Winston) and Notre Dame on the way to an undefeated record. As the visual shows, the college football playoff committee ranked them 2nd in their first rankings.

However, numbers reveal another side of Florida State. Computer rankings that take margin of victory in games and adjust for strength of schedule aren’t impressed. For example, both my team rankings and the Sagarin predictor rank Florida State 20th.

Florida State doesn’t look better when we dig deeper into the numbers.

On this site, I take yards per play and adjust for schedule to rank offense and defense. Florida State shows up at 29th when combining offense and defense into a team ranking. On Football Outsiders, Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau combine both drive and play based statistics before making schedule adjustments. They rank Florida State 11th.

Good computer rankings do not consider Florida State a top 10 team.

And the Seminoles face a stern test against Louisville tonight.

Florida State’s offense against Louisville’s defense

Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense have been great this season, ranking 7th in my adjusted yards per play. This unit led the comeback over North Carolina State from a 17 point deficit to win that game.

However, they face Louisville’s 3rd ranked defense. This is an incredible performance for a unit that lost 3 of 4 defensive line starters from last season.

Moreover, Florida State has struggled with pass protection this season. Defenses have sacked the QB on 5.8% of pass attempts, right near the 6% average. Louisville’s defense has generated sacks on 9.3% of pass attempts. Expect a long night for Winston.

Florida State’s defense against Louisville’s offense

Remember how Winston and the offense saved Florida State’s ass against North Carolina State? How does a team get 17 points down to an ACC door mat?

The defense stinks.

Well, the defense doesn’t stink. They rank 34th in my adjusted yards per play. Some teams would kill for a defense that good. However, a rank of 34th means severe regression for a Florida State defense that finished the last 2 seasons in the top 5.

The pass rush has been a problem. Florida State has sacked the QB on 4.2% of pass attempts. Notre Dame’s Everett Golson had ample time to look downfield against the Seminole’s defense.

However, Louisville’s offense hasn’t been great this season. They rank 69th by my adjusted yards per play, and QB Will Garnder has completed 57% of his passes, a steep decline from the 70% Teddy Bridgewater put up last 2 seasons. The offensive line hasn’t helped Gardner much, as Louisville has allowed sacks on 9.1% of pass attempts.

Louisville did get receiver DeVante Parker back from injury against North Carolina State. The preseason All-ACC receiver caught 9 passes for 134 yards in his only game of the season.

Prediction for Florida State at Louisville

Florida State has the edge in this game because their defense is better than Louisville’s offense. The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions give Florida State a 1.5 point edge.

However, if Louisville QB Will Gardner gets some time to throw to DeVante Parker, they might put up enough points to pull the upset. My numbers give them a 45.5% chance to win.

The markets also see the strength in Louisville. The opening line of Florida State by 7 moved to 3.5 by this afternoon.

Ensemble predictions for week 10

These predictions are a collaboration with Mike Craig, my partner in the prediction service. We use rankings based on margin of victory and yards per play as well as data from the markets to compute the spread and total in every game.

In this sample of predictions, the first number is a point spread in which a negative number predicts a victory for the home team. The second number is the total points scored by both teams.

All of these math predictions are available to members.

Kentucky at Missouri: -10.2, 48.5.

Boston College at Virginia Tech: -3.0, 41.3.

Illinois at Ohio State: -21.2, 62.4.

Arizona at UCLA: -10.8, 65.6.

Rice at Florida International: 5.1, 48.8.

Tennessee at South Carolina: -5.5, 56.8.

Northwestern at Iowa: -2.9, 41.2.

Brigham Young at Middle Tennessee State: 6.1, 62.4.

Virginia at Georgia Tech: -4.6, 59.0.

San Diego State at Nevada: -2.2, 50.5.

Arkansas at Mississippi State: -12.4, 58.6.

Wisconsin at Rutgers: 10.8, 60.5.

Oklahoma State at Kansas State: -11.9, 51.7.

Indiana at Michigan: -5.3, 59.2.

Georgia State at Appalachian State: -6.8, 70.5.

East Carolina at Temple: 13.0, 64.1.

California at Oregon State: -0.9, 63.9.

North Carolina State at Syracuse: -4.6, 57.8.

Cincinnati at Tulane: 7.4, 58.9.

Air Force at Army: 3.7, 57.3.

Wyoming at Fresno State: -8.5, 60.4.

Forecasting the college football playoff after week 9

Excellent graphic from Stat Milk.

What do the first selection committee rankings mean for the college football playoff? What can analytics say about the odds that each team ends up in the top 4 on December 7?

First, let’s recognize the limitations of analytics. Numbers won’t tell you how far Auburn will drop if they lost a 5 overtime game to Ole Miss this Saturday. I also have no adjustments for committee politics or how much Mike Tranghese hates the ACC.

However, analytics based on margin of victory and yards per play lets us accurately forecast the win probability of each game. With some reasonable assumptions on committee behavior, computer simulations give the playoff odds for all 25 teams in the first committee rankings.

To see the playoff chances for your team and read my analysis on Bleacher Report, click here.