Analysis of 2016 College Football Playoff Semi-final games

Let’s not coronate Alabama champion just yet. Over on Bleacher Report, I wrote about the College Football Playoff from an analytics perspective.

Alabama is the clear favorite, and I even like their chances to cover two touchdowns against Washington in the first semi-final.

But that dang football bounces in funny ways sometimes. A few turnovers here, maybe some subpar play from Nick Saban’s team, you never know.

Ohio State and Clemson features some interesting match ups, as both teams have their strengths on offense and defense.

To check out my analysis, click here.

Podcast: College Football Playoff Show with Mike Craig

I had the honor of having Mike Craig on the Football Analytics Show this week. Mike has made a living for ten years investing in the sports markets, and he’s been my partner in running the college football prediction service the past three years.

On the podcast, we discuss the following:

  • The difficulty of rating elite defenses like Alabama and Michigan
  • The key match up in Ohio State versus Clemson
  • The transition Mike has made from models that predict the markets to something else
  • The impossibility of giving only one piece of advice to those that want to start betting on sports

To listen on iTunes, click here.

To listen on the site, click on the play button.

The Washington Huskies, and college football rankings after week 6, 2016

ncaaf2016_w7I was wrong about Washington.

I didn’t believe in the Huskies this preseason. They hadn’t beaten anyone of significance last season, and I had doubts about Chris Peterson and a true sophomore quarterback.

In the past two weeks, Washington has dominated Stanford and Oregon by a combined 114-27 score. With this complete annihilation of the two teams that have won every Pac-12 title since 2009, the Huskies are the clear playoff favorite from the conference.

Let’s not bring up the inherent variance in these two lopsided wins.

Let’s not discuss the possibility that Stanford and Oregon both suck this season.

Let’s acknowledge Washington’s arrival on the college football season. They are 4th in the latest college football rankings from The Power Rank.

To see the full updated rankings, click here.

The Ultimate Guide to College Football Conference Win Probabilities

Will your college football team win a conference title in 2016? Which teams will win the Power 5 conferences, giving them the inside track towards a College Football Playoff berth?

Unlike the typical college football publication, I won’t pick a single team to win each conference. Every team has some chance to win, even Kansas, and modern sports analytics can assign each team a conference win probability.

These numbers come from my preseason college football model, which considers team performance over the past four years, turnovers and returning starters to rank all 128 FBS teams. This model predicted the winner in 73.3% of games last season, a win rate that only includes games with two FBS teams.

This preseason model gives a win probability for each game this season, and these numbers drive my win total predictions at The Power Rank.

These win probabilities also provide the parameters for simulating each conference 10,000 times with random numbers. Each simulation determines the division winners through tiebreakers, and then flips another coin to determine the outcome of the championship game. These simulations give the win probabilities below, which I compare with the market odds from Bovada.

Let’s look at the numbers and story lines for each Power 5 conference.

SEC

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Is Tennessee the new beast in the SEC East?

Despite 4 losses last season, Tennessee played close games with Alabama and Oklahoma and never lost by more than a touchdown. The Vols finished last season 8th in my team rankings, which take margin of victory in games and adjusts for strength of schedule.

This season, Tennessee should fully see the fruits of strong classes Butch Jones recruited in 2014 and 2015. My preseason model ranks the Vols 7th and gives them a 44.8% chance to win the East despite a difficult cross division game with Alabama.

Tennessee’s strong chances to win the East reflect poorly on the other programs in the division.

  • Georgia hired a coach (Kirby Smart) who has never been a head coach.
  • Florida looked on the rise last season under Jim McElwain before getting demoralized by Florida State, Alabama and Michigan to end the season.
  • Steve Spurrier left South Carolina mid-season, and the Gamecocks replaced him with Will Muschamp, who never got the job done in four years at Florida.
  • Missouri won the SEC East in 2013 and 2014 but appear in rebuilding mode after the retirement of Gary Pinkel.

My model doesn’t like the prospects of these usual contenders for the SEC East crown, which enhances the odds for Tennessee. The story changes if Tennessee played in the SEC West.

My numbers rank Ole Miss right behind Tennessee at 8th in the nation. However, with Alabama (#1) and LSU (#3) ahead of them, Ole Miss has a 8.7% chance to win the division.

The lack of power balance also favors Tennessee in the overall conference odds. My preseason model would make LSU a 2.5 point favorite over Tennessee in the SEC title game. However, because they play in a weaker division, Tennessee has a better probability of winning the SEC than LSU.

SEC East

Tennessee (#7) has a 44.8% chance to win.
Georgia (#16) has a 28.4% chance to win.
Florida (#28) has a 12.2% chance to win.
South Carolina (#34) has a 8.0% chance to win.
Vanderbilt (#44) has a 4.0% chance to win.
Missouri (#52) has a 2.2% chance to win.
Kentucky (#83) has a 0.3% chance to win.

SEC West

Alabama (#1) has a 45.1% chance to win.
LSU (#3) has a 27.7% chance to win.
Mississippi (#8) has a 8.7% chance to win.
Arkansas (#12) has a 8.3% chance to win.
Texas A&M (#10) has a 5.6% chance to win.
Mississippi State (#23) has a 3.5% chance to win.
Auburn (#32) has a 1.1% chance to win.

Big Ten

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A year ago, Ohio State was the toast of college football. Urban Meyer’s team had won the first playoff, and he was killing it as usual on the recruiting trail.

Then in the most inexplicable game of 2015, Ohio State lost to Michigan State, a team without star QB Connor Cook. The loss cost the Buckeyes a spot in the playoff, and they lost 10 players to the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.

In contrast, Michigan had many unanswered questions a year ago. They went 5-7 the previous season, and their hopes for 2015 rested on their faith in new coach Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan had a few rough spots in 2015, including a demoralizing 42-13 home loss to Ohio State. However, they finished 10-3 after a convincing win over Florida in a bowl game, and Harbaugh landed a top 5 recruiting class in February.

How do Ohio State and Michigan compare in 2016?

My numbers imply a dead heat between Ohio State and Michigan in 2016. Michigan (#9) is ranked ahead of Ohio State (#11) but would be a 2.5 point underdog when they travel to Columbus in November.

However, Michigan does have a better chance to win the Big Ten East (37.8% vs 34.9% for Ohio State) due to an kinder cross division schedule. Both teams play Wisconsin, but Michigan gets Iowa (#36) and Illinois (#88) while Ohio State tangles with Nebraska (#25) and Northwestern (#58).

In the Big Ten West, it might seem strange to that Nebraska has the highest conference win probability. However, the Huskers went 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less, which included a loss to BYU on a Hail Mary. A turnover margin of -12 didn’t help either.

Luckily for Nebraska, my research shows that their record in close games and turnover margin most likely improve in 2016. QB Tommy Armstrong returns, and Nebraska could be really good if they can fix their porous pass defense.

However, the real reason Nebraska has the highest odds to win the Big Ten West is Wisconsin’s schedule. After two years of playing Rutgers and Maryland in cross division games, the Badgers get Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Nebraska also plays Ohio State but gets Indiana and Maryland. Advantage Nebraska.

And I guess we should discuss defending Big Ten West champion Iowa. The Hawkeyes had a magical season last year, but quickly regressed in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. My numbers give them a 19.3% chance to win the division, much less than the even odds in the markets.

Big Ten East

Michigan (#9) has a 37.8% chance to win.
Ohio State (#11) has a 34.9% chance to win.
Michigan State (#29) has a 19.0% chance to win.
Penn State (#43) has a 5.7% chance to win.
Indiana (#67) has a 1.4% chance to win.
Maryland (#78) has a 0.7% chance to win.
Rutgers (#84) has a 0.5% chance to win.

Big Ten West

Nebraska (#25) has a 34.2% chance to win.
Wisconsin (#22) has a 31.1% chance to win.
Iowa (#36) has a 19.3% chance to win.
Minnesota (#60) has a 7.7% chance to win.
Northwestern (#58) has a 4.8% chance to win.
Purdue (#76) has a 2.5% chance to win.
Illinois (#88) has a 0.5% chance to win.

Pac-12

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My numbers understand some of the hype surrounding the Washington Huskies. They return 15 starters from last season, including 7 players on a defense that ranked 9th by my adjusted yards per play.

The subjective adjustments also seem to favor Washington, as QB Jake Browning returns as a sophomore after a promising freshman season. Coach Chris Petersen enters his third year and might find the same success he had at Boise State.

But it’s pure insanity to make Washington the Pac-12 favorite, as the markets have them in early August.

While Washington showed promise last season, they finished 7-6 and 31st in my team rankings that take margin of victory and adjust for schedule. Not exactly playoff material.

Last season, Washington had one signature win, a 17-12 win at USC. However, it almost doesn’t count, as USC coach Steve Sarkesian got fired the next week and possibly wasn’t sober while preparing for the Huskies.

Washington has yet to prove itself on the field, which makes it difficult to think they’ll win the Pac-12 North over proven teams.

  • Stanford has to replace their QB and fill holes on both lines, but they still have this guy named Christian McCaffrey.
  • Even though they’re replacing the quarterback, Oregon has most of its weapons back on offense. And the defense can’t get worse, can it?

My numbers like Stanford (35.8%) and Oregon (21.4%) over Washington (10.1%) to win the Pac-12 North.

In the Pac-12 South, the odds makers might be overlooking Utah. It’s not just that Kyle Whittingham has the Utes back on the rise with stellar play on defense. It’s the schedule.

When the Pac-12 split into two divisions, UCLA and USC wanted to keep their rivalries with Stanford and California. However, this has implied a more difficult schedule for all four of these teams.

USC gets the worst of it this season, as they not only play their two northern California rivals but also Oregon. The Trojans always have talent. However, Clay Helton went an uninspiring 5-4 as interim head coach last season, so there’s reason to doubt his ability to get this talent to play at a championship level.

UCLA catches a break in getting Oregon State as their third cross division game. In addition, I think my numbers underestimate Jim Mora’s team this year. My preseason rankings are based on their team rank of 41st last season, but this seems inconsistent with an offense and defense that ranked 27th and 14th last season by my adjusted yards per play.

My numbers make Utah the favorite in the Pac-12 South because they play Oregon State, California and Oregon in cross division games. If the offense can get better with new personnel, Utah could become a legitimate Pac-12 contender.

Pac-12 North

Stanford (#6) has a 55.1% chance to win.
Oregon (#18) has a 21.4% chance to win.
Washington State (#30) has a 11.8% chance to win.
Washington (#26) has a 10.1% chance to win.
California (#56) has a 1.5% chance to win.
Oregon State (#87) has a 0.1% chance to win.

Pac-12 South

Utah (#24) has a 35.8% chance to win.
USC (#19) has a 29.9% chance to win.
UCLA (#37) has a 15.9% chance to win.
Arizona (#38) has a 12.3% chance to win.
Arizona State (#53) has a 4.9% chance to win.
Colorado (#77) has a 1.3% chance to win.

ACC

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It seems like Clemson should win the ACC over Florida State in 2016.

Clemson beat Florida State on their way to the national title game against Alabama. Despite the 5 point loss against Bama, you could argue Clemson should have won. They dominated the line of scrimmage but couldn’t overcome blown coverages in the secondary.

However, my preseason ranking like Florida State, as the Seminoles rank 2nd over Clemson at 5th. The returning starters variable plays a critical role in this rank.

Florida State has 17 returning starters, which includes star running back Dalvin Cook. In contrast, Clemson returns only 12 starters. The Tigers also had heavy attrition in the secondary, including 3 players that got drafted by the NFL.

In addition, while Clemson beat Florida State by 10 last year, it was a closer game than the final score indicated. Florida State had more yards per play than Clemson. The Seminoles couldn’t overcome a 2 for 12 rate in converting third downs.

However, Clemson might have the trump card. They bring back Deshaun Watson, the best quarterback in the nation. Florida State is still deciding between returning starter Sean McGuire at QB or a few younger players.

In the Coastal division, the markets have the same odds for Miami as for defending champion North Carolina. This shows major respect for new Hurricane coach Mark Richt, who won 145 games in 15 season at Georgia.

My numbers, which do not consider the coaching change, give Miami the fourth largest win probability for the Coastal division.

ACC Atlantic

Florida State (#2) has a 53.3% chance to win.
Clemson (#4) has a 31.3% chance to win.
Louisville (#14) has a 13.9% chance to win.
Boston College (#55) has a 0.6% chance to win.
North Carolina State (#59) has a 0.4% chance to win.
Syracuse (#64) has a 0.4% chance to win.
Wake Forest (#73) has a 0.2% chance to win.

ACC Coastal

North Carolina (#20) has a 37.3% chance to win.
Virginia Tech (#31) has a 25.0% chance to win.
Pittsburgh (#33) has a 16.4% chance to win.
Miami (FL) (#40) has a 10.2% chance to win.
Georgia Tech (#47) has a 6.7% chance to win.
Duke (#75) has a 2.3% chance to win.
Virginia (#72) has a 2.1% chance to win.

Big 12

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Can any team topple Oklahoma from the top of the Big 12?

Bob Stoops has had consistent success as coach at Oklahoma. Only once in his 17 years have the Sooners finished the season outside the top 25 in my team rankings (2005).

Stoops has had his bad years. In 2014, Oklahoma went 1-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had an 8-5 record. However, despite an embarrassing bowl loss to Clemson, they still finished 15th in my team rankings.

My preseason model that looks over the past four years appreciates this type of consistency, and it ranks Oklahoma 5th. They could slip like they did in 2014. But with QB Baker Mayfield back, don’t count on it.

The Big 12 win probabilities do not consider the departure of Baylor coach Art Briles. There should be some type of adjustment downward for the Bears. They have one starter returning on both the offense and defensive lines, which suggests they might regress even with Briles as coach.

The team most likely push Oklahoma is TCU. Gary Patterson had the 17th ranked defense by my adjusted yards per play despite a rash of season ending injuries. With the return of a few of these players, who do not count towards the number of returning starters, TCU’s defense should be elite.

On offense, TCU lost almost all of their skill players on offense. However, they will reload with Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill at quarterback.

How many conferences will my numbers get right?

The Power Rank’s preseason model predicted the game winner in 73.3% of games in 2015. Despite appearances, it is possible to make accurate game by game college football predictions right now.

However, that doesn’t imply we know which teams will win their conferences with any certainty. Teams play a small sample size of 8 or 9 games to determine a champion, which provides an opportunity for teams to steal a conference title.

It only takes one game. In 2015, Michigan State traveled to Ohio State without QB Connor Cook. The markets made the Spartans more than a two touchdown underdog. Michigan State won the game anyway, and this one loss eliminated Ohio State from Big Ten title contention.

For the Power 5 conferences, no team has better than a 50% chance to win their conference by my numbers. Oklahoma has the highest odds at 47.6%, a number that could be higher because of the coaching changes at Baylor.

This means that if three of my predicted champions actually win, I would have benefitted from some good fortune in making my predictions. This leaves plenty of room for surprise teams to make a run at the College Football Playoff, just like Michigan State in 2015.

The Top 25 College Football Teams of 2013 by Recruiting Rankings

Nick_Saban_StatueRecruiting rankings do matter.

Each year, Rivals assigns a rating or points value to each school that describes the talent of the players who signed a letter of intent. For Sports Illustrated, we developed a model that takes the Rivals ratings and predicts future team performance. To compare the rankings from this model with the preseason AP poll, we looked at which rankings better predicted the final AP poll.

The Rivals model did as good or better than the preseason AP poll on 46 out of 100 teams over the last 4 years. This is remarkable given the limited information the recruiting model has compared with the writers that vote in the AP poll.

To get the full story on SI.com, click here.

Before we count down the top 25 teams for 2013, we note the following about this regression model.

  • The regression model has learned from the past by relating recruiting ratings to the team ratings from The Power Rank algorithm. For example, recruiting data from 2009 to 2012 were fit to The Power Rank’s results for the 2012 season. Our team ratings from the regular season have picked the winner in 62.8% of bowl games over the last 11 years, a better percentage than the Vegas line (62.2%). Part of the accuracy of the recruiting model depends on our team ratings.
  • We used the final AP poll as the measuring stick for the accuracy of the Rivals model and the preseason AP poll. This poll has problems, as it strongly considers wins but almost ignores margin of victory. However, it was the most relevant measurement of team strength for a general college football audience.
  • The 100 teams we looked at were the top 25 teams in the preseason AP poll over the last 4 years. This puts the recruiting model in a better light, since this set of teams didn’t include teams highly ranked by the recruiting model but outside the AP top 25. For example, the recruiting model had Auburn 7th heading into the 2012 season. The preseason AP poll had Auburn 28th, which more accurately predicted their disasterous season.

With the passing of National Signing Day 2013, we now have the Rivals ratings to predict the 2013 college football season. The predictions are based the past 8 years of team performance.

25. Stanford. The Cardinal only had 12 scholarships to offer incoming freshmen. Since the number of recruits directly affects the Rivals team rating, Stanford only had the 61st ranked class this year, a far cry from their 5th ranked class a season ago.

24. Miami (FL). Miami coach Al Golden can’t walk off campus without tripping over a highly touted high school player. However, impending NCAA sanctions made recruiting difficult this year, as they had the 44th best class, much worse than their 9th ranking a year ago.

23. Virginia Tech. Despite two down years, coach Frank Beamer still recruited the 22nd ranked class. The Hokies need QB Logan Thomas’s passing to improve or groom a better passer.

22. California. The Bears continue to recruit well despite the coaching change from Jeff Tedford to Sonny Dykes. However, this ranking is probably too high. The Cal offense will be learning a new spread system under Dykes, while the defense lost coordinator Clancy Pendergast to USC.

21. Washington. The Huskies have continually improved their recruiting rank over the last 4 year, rising from 28th in 2010 to 18th in 2013. Hopefully, some of the linemen recruiting during this time will give QB Keith Price better protection next season.

20. Nebraska. The Cornhuskers pulled in the 17th best class, by far the 3rd best class in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, Michigan and Ohio State were way ahead, and Nebraska has to travel to Ann Arbor this season.

19. South Carolina. With all the media chatter about the talent in Columbus and the draw dropping hits from Jadeveon Clowney, you might think South Carolina is a top 10 recruiting team. In reality, their 16th ranking in 2013 was their best over the last 4 seasons.

18. Tennessee. The Rivals model had the Vols 13th in the nation last season, which was way too high. With new coach Butch Jones taking over, this year’s 18th ranking is also probably too high.

17. Oregon. Over the last 4 years, the Rivals model has consistently underrated the Ducks. The preseason AP poll was more accurate each year. Will this continue after head coach Chip Kelly handed the program over to Mark Helfrich?

16. UCLA. In talent rich Southern California, the Bruins always recruit well. They finally lived up to that talent last season under first year head coach Jim Mora. Their 11th ranked class this year should continue this trajectory.

15. Texas A&M. New coach Kevin Sumlin is getting tons of credit for recruiting the 10th best class this year. Of course, it helps that Johnny Manziel (a 3 star recruit) led the Aggies to their best season in more than a decade.

14. Mississippi. The Rebels and coach Hugh Freeze had a magical signing day, landing two top 10 recruits on the offensive and defensive line. Their 7th ranking is by far their best since 2002. However, three of their rivals in the SEC west are ranked higher in these rankings.

13. Clemson. With their dramatic, come from behind win against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Tigers will surely be an overrated top 10 team in the preseason AP poll. This ranking in the teens seems more appropriate.

12. Oklahoma. In the past 12 years, the Sooners have recruited a top 10 class 7 times. However, none of these top 10 classes have occurred during the last 3 seasons. Coach Bob Stoops needs more talent on the defensive line to start contending for national titles again.

11. Texas. Even Mack Brown can’t recruit after 3 subpar seasons. The Longhorns had the 23rd ranked class, their worst since 2002. Their usually excellent defense really needs help after last season.

10. Georgia. How would the Bulldogs recruiting class would have fared if the coaches had told QB Aaron Murray to spike the ball during the waning moments of the SEC championship game? A win over Alabama would have landed Georgia in the national title game against Notre Dame. Instead, they had the 12th best class, a fine rank but the second worst for coach Mark Richt over the last 12 years.

9. Michigan. After a disasterous 3 seasons under Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke has turned around this program both on the field and recruiting trail. The Wolverines notched the 5th ranked class after finishing 7th last year. These are their two best ranked classes over the last 8 years.

8. USC. While we kept hearing about the defections from the Trojan’s class, no one mentioned that coach Lane Kiffin still had five 5 star recruits coming to campus, more than any other school (yes, even Alabama). Lack of talent will not be a problem for USC.

7. Auburn. Yes, feel free to call BS on this one. The Tigers continue to recruit well. But unless the next Cam Newton and Nick Fairley show up on campus this fall, Auburn will not return to elite status this season under new coach Gus Malzahn.

6. Florida State. Call BS on this one at your own risk. Despite disappointing loses to NC State and Florida this year, expect the talent rich Seminoles to exceed expectations next season.

5. LSU. It’s a bit shocking that top recruit Robert Nkemdiche picked Ole Miss over LSU. There’s more certainly in winning games in Baton Rouge. Still, coach Les Miles landed the 6th best class in the nation.

4. Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish took full advantage of their undefeated regular season and landed the 3rd best class in the nation. While we should expect Notre Dame to be good next year, 4th is probably too high.

3. Ohio State. The Buckeyes will not surprise anyone this year. In coach Urban Meyer’s first season, Ohio State started the year 18th in the preseason AP poll. Now, with an undefeated season and a 2nd ranked recruiting class, anything but a national title will be a disappointment.

2. Florida. Last year, first year coach Will Muschamp landed the 3rd ranked class despite finishing 7-6. Somehow, a 11-2 season this year got the Gators the 4th ranked class (although they did top the rankings before National Signing Day). Talent is never a problem at Florida.

1. Alabama. Duh. What did you expect? After going 7-6 in his first year at Alabama, coach Nick Saban still recruited the top ranked class in 2008. This started a streak of top ranked classes for Alabama in 5 of the last 6 years. The rest of the SEC should resort to a voodoo consultant to bring bad turnover luck to Alabama next season.

Outlook

No one should take these rankings too seriously. With the short season and the youth of the players involved, college football is incredibly difficult to predict during the preseason. And these rankings have their problems. There’s an incredibly high likelihood that Boise State will be better than the 60th best team in the nation next year.

However, these rankings are still useful, and not only because they are six months ahead of the preseason AP poll. As with all predictive analytics, use these rankings has a guide to help navigate expectations for next season.

Moreover, this is only the beginning of our preseason college football predictions. To keep up to date, sign up for our free email newsletter below.

Thanks for reading.