The one thing that will go wrong for Alabama in 2017

Alabama enters the 2017 as the preseason favorite to win another national title. Nick Saban’s team tops my preseason college football rankings with a rating of 22.7 points better than the average FBS team.

However, no college team does not have their problems in August. Let’s speculate at what could go wrong for Alabama in 2017.

How about an exodus of talent to the NFL? The first round of the NFL draft scooped up these players from last year’s Crimson Tide:

  • Cornerback Marlon Humphrey at 16th
  • Defensive end Jonathan Allen at 17th, who actually dropped significantly from the top 5 projection by experts
  • Tight end O.J. Howard at 19th
  • Linebacker Reuben Foster at 31st

Another 6 players went by the middle of the 4th round.

However, Alabama always loses NFL talent but reloads for the next season.

Let’s try again. Perhaps the offense stagnates under new coordinator Brian Daboll. This guy didn’t exactly light it up as an NFL coordinator, as these NFL rankings out of 32 teams show.

  • 2009, Browns, 32nd in yards per play
  • 2010, Browns, 27th in yards per play
  • 2011, Dolphins, 22nd in yards per play
  • 2012, Chiefs, 28th in yards per play

Since this meager run as coordinator, he’s been working under Josh McDaniels on the Patriots staff.

Daboll’s track record should concern Alabama fans for the upcoming season. But there’s another, much worse factor lurking in the background.

The one thing that will go wrong for Alabama in 2017 is that they won’t score 15 touchdowns on defense and special teams like they did in 2016. Fifteen!! That’s an insane number of touchdowns.

I broke Alabama’s non-offensive touchdowns into four categories based on this video.

  • 3 punt returns
  • 6 interceptions thrown right to Alabama defenders, often without much pressure on the QB
  • 3 fumbles scooped up off the ground by Alabama defenders
  • 3 deflections that landed in the hands of Alabama (interception, fumble, blocked punt)

You might want to give them credit for the punt returns. Fine, let’s do that.

The Alabama defenders barely had to move for those 6 interceptions, with the exception of Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick that he ran back over 100 yards for a touchdown. Can they get opposing QB to be this generous again in 2017?

As for the 3 fumble recoveries, analytics has found almost complete randomness in fumble recoveries. Alabama had good fortune in recovering those last 3 fumbles, and even more luck when those players stayed on their feet to run back for the touchdown.

And the 3 deflections are dumb luck.

Should Alabama be the top ranked team? Of course. Will they win the national title? The markets give Alabama about a 28% chance.

But will Alabama score 15 non-offensive touchdowns in 2017? No.

Alabama projects to win 10.1 games by my preseason numbers. You can get all 130 win totals in The 2017 College Football Win Totals Report.

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The top 5 insights into Alabama vs Clemson, Part II

How will Clemson match up with Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game? Will the result be any different from last year, when Alabama claimed their 4th national title in the last 7 years?

Let’s count down the top 5 insights that will affect the outcome of this game. Yes, we’ll revive the Star Wars analogy from last year’s preview.

5. Clemson dominated the line of scrimmage in Part I

Last season, my numbers favored Alabama by 6.4, and the Crimson Tide won 45-40. Solid victory for analytics, right?

No. Clemson clearly won the line of scrimmage. I’ve never seen this type of domination over Alabama, as the Clemson defensive line in particular made a mockery of attempts to block them.

Despite this edge in the trenches, Clemson lost due to numerous blown coverages in a secondary that had excelled all season. Alabama also recovered an on side kick to provide an extra possession, and it was enough to hold onto a 5 point win.

Will Clemson dominate the line of scrimmage again in Part II against Alabama? Probably not.

However, consider that Clemson’s defense has put 4 and 7 starters in the 2015 and 2016 NFL drafts, respectively. Despite these losses, they continue to dominate, as they allowed 4.56 yards per play, 4th best in the nation this year.

4. Mike Williams vs Marlon Humphrey

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson has many solid receivers, but none more talented than Mike Williams. Watson has targeted Williams 129 times this year for 9.8 yards per target.

Many expect Williams to be a first round NFL draft pick. He can improve his draft stock in the championship game as he will face Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey, another projected first round pick.

We’ll put numbers behind the transcendence of this Alabama defense later. But for now, let’s focus on the secondary in the semi-final game against Washington.

Dante Pettis and John Ross had terrorized Pac-12 defenses all season, as Washington had a potent pass offense had gained over 8.5 yards per attempt heading into the Playoff. (Numbers include sacks unlike traditional college football statistics.) Against Alabama, these top receivers had difficulty getting open, as Washington threw for a meager 2.6 yards per attempt.

Clemson’s Williams might have more talent than any of Washington’s receivers, but we’ll see whether he can get open against the Alabama secondary.

3. Can Jalen Hurts lead a come from behind victory?

Before the start of this season, Nick Saban told ESPN “I don’t care who we start at quarterback. He ain’t going to be that good.”

True freshman Jalen Hurts won the job, and he has excelled beyond all expectations. Hurts has completed 64.7% of his passes (college football average is 60%) as well as gained 6.2 yards per carry as a dual threat quarterback.

But how will the freshman play if he must bring Alabama back from a late game deficit? He hasn’t face that situation yet this season.

My member numbers favor Alabama by 9.4 points. However, the clear favorite doesn’t always have a late game lead.

What happens when Alabama no longer gets points from the defense or special teams? They have scored 15 non-offensive touchdowns this season, although randomness has certainly played a role in this astounding number.

If Alabama faces a late game deficit, Hurts will have to throw the ball. This plays right into the strength of the Clemson defense, as they have the 3rd best pass defense by my adjusted yards per attempt.

Then if Clemson doesn’t make the same blunders in the secondary as last year, they could very well pull off the upset.

2. The Alabama defense

In my preview of last year’s game, I made a Star Wars analogy for Alabama.

But Alabama is college football’s empire, a finely oiled machine with infinite resources to destroy the opponent. Their defense is a Death Star aimed at Clemson and another national title.

This season, Alabama acquired more potent Kyber crystals to power their Death Star.

The defense remains the top ranked unit by my adjusted yards per play just like last season. But while they projected to allow 4.3 yards per play to an average FBS defense last season, that number has dropped to 3.9 this season.

To see how the Alabama defense match ups with Clemson’s potent offense, I use data visualization to plot opposing units on the same line. Better defense appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons with the opposing offense. The unit that appears further to the right is predicted to have the advantage.

The visual shows how offense and defense match up in Alabama vs Clemson, Part II.

The top chart shows the expected dominance of Alabama’s defense over Clemson’s offense.

The bottom visual shows an even match up between Alabama’s offense against Clemson’s defense.

1. Deshaun Watson, adolescent Jedi

In keeping with the Star Wars theme, I said the following about Clemson QB Deshaun Watson in last year’s preview.

However, Clemson has played exceptional this season, and QB Deshaun Watson has taken a starring role. He’s a young Jedi beginning to use his full powers, just like Luke Skywalker in the New Hope.

Watson was spectcular against Alabama last year, throwing for almost 8 yards per attempt, a number that accounts for sacks unlike traditional college football statistics. This prompted Nick Saban to call Watson the best college QB since Cam Newton.

If Watson was Luke Skywalker in the New Hope last season, he is now Luke in Return of the Jedi this season. He’s had his full training from Yoda, and he won’t surprise anyone with a big game against Alabama.

Can Deshaun Watson blow up Alabama’s death star? He must have a spectacular game for Clemson to convert their 24.5% chance for the upset.

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.

Finally!! College football preseason rankings for 2016

ncaaf2016_preseasonWhich college football teams will dominate in 2016?

Which teams will have value in the market for win totals?

It might seem difficult to answer such questions before the season begins. College football relies on the ungainly actions of hormonal young men. Throw in the randomness of a bouncing football, and it seems unpredictable.

However, it is possible to make accurate preseason college football predictions. My preseason rankings come from a regression model that considers team performance, turnovers (both over the past four seasons) and returning starters.

The visual shows the top teams, while the list at the bottom gives all 128 bowl subdivision teams.

How to construct a simple preseason model

For team performance, I use my college football team ratings. These numbers come from taking margin of victory in games and adjusting for strength of schedule with my proprietary algorithm.

Team performance tends to persist from year to year, as Alabama and Rice will never trade places in the college football hierarchy. Hence, the four years worth of team ratings makes up the most important input into the model.

While turnovers can greatly impact a team’s rating, turnovers tend to be random from year to year. If a team has 20 more take aways than give aways during the season, they most likely over performed in their rating. The model uses turnovers to adjust this rating down to better estimate the true strength of the team.

Finally, teams with many returning starters tend to perform better the following season. When only 6 starters return due to early exits to the NFL draft (Ohio State in 2016), we expect a dip in team performance.

How well does the preseason model predict games?

The regression model doesn’t account for every factor in evaluating a college football team. For example, it fails to consider whether the starting quarterback returns for this season.

Despite these flaws, the preseason model picked the winner in 73.3% of games during the 2015 season. This only includes games between two bowl subdivision teams, excluding the cupcake games with FCS teams.

Don’t expect the model to work quite that well again. The firing of Baylor coach Art Briles alone might screw up its predictive ability, and I always encourage you to make subjective adjustments based on situations.

However, the model should be solid in 2016. Over the past three seasons, the preseason rankings has predicted the winner in 71.7% of games (1519-599 with no predictions in 144 games).

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Let’s look at 3 stories based on these preseason rankings that jump out at me.

Michigan vs Ohio State

In August of 2015, Ohio State was the toast of college football. Urban Meyer’s team had won the first playoff, and the preseason chatter revolved around his success 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 then 10 Buckeyes got drafted in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.

In contrast, Michigan had all kinds of question in August of last year (2015). They were coming off a 5-7 season, and all hopes rested on incoming coach Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan ended the season with a surprising 41-7 win over Florida during bowl season. Harbaugh crushed it on the recruiting path, landing top recruit Rashan Gary and a top 5 class.

Now, heading into 2016, many believe that Michigan is a much better team than Ohio State. There are numerous reasons to doubt this.

  • Ohio State beat Michigan in the Big House 42-13 last season.
  • Ohio State’s recruiting over the past four years has outpaced Michigan according to my numbers.
  • Michigan has questions at QB and offensive line heading into 2016.
  • Ohio State has to replace many starters, but one of them is not QB J.T. Barrett.

My preseason model has Michigan a slim half a point ahead of Ohio State. It’s too close to call, and Michigan travels to Columbus to play the Buckeyes this year.

Stay tuned for my Big Ten East win probabilities.

Can LSU contend for a national title?

Last year, Les Miles almost lost his job. LSU lost three straight SEC West games, and the Mad Hatter looked like a goner.

The LSU administration then suddenly changed course, announcing they would retain Miles after an LSU win over Texas A&M. This might actually make sense, since Miles has averaged over 10 wins per season despite playing in college football’s best division.

Now, LSU checks in at 3rd in my preseason rankings, a clear contender for the SEC West and playoff spot. Let’s look at the top reasons.

  • Leonard Fournette
  • 9 starters back on both sides of the ball
  • The hiring of coordinator Dave Aranda, whose defense at Wisconsin ranked 12th, 16th and 12th over the past 3 years in my yards per play adjusted for schedule
  • Did I mention Leonard Fournette?

There’s only one problem, and he’s the guy taking snaps from the center. QB Brandon Harris completed a meager 54% of his passes last year, allowing defenses to key on Fournette in critical games.

Harris looks like a stumbling block for this team. However, he did have off season surgery to fix a sports hernia that might have affected his play late in the season.

Also, Les Miles has had success without a star QB. LSU played in 2013 BCS title game despite the maybe average play of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee at QB.

Florida State vs Clemson

It seems like Clemson should be ahead of Florida State heading into the 2016 season.

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. In addition, the Tigers had heavy attrition in the secondary, including 3 players that got drafted by the NFL.

In addition, Clemson beat Florida State by 10 last year. However, Florida State had more yards per play than Clemson, an indication of a fairly even game. 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.

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In addition, you get a sample of my college football predictions usually only available to paying members of the site. In 2016, these numbers correctly predicted the winner 76.2% of games.

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Full college football preseason rankings

1. Alabama, 21.2
2. Florida State, 19.3
3. LSU, 17.3
4. Clemson, 16.3
5. Oklahoma, 16.2
6. Stanford, 15.7
7. Tennessee, 14.8
8. Mississippi, 13.2
9. Michigan, 12.6
10. Texas A&M, 12.3
11. Ohio State, 12.1
12. Arkansas, 11.8
13. Notre Dame, 11.8
14. Louisville, 11.3
15. Baylor, 11.3
16. Georgia, 11.0
17. Oklahoma State, 10.8
18. Oregon, 10.7
19. USC, 10.4
20. North Carolina, 10.1
21. TCU, 9.9
22. Wisconsin, 9.8
23. Mississippi State, 9.5
24. Utah, 8.9
25. Nebraska, 8.7
26. Washington, 8.6
27. Brigham Young, 8.6
28. Florida, 8.3
29. Michigan State, 7.9
30. Washington State, 7.3
31. Virginia Tech, 7.2
32. Auburn, 7.1
33. Pittsburgh, 6.7
34. South Carolina, 5.9
35. West Virginia, 5.8
36. Iowa, 5.8
37. UCLA, 5.6
38. Arizona, 5.5
39. Texas, 5.4
40. Miami (FL), 5.2
41. Houston, 5.2
42. Texas Tech, 5.0
43. Penn State, 3.9
44. Vanderbilt, 3.7
45. Memphis, 3.6
46. Toledo, 3.5
47. Georgia Tech, 3.4
48. Cincinnati, 3.4
49. Boise State, 3.4
50. Kansas State, 3.3
51. South Florida, 3.2
52. Missouri, 3.0
53. Arizona State, 2.6
54. Temple, 2.6
55. Boston College, 2.5
56. California, 2.1
57. Georgia Southern, 2.0
58. Northwestern, 1.9
59. North Carolina State, 1.9
60. Minnesota, 1.8
61. Navy, 1.3
62. Western Kentucky, 1.3
63. Iowa State, 1.0
64. Syracuse, 0.9
65. Northern Illinois, 0.7
66. San Diego State, 0.6
67. Indiana, 0.5
68. Western Michigan, 0.3
69. Bowling Green, 0.0
70. Air Force, -0.3
71. Connecticut, -0.3
72. Virginia, -0.5
73. Wake Forest, -0.6
74. Utah State, -0.6
75. Duke, -0.6
76. Purdue, -1.2
77. Colorado, -1.2
78. Maryland, -1.3
79. Marshall, -1.5
80. East Carolina, -1.8
81. San Jose State, -1.8
82. Tulsa, -2.2
83. Kentucky, -2.3
84. Rutgers, -2.4
85. Appalachian State, -2.4
86. Central Michigan, -2.4
87. Oregon State, -2.7
88. Illinois, -4.2
89. UCF, -5.5
90. Arkansas State, -5.7
91. Army, -5.9
92. Middle Tennessee State, -6.6
93. Louisiana Tech, -6.7
94. SMU, -6.9
95. Nevada, -7.0
96. Ohio, -7.5
97. Colorado State, -7.9
98. Florida Atlantic, -7.9
99. Troy, -8.0
100. Southern Miss, -8.0
101. Kent State, -8.1
102. Ball State, -8.6
103. Georgia State, -8.9
104. New Mexico, -9.1
105. Wyoming, -9.2
106. Louisiana Lafayette, -9.3
107. Hawaii, -9.4
108. Rice, -10.1
109. Buffalo, -10.3
110. Tulane, -11.0
111. Kansas, -11.4
112. UNLV, -12.0
113. Akron, -12.5
114. Fresno State, -12.6
115. South Alabama, -12.7
116. Old Dominion, -13.9
117. Miami (OH), -14.3
118. Florida International, -14.4
119. Louisiana Monroe, -14.8
120. North Texas, -15.2
121. Eastern Michigan, -15.2
122. UTEP, -15.9
123. Idaho, -16.0
124. Massachusetts, -16.6
125. UTSA, -17.4
126. New Mexico State, -18.8
127. Texas State, -20.9
128. Charlotte, -24.0