The secret that no one tells you about in predicting Georgia vs Alabama

Alabama and Georgia meet in the college football championship game, and my member numbers predict Alabama by 4.2. I often make this prediction with a certainty that the most likely result is an Alabama win by 4.

However, posting a single number is deceiving. There’s uncertainty in making a prediction, whether by analytics or the markets, and no one talks about it.

To illustrate this uncertainty, let’s look at Alabama.

Alabama versus Clemson year to year

To close the 2016, Alabama met Clemson in the college football championship game. The markets closed with Alabama as a 6.5 point favorite.

Alabama lost a close contest to Clemson, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the Crimson Tide heading into 2017. The hype for this dynasty reached a fever pitch when they destroyed Vanderbilt 59-0.

In November of 2017, the markets made Alabama better than even odds to win the college football playoff. Think about this. If you ask yourself whether to take Alabama or any other team to win the playoff, the markets favored Alabama. It didn’t even matter that they had yet to make the 4 team field for the playoff.

Then the Auburn game happened. Alabama lost 26-14 on the road to their arch rival.

This one game changed everything. With the loss, Alabama didn’t win the SEC West. Instead, Auburn won the division and played Georgia in the SEC title game.

Alabama no longer controlled their playoff destiny, and they sat at home sweating it out on championship weekend.

Lucky for the Crimson Tide, two of the top 4 teams lost on championship weekend. The debate about the last playoff spot came down to one loss Alabama that didn’t win their division against two loss Ohio State that won their conference.

The committee picked Alabama, and they were slated to face Clemson again in the playoff semi-final game. The markets closed with Alabama as a 3.5 point favorite.

Remember, Alabama was a 6.5 point favorite just a year before. I personally find this swing in point spread insane.

Alabama improved from 2016 to 2017. By my adjusted yards per play, they had the top defense both seasons. But QB Jalen Hurts developed as a sophomore in 2017. The offense jumped from 12th in 2016 to 8th in 2017 in my adjusted yards per play.

On the contrary, Clemson isn’t the same team as last year. Their defense has arguably improved, but they lost a generational talent in QB Deshaun Watson.

What was the real cause of Alabama going from a 6.5 to 3.5 point favorite? In 2016, Alabama scored 15 non-offensive touchdowns. This made them seem invincible both to the eyes as well as points based analytics.

This preseason, I wrote about how this scoring production from defense and special teams was irreproducible. In 2017, Alabama had 2 non-offensive touchdowns, and one came on an interception against Clemson.

The second factor in this point spread swing? The loss to Auburn. Alabama was undefeated in 2016, but had a blemish in 2017.

The difference in Alabama versus Clemson suggests at least a 3 point uncertainty in making predictions.

The impact of one game

Now, how about Alabama versus Georgia? The day of the game, Alabama is a 3.5 point favorite, with a few sports books at 4. This is close to my member prediction Alabama by 4.2, which suggests no value in this game.

But, if Alabama had beaten Auburn, they would have played Georgia in the SEC championship game. In fact, they would have played on the exact same field in Atlanta at which they will meet for the playoff championship game.

If Alabama had played Georgia in the SEC title game, Matthew Holt of CG Technologies, the guy who sets the line in Vegas, says Alabama would have been a 7.5 to 9 point favorite.

This suggests one game against Auburn shifts the spread by up to 6.5 points.

Auburn was a big data point for Alabama, as the Crimson Tide lost to the best team on their regular season schedule. However, this loss should not imply a shift of 6 or more points in the Georgia prediction.

There is uncertainty in making football predictions.

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.