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).

Get the college football win totals report

These preseason rankings also drive my college football win totals, which I make available to those who sign up for my free email newsletter. To sign up, enter your best email and click on “Sign up now!”

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.

Sign up for the free email newsletter

To get my college football win totals report, available after July 6th, 2016, sign up for my email newsletter.

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.

To sign up for the free email newsletter, enter your best email and click on “Sign up now!”

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

The top 25 college football teams of 2016 by recruiting rankings

Nick_Saban_StatueHow talented is your college football team? If only recruiting mattered, which teams would contend for next season’s College Football Playoff?

Here, I use a regression model to rank college football teams for 2016 based on the past four years of team recruiting rankings from Rivals. This model assigns a weight to each of the past four years to best predict on field performance in 2016.

The model gets trained on data from past years. As a measure of a team’s performance in each year, I use its rating given by my college football team rankings at The Power Rank. This rating gets calculated by taking margin of victory in games and accurately adjusting for strength of schedule.

Will these rankings accurately predict next season?

This article looks at the top 25 teams by recruiting rankings for 2016. Will these rankings accurately predict team performance next year?

Probably not.

The regression model is a poor predictor of team performance by The Power Rank. You’re better off looking at the year end rating from the previous season. (For you math types, the recruiting model explains 25% of the variance in team ratings, while the year end rating from the previous season explains 57%.)

However, I do have a better preseason model that has predicted the winner in over 70% of college football games before a single game has been played. This model drives my preseason rankings and win totals report.

This report, which gives an expected win total for each college football team, is available to people who get my free email newsletter. This is also how I give a sample of my best football predictions during the season.

To sign up to receive the 2016 college football win totals report (due out July 5th, 2016), enter your best email and click on “Sign up now!”

Let’s count down the top 25 college football teams by recruiting rankings.

25. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs will no longer have the services of QB Dak Prescott, who set every school record for passing. This will make life difficult in the SEC West.

24. Oregon

The defense has plunged over the past two seasons (35th in 2014, 74th in 2015 by my yards per play adjusted for schedule). Can former Michigan coach Brady Hoke revive the Oregon defense as coordinator?

23. Penn State

Despite a small class of 20, James Franklin still recruited a top 25 class for Penn State in 2016. And perhaps the offense will improve as they transition from pro style QB Christian Hackenberg to an up tempo spread offense.

22. Baylor

After ranking 40th in these recruiting numbers last year, Baylor jumps into the top 25 this season with the 17th ranked class, by far their best of the past decade. Then coach Art Briles gets fired and replaced by the uninspiring Jim Grobe.

21. Miami (FL)

Mark Richt, a good enough coach to not get fired at Georgia for 15 years, takes over the Hurricanes program. Always a strong recruiter at Georgia, he managed the 21st best class in his first year at Miami.

20. Stanford

Coach David Shaw continues to inspire a range of emotions in this Stanford alumni.

First, the Cardinal embarrasses Iowa in the Rose Bowl. The 45-16 victory had every alum dancing to All Right Now.

Then Shaw embarrasses the entire Stanford community with this reaction to satellite camps.

It doesn’t make sense for us to go hold a camp some place where there might be one person in the entire state that’s eligible to get into Stanford.

Hey coach, try not to make us all look like pompous asses.

19. South Carolina

Will Muschamp? As a recent SEC power program, you couldn’t find someone with more head coaching success?

Muschamp would have fared better at Florida had he found a player that could throw the ball with any accuracy. He needs to do better in the QB department to last at South Carolina.

18. Michigan State

Mark Dantonio turned the Spartans recent success into the 18th ranked class in 2016, a strong result for a class of 20 players. Now they must deal with the loss of the best QB (Connor Cook) and tackle (Jack Conklin) in program history.

17. Oklahoma

The Sooners seemed to struggle in 2014 to an 8-5 record, but they went 1-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They rebounded in 2015 with an 11-2 record and a playoff berth last season, going 2-1 in close games.

16. Texas

Can Charlie Strong find a quarterback? Returning starter Tyrone Swoopes will compete with Shane Buechele for the starting job this fall.

15. Tennessee

Butch Jones couldn’t do better than the 5th ranked classes he had in both 2014 and 2015. However, he did get the 15th ranked class in 2016 with only 21 players.

Tennessee will build on a program that played close games with Oklahoma and Alabama, both playoff teams last season.

14. Michigan

It seems like Jim Harbaugh’s team should rank higher than 14th after their top 5 class in 2016. However, the model takes a weighted average over four years that includes the 31st and 49th ranked class in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Michigan will rise in these rankings if Harbaugh continues to recruit top 5 classes.

13. Texas A&M

Is Kevin Sumlin an offensive guru? Or was Johnny Manziel just that good in college?

In 2015, Texas A&M had the 63rd ranked pass offense by my yards per play adjusted for schedule. Then two quarterbacks transfer during the off season.

Sumlin did bring in graduate transfer QB Trevor Knight. At Oklahoma, Knight won MVP of the 2014 Sugar Bowl when the Sooners beat Alabama.

12. UCLA

Jim Mora scored the 8th best recruiting class in 2016, tied for the best in program history over the past decade. They’ll need this talent to replace 8 players drafted into the NFL.

11. Florida

The Gators had a strong 10-4 season in Jim McElwain’s first season, led by a top 10 defense. However, the offense was a ceiling for this team, with the rushing worse than the passing.

10. Mississippi

How must Hugh Freeze felt on NFL draft day?

  • Crap, they lifted the ban on satellite camps. Now I gotta go work in June.
  • Well, at least Laremy Tunsil is getting drafted tonight.
  • What??!! He posted a video with his smoking of a bong on Twitter?
  • Well, at least my boy went 15th to the Dolphins.
  • What??!! He told everyone that we play our players??

Freeze can’t wait to get back to camp and take a look at his 7th ranked class from 2016.

The Rebels were one fluky fourth down bounce against Arkansas from winning the SEC West last season over Alabama.

9. Georgia

Can Kirby Smart take this program higher than Mark Richt? The long time Alabama DC has never been a head coach before.

Smart passed his first test by recruiting the 9th best class of 2016, including three 5 star recruits.

8. Clemson

The championship game against Alabama must have traumatized Tigers fans. The defensive line whipped a solid Bama offensive line only to see a stellar secondary make repeated mistakes that cost Clemson the game.

Still, a championship game appearance could only have helped Dabo Swinney recruit his second straight top 10 class. Expect Clemson to move up on this list next year.

7. Auburn

Will Muschamp had the defense headed in the right direction. After ranking 41st in 2014, Auburn’s defense jumped 19th in 2015 by my yards per play adjusted for schedule.

Former LSU coordinator Kevin Steele takes over the defense for 2016.

6. USC

One of college football’s traditional powers, USC can attract just about any coach to take over their program. They decided on OC Clay Helton, who has never been a head coach.

However, even Charlie Weis could recruit at USC. The Trojans had the 10th best class in 2016.

5. Notre Dame

Brian Kelly has done an exceptional job improving the talent at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had 6 players picked in the first round of the NFL draft.

The offense was spectacular last season (2nd in yard per play adjusted for schedule), but the defense needs to catch up (48th).

4. LSU

Les Miles hasn’t had a recruiting class worse than 8th the past four years, which leads to this lofty ranking. The tougher trick will be coaxing better QB play out of Brandon Harris.

3. Florida State

Jimbo Fisher has recruited a top 10 class each of his 7 years as head coach of the Seminoles. If he can get some solid QB play in 2016, Florida State will challenge for a playoff spot out of the ACC.

2. Ohio State

In August of 2015, 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.

Now, heading into 2016, many believe that Michigan is a better team than Ohio State. I find this difficult to believe, and Ohio State’s recruiting rank of 2nd is only one reason why.

Full disclosure: I live in Ann Arbor and consider myself part of the Michigan family (although I may get booted this preseason). For the past three years, I’ve talked Michigan sports on WTKA sports radio.

1. Alabama

Over seven of the past nine years, Nick Saban has recruited the top class in the nation.