The accuracy of The Power Rank’s 2014 college football predictions

How did my college football predictions do in 2014? Here, I look at not only my posted numbers for all games but also the forecasts made on this site and other outlets such as Grantland, Deadspin and Bleacher Report.

It’s 2015, and I’m making a full effort to track and report on all of my predictions. It started with baseball this spring, and it will continue through football and basketball.

Let’s get started.

Best prediction

Before the BCS title game, I wrote on Deadspin about how Ohio State presented a terrible match up for favorite Oregon. Ohio State had a vicious rushing attack that had just mauled a strong Alabama defense. Oregon had an average rush defense.

During the game, Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott gashed Oregon for 246 yards on 36 carries (6.8 yards per carry). Despite 4 turnovers, Ohio State won 42-20.

In the comments of the Deadspin article, a reader wrote this:

It is the start of the fourth, and it is creepy how on point your predictions are.

Two of my preseason predictions make honorable mention.

Auburn to regress

Auburn had a dream season in 2013, as they rose from the ashes of the SEC West to win the conference and play in the BCS championship game. However, they got the benefit of a few lucky plays (a tipped hail mary completion against Georgia, a field goal returned for a touchdown against Alabama).

In August, I wrote about how Auburn would have a tough 2014 season because of their schedule and the small chance they benefit from those lucky type plays again. Auburn fans didn’t like that I called them lucky.

Auburn couldn’t reproduce those plays in 2014. After a magical 12-2 season in 2013, they fell to 8-5 last season. Part of their demise was a tough cross division game at Georgia that they lost.

TCU to win the Big 12

My other favorite preseason prediction was that TCU would win the Big 12.

I actually went against my numbers on this one as Oklahoma had a higher win probability. However, no one gave TCU a chance, and I had them ranked 14th in the preseason.

TCU had a tremendous season as they went 12-1 and finished as co-champions with Baylor of the Big 12.

Worst prediction

Grantland asked me to predict the Heisman winner during the preseason. I don’t make player predictions, so I had some fun and picked Stanford QB Kevin Hogan.

I thought I had some strong reasoning, but Hogan came no where near the Heisman conversation. He led a Stanford offense that made red zone stalls a season long habit. This led to a disappointing 8-5 season.

Halfway through the season, Grantland gave me a do over and asked for another Heisman prediction. This time I go with Bo Wallace, the quarterback of a 6-0 Ole Miss team. Part of my reasoning was his improved completion percentage the first half of the season, an oh so huge sample size to make a judgment.

I wrote the following about my Wallace pick.

It’s hard to deny a blond quarterback from an unexpected SEC contender.

Then Wallace had a terrible second half of the season. He couldn’t make a play in a close game against LSU, and Ole Miss lost their first game of the season. The once mighty Rebels lose two more SEC games before getting blown out by TCU 42-3 in a bowl game.

Don’t ask me about the Heisman.

The Ohio State season end surge

For predictions based on my numbers, I was disappointed to not predict Ohio State’s surge at the end of the season. Before the Big Ten title game, they were 13th in my team rankings. Their loss to a bad Virginia Tech team at home pulled them down.

Then Ohio State plays the 3 best games any college football team has ever put together. They become the first national champion in the playoff era.

Member predictions

Members get access to my best predictions for spreads and totals.

The member predictions with the most value are the college football totals, which were posted from week 6 to the end of the season in 2014. These predictions went 53.3% against opening totals (273-239-4) and 51.5% against closing totals (260-245-9).

However, these numbers do not tell the entire story. When the predicted total differed from the opening total by more than 4 points, the market total moved in the direction of the prediction 90.4% of the time (122-13, with two totals that didn’t move).

On average, the final total moved 3.5 points in the direction of the model prediction. Some refer to this as closing line value.

For the entire 2014 season, spread predictions for members were 50.1% against the opening line (367-366-19) and 48.6% against the closing line (357-378-8). Modifications will be made to this model for 2015.

To learn more about becoming a member of The Power Rank, click here.

Public predictions

On the predictions page, I posted a margin of victory for each college football game.

These predictions got the game winner correct in 70.4% of games (539-227). It’s interesting that my preseason model, which doesn’t use data from the regular season, predicted a higher percentage of game winners (71.1% on 482-196 with no predictions on the other games).

Against the markets, the public predictions won at 49.9% against the opening line (370-371 with 18 pushes) and 48.5% against the closing line (363-385 with 9 pushes). It’s tough to beat the markets on every game.

The public predictions will be reworked this season. There’s room for great improvement, especially since these predictions were 53.8% against the opening spread through week 8 of the season.

Playoff probabilities on Bleacher Report

Playoff predictions on 11-18-2014.

On Bleacher Report, I predicted which teams would make the four team playoff based on the committee rankings. To learn more about these simulation methods, click here.

Overall, I thought the predictions did pretty well. Mississippi State was first in the committee’s first rankings. However, my numbers thought they wouldn’t make it due to tough games at Alabama and Ole Miss. Mississippi State lost both games and didn’t make the playoff.

By week 12 of the season, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State had the highest chance to make the playoffs by my calculations. Eventually, all 3 of these teams made the playoff.

However, the predictions were off the last week of the season as my numbers had TCU instead of Ohio State for the last spot. As I mentioned earlier, it was difficult to predict Ohio State’s surge at the end of the season based on their previous numbers.

However, my methods also need work. I had no way of knowing how the committee would value a conference championship. For 2015, I’ll account for this in my model.

Even with this improvement, there are still human factors out of my control. Though the committee placed an emphasis on a conference championship, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby still presented them with co-champions in Baylor and TCU. It might make more sense to crown Baylor the champion as they beat TCU.

My other decent predictions

Some of my other predictions had the right idea but didn’t nail it.

Thanks for reading.

Finding value in win totals for college football teams in 2013

The Power Rank's preseason rankings give win totalsHow many games will your team win this season?

That’s a crazy question to ask before the season starts. So many factors, from Johnny Manziel’s legal problems to the emergence of a freshman running back, can impact how a season turns out for a team.

There is no way to predict whether the left tackle’s knee with go out 4 games into the season. Or whether the 5 star recruit makes an impact on the defensive line.

But we’re going to ask about win totals anyways. Besides, sports books offer odds on it.

Analytics reduces the uncertainty in college football

The Power Rank’s preseason college football rankings let us estimate win totals. Based on a regression model that considers past team performance, returning starters and turnovers, these preseason rankings have correctly predicted the winner of 70.5% of games since 2005.

The preseason rankings assign each team a rating, which gives an expected margin of victory against an average FBS team. Since 2005, a team’s preseason rating has been within 7 points of its final rating 72% of the time. Depending on your mood, that’s either a reason to jump for joy or sulk at the futility of trying to predict college football. I’ll let you decide.

The ratings from the preseason rankings also give a win probability for each game this season. Adding up these probabilities for a team gives an expected number of wins.

Alabama and Oregon have the most expected wins this season at 10.1. This should not surprise anyone, as these two teams are rated more than 6 points better than any other team in the preseason rankings.

At the other end, Georgia State is expected to win 1.7 games. Poor Panthers. Even though they play in the Sun Belt, it’s going to be a rough first year as an FBS school.

Let’s look at 3 teams whose expected wins in The Power Rank differ from the odds makers at Bovada. Only regular season games count towards these win totals.

Georgia

The Power Rank: 8.0 wins. Odds makers: 9.5 wins.

Georgia has 9 starters back on an offense that finished 3rd in the nation in adjusted yards per play. They should be best offense in the nation. However, the Bulldogs have only returning 3 starters on a defense that finished 20th in the nation. This unit might regress towards average.

No one should dispute Georgia as a top 10. My preseason rankings have them at 6th. However, win totals depend strongly on schedule. Georgia opens the season at Clemson (19th in preseason rankings). The odds say that Georgia has a 52% chance of escaping week 1 with a win.

Then South Carolina comes to town the next week, followed by LSU two weeks later. Along with their annual neutral site game with Florida, Georgia has only slightly better than even odds to win each game. Expect two losses in these 4 games.

Georgia also travels to Tennessee, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech this season. While the Bulldogs have greater than a 60% chance to win each of these games, a young defense could cost them one of these games. This puts them at 9 wins on the season.

Boise State

The Power Rank: 8.0 wins. Odds makers: 10 wins.

After an incredible run to national prominence led by QB Kellen Moore, the Broncos are in year two of their rebuilding project. My preseason rankings have them 27th, good but not great.

Their schedule is brutal since they play their best opponents on the road. My predictions give Boise State less than a 50% chance when traveling to Washington, BYU, Fresno State and Utah State. The Broncos only have a 53% chance of winning at San Diego State.

These five games alone should put the Broncos below 10 wins.

Florida Atlantic

The Power Rank: 4.7 wins. Odds makers: 3.5 wins.

You probably haven’t put much thought into the prospects of Florida Atlantic this season. And in terms of team strength, you should not expect much from Carl Pellini’s team. The Owls are 111th in my preseason rankings and must replace their QB and most of the offensive line.

But the schedule is favorable for Florida Atlantic. It starts with a home game against New Mexico State they should win. Then in conference, Florida International, Tulane and Marshall all travel to Boca Raton this season. Florida Atlantic will be favored in each of these 4 games and can expect to win 2 or 3 of them.

The Owls will also have a greater than 40% chance at Southern Miss, UAB and home against Middle Tennessee. They will benefit from playing in a terrible Conference USA East division in which 4 of 6 teams are ranked 98th or worse.

A terrible team can win 4 games in a division this bad.

Become a member of The Power Rank

With all the noise that comes with the preseason in college football, analytics can help you cut through the uncertainty. The Power Rank’s preseason rankings have correctly predicted the game winners of 70.5% of games since 2005. This general accuracy over all 125 FBS teams can help you find value in the market for win totals.

More of my analysis of win totals are available for members of The Power Rank. The sports books differ from my predictions on 6 more teams for the 2013 season.

Membership also includes access to my interactive team pages which let you instantly evaluate a game. To see how this works, click here.

College football’s incredibly slow progress towards a playoff

BCS is bad
Voters are really biased
Time for a playoff

Image for College Football Rankings, Week 14, 2011

With the close of the regular season, college football left its fans with another mess. The BCS, or Brash, Conceited and Smug, picked Alabama over Oklahoma State to play in the national championship game against LSU. In a system that only allows 2 teams to settle the title on the field, the Cowboys got left in the dark despite a 44-10 thumping of rival Oklahoma this Saturday. Moreover, there is no Rose Bowl consolation for Oklahoma State. Last year, undefeated TCU forgot about the inequities of the system after their Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The Fiesta Bowl won’t have the same charm for the Cowboys.

But Oklahoma State only has its own conference to blame. In 2008, SEC commissioner Mike Silve proposed a plus one plan, a four team playoff that would have given Oklahoma State a chance to play for the national title this year. Then Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe opposed the idea. Every college football fan in America would love to see Oklahoma State face Alabama while Stanford takes on LSU. The Power Rank gives the following odds for winning this playoff.

LSU: 49.4%
Alabama: 28.8%
Oklahoma State: 14.6%
Stanford: 7.1%

LSU’s odds of winning the national title do not decrease much from its 59.2% chance of beating Alabama, but the system also allows for two additional and deserving teams to crash the party. A four team playoff doesn’t solve all of college football’s problems, as the discussion would shift from the merits of the 3rd to the 5th best team in the country. Oregon, Boise State, and Wisconsin have legitimate arguments for their inclusion in this system.

Hence, a sixteen team playoff, such as the system proposed by the authors of Death to the BCS, would be even better. The bracket would include all eleven conference champions as well as five at large bids and offer potential first round upsets by teams like Boise State and TCU. It also gives the SEC the chance to show true dominance by placing 3 or more teams in the final 4. Since football is America’s sport, the excitement over this playoff would dwarf that of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The prospect of cinderella upsets would make even the NFL playoffs seems boring.

There are many reasons we won’t see this true playoff any time soon. We speculated last year that a sixteen team playoff would funnel a huge fraction of revenue to the SEC because of their recent dominance, an unpalatable result for Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany. But another reason surfaced from watching ESPN’s documentary SEC Storied: The Play That Changed College Football. When SEC commissioner Roy Kramer introduced the first conference championship game in 1992, everyone thought it was a terrible idea. Primarily, it put up one last roadblock to an undefeated Alabama team that could eliminate them from the national title hunt. As the championship game between Florida and Alabama unfolded, the Crimson Tide’s worst nightmares were coming true, as the underdog Gators tied the game at 21 in the 4th quarter. Only an interception returned for an Alabama touchdown broke the tension. ABC immediately called to schedule another championship game for the next year, and the rest is history.

Now, everyone universally accepts the conference championship game as a good thing. Even the Big 10 and Pac 12, the two conferences most seeped in tradition because of their affiliation with the Rose Bowl, have now expanded to 12 teams to stage a championship game. It only took almost 20 years to follow the SEC. Change comes at a glacial pace in college football. There is no hope for a sixteen team playoff after current BCS agreement concludes at the end of the 2013 season. But, we can get a little excited over the whispers about a plus one system in the next cycle.

Thanks to long time follower Fred Vint for this week’s haiku. He moonlights as a mind reader.

For more content, find The Power Rank on Twitter.

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Wisconsin as a 68% chance of beating Michigan State.

LSU, Alabama have a 70% of a rematch in the National Championship game

LSU, Bama
BCS tranquility
Seventy percent

College Football Rankings, Week 12, November 19, 2011

The insanity started Friday night. Oklahoma State, ranked 2nd in the BCS, traveled to Iowa State, and the game turned into a much closer affair than anyone imagined. Iowa State cornerback Leonard Johnson harassed Justin Blackmon all night, holding the Oklahoma State receiver to 99 yards on 10 catches. The road team Cowboys let the underdog Cyclones stay in the game with a soft defense and 5 turnovers. The last turnover, a Brandon Weedon interception in double overtime, led to an epic 37-31 Iowa State victory.

The insanity continued on Saturday night. Oklahoma, the 5th ranked team in the BCS, tied the game with Baylor at 38 with less than a minute remaining in the game. After the ensuing kickoff, Baylor played for overtime with a running play on 1st and 10. Oklahoma quickly called timeout in hopes of getting the ball back in regulation. This aggressive call backfired when Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin, an Olympic caliber 400 meter hurdler, ripped of two long runs to move the ball up the field. Finally, at the Oklahoma 34, Griffin scrambled left, stopped in the face of the Oklahoma defense, and fired a pass deep into the right corner of the end zone. The beauty of the pass was its location in which only his receiver could catch it. Oklahoma’s national championship dreams evaporated into the Texas night.

The insanity next surfaced in Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s head. Down 3 to USC with 2:54 minutes remaining, Oregon, 4th in the BCS, had 3 timeouts but 86 yards in front of them. Inexplicably, coach Kelly used only one timeout before the drive stalled in USC territory. No matter how well an uptempo offense works for the Ducks, two extra plays (3 if they didn’t take a knee in the middle of the field to set up the field goal) might have resulted in a touchdown or better field position. The field goal attempt sailed wide left, giving USC a 38-35 win. Oregon won’t play in the national championship game again this year.

The losses to 3 of the top 5 teams has prompted media outlets to apply the term “chaos” to this incarnation of the BCS. But chaos doesn’t apply when a region of the county just smiles at the sight of LSU, Alabama and Arkansas at the top of the BCS rankings. It’s BCS tranquility down south. With LSU and Alabama in the first and second position respectively, these two teams only need to win their remaining games to play in the national championship game. The Power Rank gives LSU a 77% chance to beat both Arkansas at home and Georgia in the SEC championship game while Alabama has a 90% chance to beat rival Auburn. This implies a 70% chance for a LSU versus Alabama rematch in New Orleans this January. While a fresh matchup might feel more satisfying, LSU (1) and Alabama (2) are both 5 points above any other team in The Power Rank.

Two other scenarios merit some attention. What if Arkansas makes good on the 13% chance they have of upsetting LSU in Baton Rouge? Assuming Alabama beats Auburn, this leaves 3 one loss teams in the SEC West. To break this stalemate, the SEC picks the top team in the BCS, expect if the 2nd place team is within 5 places, because then it selects the head to head winner between the top two teams. Make sense? Good, because then you can explain it to us. We won’t attempt to predict how the BCS will reshuffle these 3 teams in this situation.

Last, we consider an Alabama loss to Auburn, an event with 10% likelihood, coupled with an LSU win over Arkansas (87%). The second losses for Alabama and Arkansas would open a spot in the national championship game for a non-SEC West team. To calculate the likelihood that any team ranked 4th or lower in the BCS makes the game, we will assume each team must win their remaining games while the teams above them (except LSU) must lose at least once. The Power Rank gives the following chance for these teams.

Oklahoma State: 5.2%
Virginia Tech: 0.9%
Stanford: 1.7%
Boise State: 0.6%

Stanford has a higher chance than Virginia Tech because The Power Rank puts the latter at 28th, much lower than their BCS rank of 5th. Despite only one loss, Virginia Tech has squeaked by bad teams (Duke, North Carolina) in their wins. Needless to say, these teams have very slim hopes of playing in the national championship game. However, up to two of them could end up in the top 4, which guarantees a BCS bowl game and its hefty payout.

Have any scenarios that we’re missing? Please leave a comment. Here are some situations we considered but didn’t use above.

LSU loses to Arkansas, makes the SEC championship game through BCS magic, but then loses to Georgia in Atlanta: 1.4%.

LSU loses two games by the above scenario and Alabama loses to Auburn (This is the true BCS chaos scenario, since LSU, Alabama and Arkansas would each have 2 losses but SEC fans would still demand one of them play in the national championship game): 0.14%.

Rose Bowl consolation and an Alabama LSU rematch

LSU on top
Rose Bowl saves the BCS
Bama still in hunt

College Football Rankings, Week 10, 2011

Down 3-0 heading towards halftime, LSU had a 1st and goal at the Alabama 8 yard line. On first down, they ran the ball, picking up 4 yards. Tick, tick, tick, the clock went from 1:15 to 0:35 before LSU ran another play. They ended up kicking a field goal on 3rd down from the 2 yard line. In a game in which the Tigers hadn’t scored against one of the nation’s best defenses, LSU coach Les Miles failed to use his last timeout to give his offense another shot at the endzone. Poor clock management has plagued Miles in the past, particularly against Mississippi in 2009. It’s one reason why there have been questions about Miles’ job security as recently as last year.

Fast forwarding to the 4th quarter, the game was tied 6-6 with Alabama threatening deep in LSU territory. Receiver Marquis Maze took a direct snap and threw a pass that Alabama tight end Michael Williams seemed to snare at the 2 yard line. But LSU safety Eric Reid came away from the play with the ball, and the official signaled for an LSU first down. The replay (see 1:07 of this clip for the best angle) suggests that Reid had two hands on the ball while Williams hung on with only one as his body hit the ground. The play would have never gone LSU’s way if the officials had ruled in favor of Alabama on the field.

There is such a fine line between winning and losing when two great teams play. LSU ended up winning 9-6 over Alabama in overtime, and Les Miles won’t have to worry about job security until next year. The Tigers move to number one in The Power Rank with a 32.7 rating. No team in the last decade has ended the year with a rating that high except for Texas in 2005. And no matter how life threatening this loss might seem to Alabama fans, there’s really no shame in losing by 3 to the top ranked team, even at home. Alabama lands at 2nd in The Power Rank with a 29.2 rating, strength that will still have them in contention for the national championship game.

Now that the Tuscaloosa Tussle has given us a winner, the national championship picture becomes more clear. Only 5 undefeated teams remain, and The Power Rank gives the following chance that each end the season undefeated.

LSU: 76.5%
Boise State: 66.9%
Stanford: 44.2%
Oklahoma State: 37.8%
Houston: 29.2%

With Alabama behind them, LSU has the highest chance to run the table. The Power Rank thinks so highly of the Tigers that we only give 11th ranked Arkansas a 10.5% chance of upsetting LSU in Baton Rouge. But there are two ways to look at these numbers. Our analytics also imply a 23.5% chance that LSU loses at least one game. If they lose to Georgia in the SEC championship game, it sets up the awkward situation in which neither of the two best teams in the country win their conference. So let’s not hand LSU the national championship just yet.

Oklahoma State is first in line to play LSU in the big game, with a 37.8% chance to win their remaining 3 games. Then Stanford comes next, and their 44.2% chance to remain undefeated includes a game against Arizona State in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game. (Stanford might be behind Alabama in the rankings that determine who plays in the national championship game, but they are ahead of Alabama in the two human polls, and a win over Oregon almost surely gives them the strength in computer rankings to jump over Alabama.) The path for the Cardinal to the national championship game is simple: win the rest of their games and watch Oklahoma State lose. The Power Rank gives this a 27.5% chance.

But what if LSU, Oklahoma State and Stanford all remain undefeated? One of these 3 big conference champions will not play in the national championship game, which should shake the system at its core, much like when it left Auburn hanging in 2003. However, the Rose Bowl complicates matters. “The Granddaddy of Them All” has a special place in college football, and every August, Stanford fans dream about a trip to Pasadena. Last year, TCU got the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize for being an undefeated team left out of the national championship game. Their win over Wisconsin in Pasadena made the BCS seem far away, something the Fiesta or Orange Bowl just can’t do. This year, in the 12.8% chance that LSU, Oklahoma State and Stanford all remain undefeated, Stanford fans will raise hell and try to find someone in the law school to sue the system. But then, they’ll pour another glass of wine, return to innovating in technology and reluctantly remember the historical prestige of playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Chaos will melt into a lack of will to fight the system.

Things get more interesting for the BCS if Oklahoma State and Stanford both lose. Alabama and Boise State would be next in line to face LSU in New Orleans for the national championship. In the 16.6% chance that Oklahoma State and Stanford both lose while Alabama and Boise State win the rest of their games, who knows what the system will give us? Alabama, who has a 71.5% chance to win their remaining 3 games, and Boise State are incredibly close in the most recent BCS standings. For Alabama, the likelihood of a rematch with LSU all depends on how many other teams matter. If all the remaining undefeated teams must lose, then there’s a 5.8% chance of a rematch. However, Houston and their weak Conference USA schedule really don’t matter, which increases the chances to 8.2%. If Boise State doesn’t matter and only Oklahoma State and Stanford need to lose, then The Power Rank gives a 24.8% chance of a rematch. Alabama is far from out of the picture.