Annotated ensemble predictions for week 15 of college football

cfb_playoff_trophyIt’s championship week in college football, and the selection committee announces the four teams for the first college football playoff on Sunday. Will we see any upsets this weekend that alter the playoff landscape?

The numbers suggest we won’t see an upset with the top 3 teams (Alabama, Oregon and TCU). TCU doesn’t play in a championship game and hosts one of the weakest teams in their conference (Iowa State). Their 92% probability to make the playoff is higher than the chance for Alabama and Oregon.

However, we might see upsets for the next three teams: Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor. My calculations give a 81% chance that at least one of these teams loses this weekend.

These predictions come from an ensemble calculation that aggregates many different predictors. The predictions based on team rankings are only one factor in the ensemble.

The offense and defense rankings mentioned below are based on yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. All predictions and rankings are available to members.

Oregon over Arizona by 14.7

I understand Arizona has won the last two games against Oregon. And it’s easy to just look at head to head games and think Arizona should win again.

However, you shouldn’t emphasize head to head too much. There is variance in sports. Teams don’t always play at the same level every game. A better team can lose to a worse team. Sports would be much less fun if this didn’t happen.

Arizona capitalized on a +3 turnover margin against Oregon in 2013. This season, Oregon tackle Jake Fisher didn’t play against Arizona, and the pass rush affected QB Marcus Mariota.

The past will not matter once these two teams kick off the Pac-12 championship game. Expect Oregon to win.

Alabama over Missouri by 14.1

Missouri has the 5th ranked defense, and their offense moves higher each week in my rankings (currently 59th). However, they will struggle against the best team in the nation.

TCU over Iowa State by 26.3

These numbers do not capture motivation. I think TCU has motivation to win big to ensure that committee keeps them in the top 4.

Florida State over Georgia Tech by 7.5

Expect a lot of points in this game, as Florida State and Georgia Tech have the 34th and 73rd ranked defense by yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule.

Wisconsin over Ohio State by 4.0

This prediction has been adjusted by 4 points for the injury to Ohio State QB JT Barrett. Ohio State also has issues on defense as their 50th ranked rush defense faces Wisconsin’s top ranked rush offense.

Baylor over Kansas State by 7.0

Baylor QB Bryce Petty will play against Kansas State after suffering concussion symptoms last week. While Baylor’s offense will find it difficult against Kansas State’s 13th ranked defense, they should win.

Boise State over Fresno State by 16.1

The divisions of Mountain West conference are as lopsided as Eastern and Western conference of the NBA. The 3 best teams (Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State) play in the Mountain Division. West Division champion Fresno State, ranked 85th in my team rankings, has a 12.8% chance to beat Boise State.

How to understand the college football playoff – the thinking fan’s guide

thinking_fan_guideYou’re interested in this new college football playoff. You already know that a selection committee picks four teams for the bracket. However, the new system will have a greater impact on the postseason than just 3 playoff games.

Stewart Mandel, a former writer at Sports Illustrated who has moved to Fox, provides perspective on all the changes in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff. I’ve been reading Mandel for years, and I devoured his short book when I first learned about it this fall.

This past Sunday, I reread through some critical chapters to refresh my memory about the changes to college football’s postseason. Here are my take home points.

The committee does more than pick 4 teams

The selection committee not only seeds the top 4 teams in the playoff bracket but also picks the match ups for four other bowl games. These six games take place on New Year’s Eve and Day and are now called The New Year’s Six.

To fill these six games, the committee must first adhere to some rules. For example, the Orange Bowl must have an ACC team since the bowl has a contract with the conference. Moreover, the highest ranked conference champion of the Group of Five (those other conferences that rarely get headlines) is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

After these rules, the next most highly ranked teams in the committee rankings are guaranteed a place in the New Year’s Six bowls. Moreover, the committee picks the match ups for these games. Mandel has some examples of how this works in the book.

Let’s stop to appreciate this change. The teams that participate in the Fiesta and Cotton bowls this season are no longer selected through back door deals between bowl people and athletic departments or conventional wisdom about which teams “travel.” These bowl games now depend on merit as assigned by the selection committee.

The take home message is that the committee’s rankings matter beyond the top 4. A team like Michigan State at 8th in the committee rankings has a lot on the line as they watch others play this championship weekend.

The four best teams

Mandel has a great chapter on the selection committee in which he provides a bio on each member. He also reminds us that the committee has the stated goal of picking the four best teams for the playoff.

Now that we’ve seen the committee’s rankings for six weeks, that statement is laughable. The committee has sided with the four most deserving teams, and there’s a big difference between best and most deserving. Let me explain.

Most fans will agree that the most deserving teams have the best record. Football is a game of wins and losses. Those that win should advance. That’s why we begged for a playoff in the first place.

However, can we also define the best teams by their win loss record? Intuitively, the best teams should most often win bowl games. To test this idea, let’s ask how often the team with a better win percentage won a bowl game against a team with a worse win percentage.

My research shows that the team with the better win percentage wins only 50.4% of bowl games since 2005, a sample of 300 games. You could get the same accuracy in predicting bowl games by flipping a coin.

A much better metric than win percentage is margin of victory. Since 2005, the team with the better average margin of victory has won 59.4% of bowl games.

Florida State shows that committee is not picking the four best teams. The Seminoles have struggled this season, allowing weaker opponents such as Boston College and Florida to stay in games. They have won their games on average by 12.6 points, 20th best in the nation.

The committee has some grasp of the importance of margin of victory. They have Florida State ranked 4th behind 3 teams with one loss.

However, Florida State is one of the four most deserving teams since they have not lost this season. And I believe this is the right thing to do. But the committee should stop saying they’re picking the four best teams.

Follow the money

You might have heard about the insane amount of money that ESPN is paying to broadcast these games ($608 million per year). However, Mandel discusses other interesting aspects of the finances.

For example, the conferences that make the championship game get no extra revenue. Yup, read that one more time. The SEC would not get extra money if one of its teams plays in the championship game. I would imagine that the strongest conference of the last decade didn’t like this part of the deal.

Check out the book

You don’t need to search the internet for all the facts about college football’s new postseason. You also don’t need to bore yourself to tears with its Wikipedia page.

In his book The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff, Stewart Mandel provides much needed perspective on college football’s new system. It’s a quick read, and you’ll know just what’s going on this Sunday when the committee announces the four most deserving teams.

Annotated predictions for Thanksgiving weekend of college football 2014

Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy all the awesome college football games.

These ensemble predictions aggregate a number of different predictions based margin of victory, yards per play statistics and market data. The rankings below refer to yards per play statistics adjusted for strength of schedule by The Power Rank algorithm.

All of these predictions and rankings are available to members.

Alabama over Auburn 7.7

CBS commentator Gary Danielson said he didn’t like this Alabama team as much as past versions because they don’t run the ball well. Indeed, Alabama ranks 28th in rush offense compared with 6th last season.

However, Alabama does throw the ball well with QB Blake Sims. They have the 11th ranked offense and should enjoy an edge over Auburn’s 28th ranked defense.

Mississippi over Mississippi State by 4.2

I know this seems ridiculous after Mississippi got shut out by Arkansas last week. However, Mississippi had more total yards than Arkansas (316 to 311) but could not overcome 6 turnovers. Turnovers are mostly random. For more details, check out my guide to college football analytics.

Florida State over Florida by 9.8

Florida State would be 4-4 if they played Auburn’s SEC schedule. However, they should beat Florida despite facing an 11th ranked Florida defense.

Missouri over Arkansas by 4.2

Missouri wins the SEC East with a victory over Arkansas, while a Missouri loss gives the division to Georgia. There’s no line out because of the injury status of Arkansas QB Brandon Allen.

Arkansas runs the ball behind their huge offensive line on 59.3% of plays. However, they’re not efficient at running the ball, as they rank 51st in yards per carry adjusted for schedule.

Wisconsin over Minnesota by 17.7

Minnesota has an average rush defense, which spells trouble against Wisconsin’s top ranked rush attack that runs the ball on 67.5% of plays.

Arizona over Arizona State by 2.5

A rash of injuries might affect this game. Arizona State receiver Jalen Strong has a concussion, while QB Anu Solomon and a bunch of others are questionable for Arizona.

Ohio State over Michigan by 15.3

Michigan must run the ball against Ohio State’s 54th ranked rush defense to have any chance to keep this close.

UCLA over Stanford by 4.8

Stanford WR and kick returner Ty Montgomery won’t play against UCLA, but it might not matter if Stanford can score touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone.

TCU over Texas by 7.4

Texas brings the 6th ranked defense that’s particularly good against the pass, but it probably won’t be enough against TCU.

Georgia over Georgia Tech by 16.3

RB Todd Gurley gets the headlines, but Georgia features the 11th and 9th best pass offense and defense respectively.

Annotated predictions for week 13 of college football

I thought I would try something different this week.

With cupcake Saturday in the SEC, college football lacks many marquee games with playoff implications. One of the best games, Kansas State at West Virginia, happened last night (Kansas State won by 6).

Instead of writing previews of big games, I’m offering one sentence on a wide number of games. This is partially inspired Vox sentences, which has actually enticed me to follow the news.

The numbers below are based on the ensemble predictions that aggregate a number of different predictions. The team rankings based predictions are one of many factors that go into the ensemble.

I expect these ensemble predictions, which are available to members, to be more accurate than the team rankings based predictions.

Mississippi over Arkansas by 5.4

Arkansas might be 5-5, but they’re currently 14th in the team rankings (6th of 7 SEC West teams).

Michigan over Maryland by 4.3

The predicted margin of victory for Michigan should probably be bigger with the injury to Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs, their best player.

Stanford over California by 7.4

I don’t blame others for forecasting the end of Stanford’s golden era, but the Cardinal still have the nation’s top defense by adjusted yards per play.

UCLA over USC by 6.2

UCLA finishes the season against rivals USC and Stanford, and one more loss makes me 4-0 in my preseason win total predictions.

Tennessee over Missouri by 1.7

Missouri, which has a 30% chance to win their two remaining games and win the SEC East, some how features the 4th defense but 72nd offense in my yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule.

Notre Dame over Louisville by 4.9

Notre Dame has the 27th and 29th ranked offense and defense respectively, not much different from when I predicted the Fighting Irish wouldn’t make the college football playoff before the Florida State game.

Utah over Arizona by 4.4

Arizona has an 8-2 record but a 5-1 record in games decided by less than a touchdown, a statistic that strongly regresses to the mean in college football.

Wisconsin over Iowa by 11.8

Melvin Gordon gets all the headlines, but Wisconsin has the 5th ranked defense by adjusted yards per play after losing their entire front seven from last season.

Nebraska over Minnesota by 10.2

Nebraska’s defense dropped from 24th to 38th after Wisconsin gashed them for 9.8 yards per play last weekend.

Florida State over Boston College by 16.8

While my prediction that Notre Dame wouldn’t make the college football playoff looks good, I also predicted the same for Florida State. Oh well.

Predicting the college football playoff after week 13

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 9.52.14 AMWhich teams will make the college football playoff? How certain are we about these probabilities?

Each week at Bleacher Report, I publish my playoff probabilities and write about the story behind the numbers. Last week, the article had over 159,000 visits and 459 comments.

This week, we explore the following story lines around the college football playoff.

  • How did Mississippi State’s odd increase after losing to Alabama?
  • What is the probability that a two loss team makes the playoff?
  • Can Ohio State climb from obscurity into the top 4 by season’s end? We evaluate their prospects in the Big Ten championship game.

To play with the visual and read the article, click here.