Death star versus young Jedi, an Alabama and Clemson preview

deathstarCan Clemson upset Alabama in the championship game of the College Football Playoff?

It seems unlikely. Alabama is the most consistent, elite team in college football. Through both recruiting and weekly preparation, Nick Saban puts his team in national title contention year after year.

Some years, the Crimson Tide get derailed. It takes a miracle play like the Kick Six against Auburn, or an elite performance from Ohio State’s offense in last year’s playoff semi-final.

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.

Not many expected a national title for Clemson this season. They were ranked 12th in the preseason AP poll, as they lost most of their starters on an elite defense and had worries about the health of Watson.

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.

Can he blow up the Death Star and win the national title? Let’s look at the match ups and possible value in markets.

Alabama’s offense against Clemson’s defense

Clemson’s run defense had an outstanding game against Oklahoma by allowing 3.9 yards per carry. However, don’t expect the same against Alabama.

For the season, Clemson has allowed 4.6 yards per carry (numbers do not include sacks like usual college football statistics), 42nd in the nation. The rush defense is good but not elite, and they played one of their better games against Oklahoma.

Don’t expect the same type of performance from Clemson in the title game against Alabama. They face Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry in an offense that mostly runs the ball.

Overall, the numbers see a very even contest between these units. This usually implies Alabama will score about 28 points, the college football average. The Power Rank’s member numbers predict 26.6 points, a slight adjustment for the slow pace at which Alabama’s offense plays.

This number most likely requires a subjective adjustment for Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. The pass rush beast racked up 10.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss this season but hurt his knee against Oklahoma. Lawson most likely plays on Monday night but probably not at 100%.

Alabama’s defense and possible value in the under

Clemson ran for 320 yards on 5.7 yards per carry against Oklahoma in their semi-final win. QB Deshaun Watson contributed to this efficient total, as he broke off a 46 yard run in the second quarter.

There are two reasons Clemson won’t get anywhere near these numbers against Alabama.

First, Clemson hasn’t been efficient with their ground game. For the season, they have rushed for 5.2 yards per carry, 51st best in the nation.

Second, Alabama’s front seven is dominant. They have allowed 3.5 yards per carry (numbers do not include sacks like usual college football statistics), second best in the nation. LSU’s Leonard Fournette had 31 yards on 19 carries against this unit.

The numbers like Alabama’s Death Star defense to contain Clemson’s offense, as my member model predicts 20.2 points for Clemson. A predicted total of 46.8 suggests that under 50.5 (as of Thursday morning) has value.

However, the under doesn’t feel right in this game. Deshaun Waton is the best college football player in the nation not named Christian McCaffrey (no Stanford bias whatsoever). His blossoming talent gives Clemson a chance of blowing up the Death Star.

A few other factors go against the under. I mentioned the injury to Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson in the previous section. Also, Alabama’s Tony Brown is suspended for this game. The cornerback has a limited role in the secondary but has been making special teams plays all season.

Can Clemson pull off the upset?

It’s unlikely. The Death Star usually wins; they only make movies about the statistically improbable. (Cue Han Solo voice about never telling him the odds.)

A Clemson win wouldn’t be a fluke. My numbers make them a 6.4 point dog, which corresponds to a 32% win probability. However, Alabama will most likely wins their 4th national title in 7 years.

Computers vs human judgment in picking college football games

Since the beginning of the 2014 season, The Power Rank’s college football prediction service is 56.4% in picking spreads and totals (137-106-6). Mike Craig and I use a computer model based on my algorithm that makes accurate adjustments for strength of schedule.

However, we never only rely on computers and numbers to make predictions. We always consider subjective factors like injuries and situations.

This reliance on both computers and human judgment is reminiscent of the world of chess and a New Yorker article on Magnus Carlsen, the 23 year old World Champion from Norway.

Computers and Chess

For most of the 20th century, the Soviets dominated chess. They relied on “focus, logic, and, above all, preparation” to produce world champion after world champion.

However, they met a new foe in the late 1990’s: the computer. These inanimate objects are all about focus and logic. When computing power hit a certain level, computer programs could use brute force search to pick the best move. This led to the Deep Blue computer’s famous win over World Champion Gary Kasparov in 1997.

Nowadays, computers always beat the top human players. When asked what strategy he would bring against a computer, a grandmaster said “I would bring a hammer.” Computers are also a training tool for chess players.

But Magnus Carlsen is different. As he told The New Yorker, the Norwegian champion never trains with a computer. He admits to preparing less for tournaments and relying more on his judgment.


Predicting football games

Predicting football games is more complicated than winning a chess match. Players don’t occupy a square on a board. Football also adds the element of randomness, as events like fumbles defy any quantitative attempts to predict them.

This makes human judgment even more important in predicting college football games than chess. For the college football prediction service, we always consider subjective factors like injuries and situations. For instance, we needed to make an adjustment for Baylor as they will start third string QB Chris Johnson against North Carolina.

Both computers and human judgment play a role in giving you the best possible predictions.

Last night to take advantage of bowl season discount

The prediction service, which has gone 55.9% (66-52-2) in 2015, is available for bowl season. The price goes up at midnight, Eastern time on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015.

To take advantage of this early bird price, click here.

Study shows interim coaches have little impact on bowl games

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 11.00.21 AMIn an excellent article over on Sports on Earth, Ross Benes used my college football team rankings to study the impact of interim coaches on bowl games.

He looked at all bowl games since the 2005 season and split the 42 games with an interim coach from the remaining 295 games. He found the statistics of both groups to be roughly the same.

The Power Rank actually performed better in predicting the results of games with an interim coach (71% compared with 59% in games without an interim coach). However, this is mostly likely a fluke due to small sample size.

The study does suggests you can ignore coaching changes when predicting the winner of bowl games.

To read the article, click here.

The Power Rank 2015 Bowl Season Cheat Sheet


If you’re entering a bowl pool, you might be interested in the 2015 bowl cheat sheet.

The study by Benes uses my calculations based on points, or margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule. In the cheat sheet, I combine these predictions with others based on yards per play. The larger ensemble of predictors makes for stronger predictions.

These prediction picked the winner in 76.5% of college football games this season. In addition, I expect the results of the study to apply to these predictions: ignore the impact of interim coaches.

For example, suppose you’re trying to pick the winner of Georgia versus Penn State. Georgia fired Mark Richt and installed wide receiver coach Bryan McClendon as interim coach. Georgia also won’t have the services of either coordinator for the bowl game.

It most likely doesn’t matter. My bowl cheat sheet predicts Georgia by 8.6 points over Penn State, which corresponds to a 74% win probability. Go with the Bulldogs.

To get the 2015 Bowl Season Cheat Sheet, click here.

Bleacher Report college football playoff predictions after week 13

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 3.38.31 PMOver on Bleacher Report, I both predicted the committee rankings on Sunday morning and calculated playoff probabilities based on the actual rankings on Tuesday night.

This week’s most interesting team is Ohio State. The idle Buckeyes need help from others to make the top 4. I put some numbers behind the scenarios.

I also preview North Carolina vs Clemson in the ACC Championship and Michigan State vs Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game.

To read this analysis, click here.

Is Iowa safe from an upset against Nebraska?

nebraska_stadiumIt seems like undefeated Iowa should cruise to an easy win over 5-6 Nebraska.

Nebraska has had a nightmare season, causing some fans to call for the firing of first year coach Mike Riley. In contrast, Iowa has already clinched the Big Ten West and has cracked the top four of the college football playoff committee rankings.

However, my number favor Nebraska against Iowa on Friday. Let me explain.

Nebraska’s poor record in close games

Nebraska has lost 5 games by a total of 13 points. Randomness plays a huge role in a team’s record in close games, and this year’s Cornhuskers are a perfect example.

In their first game, BYU beat Nebraska on a hail mary pass in the final seconds. They had a 0-5 record in games decided by a touchdown or less heading into the Michigan State game.

Then Nebraska’s luck turned against Michigan State. The refs ruled that a receiver had been pushed out of bounds, which allowed him to legally catch the game winning touchdown. Nebraska scored a big upset over the Spartans.

Nebraska is a much better team than their 5-6 record suggests.

Iowa isn’t as good as 11-0 suggests

On the other hand, Iowa came into this season with low expectations. They received no votes in either the preseason AP or Coaches poll. This might seem irrelevant this late in the season, but the higher ranked team in the preseason Coaches poll has won 59.9% of bowl games since 2005. They are remarkable predictors of team strength.

In addition, Iowa has had 11 more take aways than give aways this season. Randomness plays a large role in turnovers, and the Hawkeyes are unlikely to continue to average +1 in turnover margin per game. QB C.J. Beathard has throw interceptions on 1% on his pass attempts, a number that will regress to the college football average of 3%.

Nebraska has a 53% win probability over Iowa

Nebraska will test Iowa this Saturday. Iowa is the better team, but my numbers favor Nebraska by a point due to home field advantage. The markets favor Iowa by a point, down from two points earlier this week. Both metrics imply a close game that Iowa must win to preserve its playoff hopes.