Podcast: Stewart Mandel on college football analytics at the All-American

On this episode of the Football Analytics Show, I talk with Stewart Mandel, head of the new subscription college football site The All-American. He’s previously written for Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.

Among other topics, we discuss:

  • The type of analytics that will distinguish the All-American from other college football sites
  • The primary frustration that drove Stewart to this new project
  • The Power 5 conference that came in dead last in his coaching talent rankings
  • The ACC team that could challenge Florida State and Clemson in their division
  • How to pitch (and not pitch) Stewart on writing for the All-American

I’ve always looked up to Stewart’s writing and enjoyed our conversation about his new project. You can get updates on The All-American here.

To listen to the show on iTunes, click here.

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle.

The top 25 college football teams of 2017 by recruiting rankings

How much talent does your college football team have? If only recruiting mattered, which teams would contend for next season’s College Football Playoff?

Here, I use recruiting rankings to rank college football teams for 2017. Sure, recruiting rankings don’t always accurately access the talent of teenagers. Five star recruits fail while a three star recruit like Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman in his freshman year.

However, recruiting rankings look pretty good in the big picture. Matt Hinton showed that five star recruits have the highest chance to become an All-American, with diminishing chances for four and then three star recruits.

Here, I use a regression model to rank college football teams for 2017 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.

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.

Let’s count down the top 25 teams for 2017 by recruiting rankings.

25. Kentucky

The Wildcats had their best class of the past decade in 2014 (15th). These players should be seniors who take on a big role this season.

24. Nebraska

Mike Riley got the 31st ranked class in this transition year from Oregon State in 2015. Since then, his classes have improved to 27th and 20th in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

23. Michigan State

It gets more difficult to recruit after a 3-9. After 3 straight top 25 classes, Michigan State’s rank fell to 33rd in 2017. While they remain in the top 25 of these rankings, the Spartans take a fall from 18th last season.

22. Mississippi

With looming sanction against the program, Hugh Freeze could only recruit the 39th ranked class in 2017. It might be a long few years in Oxford.

21. Oregon

The Ducks had a miserable 4-8 season that cost Mark Helfrich his job. Then 3 Oregon players landed in the hospital after a workout, a poor start for new coach Willie Taggart. Despite all the adversity, Oregon still had the 18th ranked class in 2017.

20. Texas

Charlie Strong had three recruiting classes that ranked 19th, 12th and 13th. Tom Herman’s first class dipped to 31st, mostly because of its small size. Herman convinced 5 star defensive tackle Ed Oliver to join him at Houston, so expect his recruiting classes at Texas to get better.

19. South Carolina

In Will Muschamp’s first season, South Carolina’s defense improved but the offense declined. That makes sense given his defensive background.

18. Stanford

David Shaw got two of the nation’s top offensive lineman and the nation’s top quarterback to join him at Stanford. They had the 19th class by Rivals but the 3rd best class by stars per recruit.

17. UCLA

Jim Mora recruited a small class to land at 21st this year, his worst ranked class at UCLA. He has to wonder whether the administration is getting uneasy after two straight poor seasons, although an injury to star QB Josh Rosen hurt the Bruins in 2016.

16. Penn State

The Nittany Lions end the season with 9 straight wins before losing a tight Rose Bowl to USC. This success may have helped James Franklin land his highest ranked class (12th) at Penn State.

15. Miami (FL)

Mark Richt had an up and down first season at his alma mater (4 wins, then 4 losses, then 5 wins). An 11th ranked recruiting class should help him rebuild the program.

14. Clemson

The defending champions really shouldn’t be this low. Dabo Swinney had the 22nd ranked class due to its small size (14 recruits). They had the 4th best class by stars per recruit.

13. Notre Dame

A dismal 4-8 season didn’t hamper Brian Kelly on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame picks the 13th ranked class in 2017.

12. Florida

Will Muschamp had three straight top 10 classes from 2012 to 2014. Jim McElwain finally got this first top 10 class this year (9th) in his third class.

11. Auburn

Guz Malzahn only had the 14th ranked class, Auburn’s worst since 2009. However, he does bring in Baylor transfer Jared Stidham as his new quarterback.

10. Tennessee

Tennessee expected a great year in 2016 after two top 5 recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015. They managed a 9 win season but most feel they underachieved. Now Butch Jones has recruited the 15th ranked class the last two years.

9. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh has landed two straight top 5 classes, but Michigan’s rank of 9th shows the importances of the classes from 3 and 4 years ago. In the transition from Brady Hoke to Harbaugh in 2015, Michigan had a small class that ranked 49th. They only had the 31st ranked class the previous year.

8. Oklahoma

Bob Stoops had his first top ten class (7th) since 2010 this year. He always seems to have enough talent to contend on the national level.

7. Texas A&M

Kevin Sumlin doesn’t lack for talent in College Station. However, the Aggies haven’t been an elite, top 10 team since Johnny Manziel’s freshman year in 2012.

6. LSU

Ed Orgeron is known as a good recruiter, and LSU managed its fifth straight top 10 class. But can Orgeron, who went 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss, turn this talent into wins?

5. Georgia

Kirby Smart has shown he can recruit, as he got the 9th and 3rd ranked class in 2016 and 2017 respectively. But can he turn this talent into a SEC champion? The offense declined dramatically in his first year as coach, perhaps because he played a true freshman at quarterback.

4. USC

So far, it looks like I was wrong about Clay Helton as a lazy hire. USC won 9 straight games to end the season, and then Helton had a fantastic National Signing Day as USC surged to the 6th best class.

3. Florida State

Jimbo Fisher has never had a recruiting class finish outside the top 10 since he took over in 2010. With another strong class and Deondre Francois back at quarterback, the Seminoles will go as far as a talented defense will take them in 2017.

2. Ohio State

As long as Urban Meyer and Nick Saban remain at their respective schools, Ohio State seems destined to keep this second rank behind Alabama in these recruiting rankings. Meyer had a second ranked class in 2017 but only marginally trailed Alabama by stars per recruit.

1. Alabama

Over eight of the past ten years, Nick Saban has recruited the top class in the nation. With rising true sophomore Jalen Hurts as the quarterback, expect Alabama to contend for another national title in 2017.

Win probabilities for the college football playoff, 2016

With the field set for the college football playoff, these are my member numbers for the semi-final games.

  • Alabama will beat Washington by 9.1 points (76.1 percent win probability).
  • Ohio State will beat Clemson by 2.7 points (58.5 percent win probability).

For the championship game, these are odds for possible match ups.

  • Alabama will beat Ohio State by 7.1 points (71.1 percent win probability)
  • Alabama will beat Clemson by 9.8 points (77.7 percent win probability).
  • Ohio State will beat Washington by 2.0 points (56.3 percent win probability).
  • Washington will beat Clemson by 0.7 points (52.2 percent win probability).

A lot more analysis is forth coming.

Numbers for all bowl games are available to members. To learn more, click here.

The probability of chaos on championship week, 2016

Alabama, Clemson and Washington enter the weekend as big favorites over their conference championship foes. By my member numbers, here are their win probabilities:

  • Alabama has a 92.3% chance to beat Florida.
  • Clemson has a 79.9% chance to beat Virginia Tech.
  • Washington has a 72.2% chance to beat Colorado.

Still, it’s not out of the question they all lose. Assuming these games are statistically independent, you can determine this probability by multiplying the chances for the three teams to lose.

By my numbers, there’s a 0.4% chance that Alabama, Clemson and Washington all lose. Improbable but not impossible. This was about the same chance my numbers gave Clemson, Michigan and Washington to all lose in week 11 before it happened.

0.4% is also about the chance of drawing two Aces from a random deck of cards (1 in 221). Getting pocket Aces in poker is unlikely. However, any poker player has most likely had a night with multiple pocket Aces.

Don’t rule out the impossible.

How Louisville gets into the college football playoff

screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-11-02-33-amAfter a week of utter chaos, the committee told us they still like Michigan and Clemson over Louisville.

This isn’t what my algorithm expects from the committee. Usually, teams move down when they lose. Michigan lost in stunning fashion to Iowa but stayed at 3rd. Clemson had a similar loss to Pittsburgh but only dropped from 2nd to 4th.

The loser in these decisions is Louisville at 5th. With the strange behavior of this committee, I’m starting to believe that my 55% for Louisville to make the playoff is too high.

But maybe not. Louisville has to hope that Ohio State wins the Big Ten, which does two things.

  • Eliminates Michigan, since Ohio State plays them next week.
  • Eliminates Ohio State as another potential one loss non-conference champions looking to get into the playoff.

Then Louisville needs a two or three loss team to win the Pac-12 (Colorado, Utah, USC still in contention for the South), which would eliminate Washington from contention. This all assumes that Clemson wins the ACC Atlantic, denying Louisville the chance to win the ACC.

Still, their likelihood is probably less than 55%.

To check out all of my playoff odds at Bleacher Report, click here.