How the SEC impacts the college football playoff in 2014

sec_west_week11_2014After week 11 of the college football season, the selection committee for the playoff has only one SEC team in its top 4. Undefeated Mississippi State tops the rankings, but TCU jumped over Alabama for the 4th and last playoff spot.

Is the strength of the SEC finally catching up with the conference? After week 11, four of the top six teams in my team rankings hail from the SEC West. All 7 teams are in the top 20. As these teams beat each other up, it seems doubtful any team will have few enough losses to make the playoff.

However, the numbers suggest the SEC will most likely get 2 teams in the playoff. Let me explain.

Mississippi State at Alabama

Mississippi State has enjoyed a magical season in which they remain undefeated and QB Dak Prescott has shot up the Heisman polls. However, life gets more difficult as they travel to Alabama this weekend.

Alabama looks like the most balanced team in the nation. I rank offense and defense by taking yards per play and adjusting for schedule. Alabama has the 7th and 2nd ranked offense and defense respectively. Miami, a team discussed later, is the only other team with two top 10 units.

In contrast, Mississippi State has the 9th ranked offense but the 37th ranked defense. Quarterback Blake Sims and the Alabama offense should get their points against this defense.

In The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions, which aggregate a number of predictors, Alabama is an 11 point favorite to beat Mississippi State. The markets started by favoring Alabama by 7, but this spread jumped to 9.5.

The glory of not playing in the SEC championship game

However, a Mississippi State loss does not eliminate them from the college football playoff. They could still win the SEC West since Alabama must play a tough Auburn team in two weeks. Overall, Mississippi State has a 34.9% chance to win the SEC West.


But Mississippi State doesn’t have to win the SEC West. If they lose to Alabama, they will drop in the committee rankings but perhaps not too far. Remember, this would be their first loss, and the committee might keep them in the top 4.

If Mississippi State wins their remaining games but finishes 2nd to Alabama in the West, they won’t play in the SEC championship game. But this is a good thing. The selection committee drops teams after a loss, just like the polls. This means it’s bad to lose late in the season. Mississippi State can’t lose the last week of the season if they don’t play.

We saw this type of phenomena in the BCS era. In 2011, Alabama lost to LSU during the regular season and finished 2nd in the SEC West. They stayed at home the last week of the season but earned the second spot in the national title game over Oklahoma State.

Auburn at Georgia

The SEC East could also have huge implications for the selection committee. This weekend, Auburn travels to Athens for a game against Georgia. Both teams feature high powered offenses that should score plenty of points.

Georgia gets running back Todd Gurley back for the game. This is one factor that drove the markets to open with Georgia as a 2.5 point favorite.

However, you have to wonder how much impact Gurley will have when his backup Nick Chubb has averaged 6.7 yards per carry. Our ensemble predictions give Auburn a slim 0.5 point edge on the road.

Despite trailing Missouri in the SEC East standings, Georgia (7-2, 5-2 SEC) has a 49.4% chance to win the division. This probability will only go up if they beat Auburn in their last SEC game. Missouri (7-2, 4-1 SEC) still has 3 conference games, two against tough SEC West opponents (Texas A&M and Arkansas).


If Georgia wins the East, they will most likely be a significant underdog in the SEC championship game. However, Georgia almost certainly makes the playoff if they win the game. The current 15th ranked team in the committee rankings would have earned a top 4 spot, which will make it even more impossible for the committee to determine the top 4 teams.

Ensemble predictions

Here are a sample of the ensemble predictions I’ve been working on with Mike Craig, my partner in the prediction service.

The first number gives a predicted point spread, and a negative number implies a win for the home team. The second number is the total points scored.

Florida State at Miami (FL): -2.1, 59.1.

Nebraska at Wisconsin: -6.6, 54.9.

Michigan State at Maryland: 8.0, 55.3.

Rice at Marshall: -22.2, 63.5.

Indiana at Rutgers: -7.1, 60.5.

Memphis at Tulane: 10.6, 45.6.

Akron at Buffalo: 4.2, 54.9.

Missouri at Texas A&M: -7.2, 56.2.

Toledo at Northern Illinois: -1.0, 64.9.

San Diego State at Boise State: -15.6, 53.2.

Virginia Tech at Duke: -3.5, 45.4.

Texas at Oklahoma State: -0.9, 45.7.

Wake Forest at North Carolina State: -16.8, 43.4.

Mississippi State at Alabama: -11.0, 55.7.

Temple at Penn State: -13.3, 38.8.

Auburn at Georgia: 0.5, 66.7.

Ball State at Massachusetts: -2.4, 60.4.

Miami (OH) at Central Michigan: -11.6, 49.3.

Southern Miss at UTSA: -8.3, 47.4.

North Texas at UTEP: -1.2, 51.2.

All of these math predictions are available to members of The Power Rank.

Predicting the college football playoff after week 11

College football playoff prediction after week 11My latest projections for the likelihood that each team makes the college football playoff are up on Bleacher Report.

Each week, I take the latest committee rankings and simulate the remainder of the season. The method uses analytics to determine a win probability for each game and captures potential match ups in conference championship games. To read more on my methods, click here.

Over on Bleacher Report, I also provide analysis on the results. Here are the 5 hot topics of the week.

  • Alabama is still your SEC favorite
  • Ohio State shows the power of an upset
  • The pool of Contenders is shrinking
  • The lack of a Big 12 championship game is a huge advantage
  • Pac-12 bias on the committee

To read the article, click here.

Forecasting the college football playoff after week 9

Excellent graphic from Stat Milk.

What do the first selection committee rankings mean for the college football playoff? What can analytics say about the odds that each team ends up in the top 4 on December 7?

First, let’s recognize the limitations of analytics. Numbers won’t tell you how far Auburn will drop if they lost a 5 overtime game to Ole Miss this Saturday. I also have no adjustments for committee politics or how much Mike Tranghese hates the ACC.

However, analytics based on margin of victory and yards per play lets us accurately forecast the win probability of each game. With some reasonable assumptions on committee behavior, computer simulations give the playoff odds for all 25 teams in the first committee rankings.

To see the playoff chances for your team and read my analysis on Bleacher Report, click here.

Why neither Florida State nor Notre Dame will make the 2014 college football playoff

The Power Rank's top 10 as of Oct 16th, which doesn't include Florida State or Notre Dame.

The Power Rank’s top 10 as of Oct 16th, which doesn’t include Florida State or Notre Dame.

You expect the winner of the Notre Dame and Florida State to make the first college football playoff. It might be the easiest prediction of the season given their unblemished records and the recent track record of these programs.

Florida State won the national title last season and returns Heisman winning QB Jameis Winston. Only an incredible run of wins by Mississippi State has knocked them from first in the AP poll.

Notre Dame played in the national championship game two years ago. Now Everett Golson, the quarterback that led the Fighting Irish during their championship run, has returned after getting removed from school for year. Notre Dame seems like an elite team again.

The past few season has brought a return to former greatness for both programs. This visual shows a 30 year history of Florida State.

Florida State

The bottom panel shows a rating, or an expected margin of victory against an average team from The Power Rank’s algorithm.

Former Florida State Bobby Bowden took the program to incredible heights before regressing in the new millennium. Current coach Jimbo Fisher had the Seminoles on an upward trajectory before making a huge leap last season.

Notre Dame has also enjoyed some terrific seasons over the last 30 years.

Notre Dame

Former coach Lou Holtz capture the national championship in 1988 and had amazing teams in 1989 and 1993. The program went in decline after his departure in 1996 except for a one year blip in 2005 (Charlie Weis’s first year with Tyrone Willingham’s players). Current coach Brian Kelly had the Fighting Irish on the rise until a slight drop last season.

Despite this return to greatness for these programs, neither Notre Dame nor Florida State will make the college football playoff this season. Let me explain.

Florida State

No, my pessimism towards Florida State isn’t based on the high likelihood Jameis Winston gets kicked off the team. The news cycle has brought us constant stories about his problems over a rape case and whether he took money for signing autographs.

Florida State’s offense has been good this season. The Power Rank takes yards per play and adjusts for strength of schedule through a proprietary algorithm to rank offense and defense. These rankings put the Seminole offense at 6th in the nation. They might even be better, as this calculation includes the Clemson game in which Winston didn’t play.

Florida State’s problems are on defense. In the past two season, this unit has ranked in the top 5 by my adjusted yards per play. However, they have dropped to 35th this season.

There are many possible reasons for this decline. Florida State lost tackle Tim Jernigan and cornerback LaMarcus Joyner to the NFL draft. Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left for Georgia, who pitched a shutout at Missouri this past weekend.

The numbers single out the pass defense, which ranks 51st by yards per pass attempt adjusted for schedule. Florida State can’t generate a pass rush as they have sacked the quarterback on 4.2% of pass attempts compared to a 6% FBS average.

To confirm these numbers, I watched the first half of Florida State’s game against Syracuse. The Seminoles only pressured the quarterback three times on 18 pass attempts. None of these pressures led to a sack, although one did result in an interception.

With this struggling defense, Florida State becomes vulnerable to a few of their conference foes. (Well, they were also vulnerable 2 seasons ago when they lost at North Carolina State.) My best predictions at The Power Rank come from aggregating a number of predictions based on stats such as margin of victory and yards per play.

These ensemble predictions make Florida State an underdog at Louisville (44% win probability) and Miami (38%). Louisville has the 2nd best defense in the nation, while Miami looks strong on both sides of the ball despite 3 losses already.

Notre Dame

The Everett Golson story has been heart warming. The kid makes a mistake and cheats on a test. Notre Dame finds out and kicks him out of school, causing him to miss the 2013 season. Then Golson comes back and has led the Fighting Irish to a 6-0 record this season.

However, the numbers suggest that Notre Dame’s offense is not any better than last season. With Tommy Rees at quarterback last season, Notre Dame ranked 23rd in yards per pass attempt adjusted for schedule. This season, Notre Dame ranks 22nd.

On both offense and defense, Notre Dame looks the same as last season if not slightly worse. In my numbers, their offense is ranked 35th after ending last season 28th. Their defense is ranked 31st after ending last season 28th. For comparison, one loss Alabama has the 11th and 7th ranked offense and defense respectively this season.

In addition, Notre Dame hasn’t played any quality teams except Stanford. They beat Stanford when converted a 4th and 11 for a go ahead touchdown when Stanford coach David Shaw inexplicably rushed 3 guys (no, this Stanford alum is not bitter. Not at all.). Notre Dame also won a strange 31-0 game against Michigan in which they had fewer total yards than Michigan.

Even if they beat Florida State, Notre Dame will find their remaining schedule difficult. My numbers have them as underdog at USC and Arizona State, two teams that have struggled this season. They also have a slim 51% win probability against Louisville at home.


Notre Dame at Florida State should be a fantastic game. The environment will be electric, the offenses will score points.

The best predictions at The Power Rank come from aggregating a number of different predictions. In collaboration with Mike Craig, we use my numbers as well as data from the betting markets and other trusted rankings. This ensemble method predicts a 9 point win for Florida State, which implies a 25% win probability for Notre Dame.

However, these are not two of the best five teams in the nation. Florida State might sneak back into the top 5 if their defense returns their level of play over the last two seasons. The numbers suggest Notre Dame is a solid top 25 team but nothing more.

Expect neither Florida State nor Notre Dame to end up in college football’s first playoff.