How to use the markets to adjust Michigan’s preseason rank

I groaned when I first looked at my 2017 college preseason numbers. The numbers spit out Michigan as 30th, too low in my opinion.

This low rank comes from two factors. The model uses a 4 year window of team performance, which includes two mediocre years under Brady Hoke before Jim Harbaugh returned as coach. Also, Michigan only returns 5 starters from last season.

However, one expects better than 30th from a Jim Harbaugh team. While past performance is no guarantee of future success, he did wonders with a Stanford program. Check out the visual at the top of this post.

To adjust Michigan’s preseason rank, I considered two factors from the markets.

First, consider Michigan’s win total based on their schedule. They have difficult, toss up type games against Florida at a neutral site, at Wisconsin, at Penn State and Ohio State. Suppose they go 2-2 in these games.

For the remaining 8 games, Michigan will most likely lose one game despite being a substantial favorite in each game. Football lacks certainty, and some combination of poor play and turnovers can lead to unexpected losses like Michigan at Iowa last season.

This gives a win total of 9 for Michigan in 2017, the same total posted in the markets.

In addition, Michigan is a four point favorite against Florida in their opening game. I used these two factors to adjust Michigan, erring on the low side for each factor. This led to a rank of 9th for Michigan in 2017 with an expected win total of 8.8.

The preseason Coaches poll also ranked Michigan 9th.

The 2017 College Football Win Totals Report contains my projections for all 130 FBS teams. To get your copy, sign up for my free email list. Enter you best email and click on “Sign up now!”

The one thing that will go wrong for Alabama in 2017

Alabama enters the 2017 as the preseason favorite to win another national title. Nick Saban’s team tops my preseason college football rankings with a rating of 22.7 points better than the average FBS team.

However, no college team does not have their problems in August. Let’s speculate at what could go wrong for Alabama in 2017.

How about an exodus of talent to the NFL? The first round of the NFL draft scooped up these players from last year’s Crimson Tide:

  • Cornerback Marlon Humphrey at 16th
  • Defensive end Jonathan Allen at 17th, who actually dropped significantly from the top 5 projection by experts
  • Tight end O.J. Howard at 19th
  • Linebacker Reuben Foster at 31st

Another 6 players went by the middle of the 4th round.

However, Alabama always loses NFL talent but reloads for the next season.

Let’s try again. Perhaps the offense stagnates under new coordinator Brian Daboll. This guy didn’t exactly light it up as an NFL coordinator, as these NFL rankings out of 32 teams show.

  • 2009, Browns, 32nd in yards per play
  • 2010, Browns, 27th in yards per play
  • 2011, Dolphins, 22nd in yards per play
  • 2012, Chiefs, 28th in yards per play

Since this meager run as coordinator, he’s been working under Josh McDaniels on the Patriots staff.

Daboll’s track record should concern Alabama fans for the upcoming season. But there’s another, much worse factor lurking in the background.

The one thing that will go wrong for Alabama in 2017 is that they won’t score 15 touchdowns on defense and special teams like they did in 2016. Fifteen!! That’s an insane number of touchdowns.

I broke Alabama’s non-offensive touchdowns into four categories based on this video.

  • 3 punt returns
  • 6 interceptions thrown right to Alabama defenders, often without much pressure on the QB
  • 3 fumbles scooped up off the ground by Alabama defenders
  • 3 deflections that landed in the hands of Alabama (interception, fumble, blocked punt)

You might want to give them credit for the punt returns. Fine, let’s do that.

The Alabama defenders barely had to move for those 6 interceptions, with the exception of Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick that he ran back over 100 yards for a touchdown. Can they get opposing QB to be this generous again in 2017?

As for the 3 fumble recoveries, analytics has found almost complete randomness in fumble recoveries. Alabama had good fortune in recovering those last 3 fumbles, and even more luck when those players stayed on their feet to run back for the touchdown.

And the 3 deflections are dumb luck.

Should Alabama be the top ranked team? Of course. Will they win the national title? The markets give Alabama about a 28% chance.

But will Alabama score 15 non-offensive touchdowns in 2017? No.

Alabama projects to win 10.1 games by my preseason numbers. You can get all 130 win totals in The 2017 College Football Win Totals Report.

To get this free report, sign up for my free email newsletter.

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.

Podcast: The Top 3 Stories From The 2017 Preseason College Football Rankings

On this episode of the Football Analytics Show, I discuss the 3 stories that jumped out at me when I first looked at my 2017 preseason college football rankings. Among the topics of discussion:

  • The factor that can really screw up my team rankings based on points.
  • The 3 teams that might have been one hit wonders in 2016.
  • The blue blood program primed for a rebound in 2017. Texas? Notre Dame? Nebraska? So many teams to pick from.
  • The Pac-12 team in the top 10 that could be overrated despite their strong past performance.

To listen on iTunes, click here.

To listen to this episode here, click on the right pointing triangle:

How Jim Harbaugh is like Mandy Moore

In the HBO series Entourage, Vincent Chase is the big movie star. He takes the leading role in the biggest Hollywood movies, then does what he wants with the ladies around town.

Then he meets Mandy Moore. They date twice. It ends twice, with Vinny on the break up diet of orange juice and crackers both times. Even the the most desirable people meet their match, and for Vinny it was Mandy Moore.

Just like Vinny, The Power Rank’s preseason rankings are typically stellar. Over the past 3 season, the model has predicted the game winner in 70.8% of games (1452-598 with no prediction in 235 games), a rate that doesn’t include cupcake games with FBS teams against FCS opponents.

Note that the preseason model makes these predictions without using any data from the regular season.

While I’m usually confident in the predictions of this model, Jim Harbaugh broke it this season. Let me explain.

The model feature that doesn’t apply to Michigan

My preseason college football rankings come from a regression model that considers the last 4 years of team performance, turnovers and returning starters. The team performance comes from my ranking algorithm that takes margin of victory and adjusts for strength of schedule.

Four years might seem like a long window to use, but college football teams tend to persist in their performances from season to season. Alabama has the tradition, financial resources and the coach to stay near the top of college football every season. Rice has none of these advantages to dig them out of the bottom of FBS.

Because of this 4 year period, the preseason model gives poor predictions when teams get better or worse in a rapid manner. To see this, check out the visual of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Stanford, which shows their rating, or an expected margin of victory against an average FBS team.

Any model that attempts to predict Harbaugh’s 3rd year at Stanford from the previous four years would underestimate the strength of that team.

For Michigan in 2017, the preseason model has the same problem. Harbaugh has been coach for two years, so the model still considers the last two seasons of the Brady Hoke era.

To make things worse, Michigan returns only 5 starters, the lowest in all of FBS. This contributes to my preseason rank for Michigan of 30th.

From following this team closely, a rank of 30th is too low. I’ll make an adjustment to this model before calculating a win total for Michigan in 2017.

Reasons for optimism

Beyond the clear problems of using a large window of team performance, a look at the roster gives other reasons for optimism.

Neither Rashan Gary nor Maurice Hurst, defensive linemen, count as returning starters. However, the two combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season, and both players have the potential to be first team All-American.

Michigan loses all of their starters in the secondary. While this would be a concern for most teams, most Michigan fans believe there’s enough talent to perform well in 2017. The same holds for the receivers on offense that will get the ball from QB Wilton Speight.

The big question for Michigan in 2017 is the offensive line. This unit struggled last season, making the NFL starters that Harbaugh and offensive line coach Tim Drevno turned out at Stanford seem like a distant memory.

If Michigan performs anywhere near where my preseason model predicts, the offensive line will take the blame.

To check out the full 2017 preseason rankings, click here.