Warning: Don’t think Michigan should be too big a favorite over Michigan State

harbaugh_streetsMichigan travels to Michigan State this weekend in a game with two program headed in opposite directions.

Michigan has blossomed in Jim Harbargh’s second year as coach. The defense has excelled as the Wolverines have dominated every game except Colorado and Wisconsin.

In contrast, Michigan State started the year 12th in the AP Poll but have lost their last 5 games. It’s not a surprise the offense has declined with the departure of key talent from last year. But the drop off on defense led by Malik McDowell has been a shock.

So what will happen on Saturday in East Lansing? As of Tuesday afternoon, the markets favor Michigan by 23 point.

This point spread is too large. Let me explain.

The curse of small sample size

Some type of analytics give a spread even larger than 23.

For example, consider my rankings algorithm that takes margin of victory and adjusts for strength of schedule. Using only games from this season, this method makes Michigan 32 points better than Michigan State. With home field for the Spartans, this gives a predicted point spread of 29 points.

However, this prediction considers only 7 or 8 games for each team, and it’s dangerous to draw conclusions based on small sample size. In addition, randomness can affect the margin of victory through plays like turnovers, as Michigan State has a -4 turnover margin this season.

To get a better assessment of the right point spread for this game, let’s consult other sources of data.

Adjusted Yards Per Play

At The Power Rank, I also rank teams based on yards per play, a powerful efficiency metric that captures the ability of the offense to move the ball and the defense to prevent this movement. The same ranking algorithm takes data from each game and adjusts for strength of schedule.

By adjusted yards per play, Michigan State ranks 38th in the nation. While not stellar, the Spartans look much better by yards per play than adjusted margin of victory (90th).

To explain the discrepancy between yards per play and margin of victory, we consult Bill Connelly’s data on finishing drives. By points per trip inside the 40, Michigan State ranks 94th and 89th on offense and defense respectively.

The Spartans haven’t been clutch this season. However, this could change any week, as an offense ranked 34th in adjusted yards per play will almost certainly finish drives better than they have so far this season. And the defense overall should be better than their rank of 62nd by adjusted yards per play.

Michigan is 5th in team rankings based on adjusted yards per play, and this suggests they should be favored by about 10 points.

Market rankings

The betting markets provide another way to evaluate teams. This year, I started applying my ranking algorithm to closing point spreads in the markets to rank teams. Just like with the team rankings, each team gets a rating that gives an expected margin of victory against an average FBS team on a neutral site.

In these market rankings, I weight recent games much more than games earlier this season. For example, the spreads in week 1 get only 3% of the weight of this past week’s games.

This bias should favor Michigan, as they have improved from preseason expectations. In addition, they got an extra bump last week as a 40 point favorite against an Illinois team starting their 3rd quarterback.

The weight towards more recent games should also hurt Michigan State, as the markets have adjusted to their decline. The Spartans would have been more than a 3 point favorite at Maryland last week if the game had been earlier this season.

However, the market rankings predict a 9.5 point win for Michigan at Michigan State.

Ensemble Prediction

Members of The Power Rank have access to ensemble predictions that combine the factors discussed here with other calculations. These predictions have gone 53.7% (217-187 with 8 pushes) against the closing spread this year.

My member prediction has Michigan by 10.7 points over Michigan State. That seems low to me based on the play I’ve seen from both teams this year, and I could see Michigan covering more than 20 points.

However, if you think Michigan will one hundred percent dominate this game, don’t underestimate the randomness of college football.

Michigan State might play above their true talent in this game, as Mark Dantonio hasn’t suddenly become a terrible football coach the last 8 weeks. Throw in an ill timed turnover from Michigan, and it could be a close game on Saturday.

3 overrated college football teams for 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 4.23.39 PMLast week, I wrote about a few overrated teams by preseason analytics over at Football Study Hall of SB Nation.

How did these teams do week 1?

Houston pulled off the upset of Oklahoma, so I’ve gotten some flack for including them in the ranks of overrated. However, we have much football left to play this season.

Michigan State struggled against Furman, as they beat their FCS opponent by 15 points at home.

Iowa did what they were supposed to do and beat Miami of Ohio by 24.

We’ll see how these predictions pan out by the end of the season.

The top 25 college football teams of 2016 by recruiting rankings

Nick_Saban_StatueHow talented is your college football team? If only recruiting mattered, which teams would contend for next season’s College Football Playoff?

Here, I use a regression model to rank college football teams for 2016 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 in 2016.

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.

Will these rankings accurately predict next season?

This article looks at the top 25 teams by recruiting rankings for 2016. Will these rankings accurately predict team performance next year?

Probably not.

The regression model is a poor predictor of team performance by The Power Rank. You’re better off looking at the year end rating from the previous season. (For you math types, the recruiting model explains 25% of the variance in team ratings, while the year end rating from the previous season explains 57%.)

However, I do have a better preseason model that has predicted the winner in over 70% of college football games before a single game has been played. This model drives my preseason rankings and win totals report.

This report, which gives an expected win total for each college football team, is available to people who get my free email newsletter. This is also how I give a sample of my best football predictions during the season.

To sign up to receive the 2016 college football win totals report (due out July 5th, 2016), enter your best email and click on “Sign up now!”








Let’s count down the top 25 college football teams by recruiting rankings.

25. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs will no longer have the services of QB Dak Prescott, who set every school record for passing. This will make life difficult in the SEC West.

24. Oregon

The defense has plunged over the past two seasons (35th in 2014, 74th in 2015 by my yards per play adjusted for schedule). Can former Michigan coach Brady Hoke revive the Oregon defense as coordinator?

23. Penn State

Despite a small class of 20, James Franklin still recruited a top 25 class for Penn State in 2016. And perhaps the offense will improve as they transition from pro style QB Christian Hackenberg to an up tempo spread offense.

22. Baylor

After ranking 40th in these recruiting numbers last year, Baylor jumps into the top 25 this season with the 17th ranked class, by far their best of the past decade. Then coach Art Briles gets fired and replaced by the uninspiring Jim Grobe.

21. Miami (FL)

Mark Richt, a good enough coach to not get fired at Georgia for 15 years, takes over the Hurricanes program. Always a strong recruiter at Georgia, he managed the 21st best class in his first year at Miami.

20. Stanford

Coach David Shaw continues to inspire a range of emotions in this Stanford alumni.

First, the Cardinal embarrasses Iowa in the Rose Bowl. The 45-16 victory had every alum dancing to All Right Now.

Then Shaw embarrasses the entire Stanford community with this reaction to satellite camps.

It doesn’t make sense for us to go hold a camp some place where there might be one person in the entire state that’s eligible to get into Stanford.

Hey coach, try not to make us all look like pompous asses.

19. South Carolina

Will Muschamp? As a recent SEC power program, you couldn’t find someone with more head coaching success?

Muschamp would have fared better at Florida had he found a player that could throw the ball with any accuracy. He needs to do better in the QB department to last at South Carolina.

18. Michigan State

Mark Dantonio turned the Spartans recent success into the 18th ranked class in 2016, a strong result for a class of 20 players. Now they must deal with the loss of the best QB (Connor Cook) and tackle (Jack Conklin) in program history.

17. Oklahoma

The Sooners seemed to struggle in 2014 to an 8-5 record, but they went 1-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They rebounded in 2015 with an 11-2 record and a playoff berth last season, going 2-1 in close games.

16. Texas

Can Charlie Strong find a quarterback? Returning starter Tyrone Swoopes will compete with Shane Buechele for the starting job this fall.

15. Tennessee

Butch Jones couldn’t do better than the 5th ranked classes he had in both 2014 and 2015. However, he did get the 15th ranked class in 2016 with only 21 players.

Tennessee will build on a program that played close games with Oklahoma and Alabama, both playoff teams last season.

14. Michigan

It seems like Jim Harbaugh’s team should rank higher than 14th after their top 5 class in 2016. However, the model takes a weighted average over four years that includes the 31st and 49th ranked class in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Michigan will rise in these rankings if Harbaugh continues to recruit top 5 classes.

13. Texas A&M

Is Kevin Sumlin an offensive guru? Or was Johnny Manziel just that good in college?

In 2015, Texas A&M had the 63rd ranked pass offense by my yards per play adjusted for schedule. Then two quarterbacks transfer during the off season.

Sumlin did bring in graduate transfer QB Trevor Knight. At Oklahoma, Knight won MVP of the 2014 Sugar Bowl when the Sooners beat Alabama.

12. UCLA

Jim Mora scored the 8th best recruiting class in 2016, tied for the best in program history over the past decade. They’ll need this talent to replace 8 players drafted into the NFL.

11. Florida

The Gators had a strong 10-4 season in Jim McElwain’s first season, led by a top 10 defense. However, the offense was a ceiling for this team, with the rushing worse than the passing.

10. Mississippi

How must Hugh Freeze felt on NFL draft day?

  • Crap, they lifted the ban on satellite camps. Now I gotta go work in June.
  • Well, at least Laremy Tunsil is getting drafted tonight.
  • What??!! He posted a video with his smoking of a bong on Twitter?
  • Well, at least my boy went 15th to the Dolphins.
  • What??!! He told everyone that we play our players??

Freeze can’t wait to get back to camp and take a look at his 7th ranked class from 2016.

The Rebels were one fluky fourth down bounce against Arkansas from winning the SEC West last season over Alabama.

9. Georgia

Can Kirby Smart take this program higher than Mark Richt? The long time Alabama DC has never been a head coach before.

Smart passed his first test by recruiting the 9th best class of 2016, including three 5 star recruits.

8. Clemson

The championship game against Alabama must have traumatized Tigers fans. The defensive line whipped a solid Bama offensive line only to see a stellar secondary make repeated mistakes that cost Clemson the game.

Still, a championship game appearance could only have helped Dabo Swinney recruit his second straight top 10 class. Expect Clemson to move up on this list next year.

7. Auburn

Will Muschamp had the defense headed in the right direction. After ranking 41st in 2014, Auburn’s defense jumped 19th in 2015 by my yards per play adjusted for schedule.

Former LSU coordinator Kevin Steele takes over the defense for 2016.

6. USC

One of college football’s traditional powers, USC can attract just about any coach to take over their program. They decided on OC Clay Helton, who has never been a head coach.

However, even Charlie Weis could recruit at USC. The Trojans had the 10th best class in 2016.

5. Notre Dame

Brian Kelly has done an exceptional job improving the talent at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had 6 players picked in the first round of the NFL draft.

The offense was spectacular last season (2nd in yard per play adjusted for schedule), but the defense needs to catch up (48th).

4. LSU

Les Miles hasn’t had a recruiting class worse than 8th the past four years, which leads to this lofty ranking. The tougher trick will be coaxing better QB play out of Brandon Harris.

3. Florida State

Jimbo Fisher has recruited a top 10 class each of his 7 years as head coach of the Seminoles. If he can get some solid QB play in 2016, Florida State will challenge for a playoff spot out of the ACC.

2. Ohio State

In August of 2015, Ohio State was the toast of college football. Urban Meyer’s team had won the first playoff, and he was killing it as usual on the recruiting trail.

Then in the most inexplicable game of 2015, Ohio State lost to Michigan State, a team without star QB Connor Cook. The loss cost the Buckeyes a spot in the playoff, and they lost 10 players to the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.

Now, heading into 2016, many believe that Michigan is a better team than Ohio State. I find this difficult to believe, and Ohio State’s recruiting rank of 2nd is only one reason why.

Full disclosure: I live in Ann Arbor and consider myself part of the Michigan family (although I may get booted this preseason). For the past three years, I’ve talked Michigan sports on WTKA sports radio.

1. Alabama

Over seven of the past nine years, Nick Saban has recruited the top class in the nation.

Michigan State at Michigan preview at Detroit News

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 11.01.32 AMLast week, I wrote a preview of Michigan State at Michigan over at the Detroit News. Michigan State won on a stunning game on fumble recovery for a touchdown on the final play of the game.

My numbers that favored Michigan win 9 points were off. However, I did think my analysis was strong.

The Spartans must throw the ball early and often. With a poor rush attack, they need to attack Michigan’s defense with Cook’s arm to score points.

Michigan will try to cram the ball down the throat of Michigan State’s defense. Defensive linemen Malik McDowell and Shilique Calhoun must play big to slow down the Michigan offense.

Cook kept Michigan State in the game with 7.12 yards per attempt against a great Michigan defense. Michigan State’s defensive line helped hold Michigan to 2.4 yards per carry.

To read the full article, click here.

Defensive line tips Oregon game in Michigan State’s favor

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 3.46.40 PMOver at the Detroit News, I previewed the Oregon at Michigan State game on September 12th, 2015.

Both defenses have issues in the secondary. However, I thought Michigan State’s elite defensive line would win the game for the Spartans. It was enough to overrule my numbers which gave an ever so slight edge to Oregon on the road.

The game couldn’t have gone better for me, as Michigan State won 31-28. If you give the defensive line credit for stopping Oregon on 4th and goal from the one yard line in the first half, I even got the details right.

It’s not always going to work out this well. But combining numbers with watching games is powerful in making predictions.

To read the Oregon at Michigan State preview, click here.