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.

The top 26 college football teams of 2015 by recruiting rankings

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

Here, we use recruiting rankings to rank college football teams for 2015. 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.

I developed a regression model that uses four years of team recruiting rankings from Rivals to predict on field performance. This on field performance is defined by the team rankings at The Power Rank. The regression model simply assigns a weight to each of the past four years.

Will these rankings accurately predict next season?

We’ll count down the top 26 teams of 2015 below. But don’t go telling people “ED FENG THINKS USC IS BY FAR THE BEST TEAM IN THE PAC-12.” Not true.

The regression model is a poor predictor of team performance by The Power Rank. It’s much better to just look 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%.)

This model will never describe teams like Wisconsin, a program that never has a top 25 recruiting class but contends for a conference title every year. It will also overrate programs (cough, cough, Notre Dame) that never live up to their talent level.

But hell, it’s fun to look at which teams have the most talent according to recruiting rankings. It will help pass the long 7 month off season.

Honorable mention

Wisconsin ranks 44th. Former coach Gary Andersen, who left for Oregon State this winter, lamented the tough academic standards that prevented him from recruiting some players to Wisconsin.

TCU and Baylor rank 37th and 40th respectively. Guess coaching matters, as these should be top 10 teams next preseason.

Missouri checks in at 32nd. Low recruiting rankings haven’t stopped Gary Pinkel’s team from winning the SEC East the past two seasons.

26. Michigan State

Mark D’Antonio has produced a mighty fine team the last two seasons despite mediocre recruiting. With the probably return of QB Connor Cook, the Spartans should still be a very good team in 2015.

25. Penn State

Coach James Franklin came to State College with a reputation for recruiting, and he seems to be delivering. But can he fix QB Christian Hackenberg, the supposed NFL prospect whose completion percentage slipped from 59% to 56% from his freshman to sophomore year?

24. Arizona State

Coach Todd Graham has elevated the level of recruiting in Tempe. Arizona State was outside the top 25 from 2009 through 2013 but has drawn the 20th best class the last two seasons.

23. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs had an amazing 10-3 year (well, they could have done better with a bowl win over Georgia Tech) and translated their success into the 16th best class this season. That’s their best rank since 2003.

22. Virginia Tech

Frank Beamer is still getting good recruits to come to Blacksburg? Virginia Tech was a perennial top 25 team in The Power Rank but have fallen off since the 2011 season.

21. Michigan

Michigan has had two successive small recruiting classes, which has reduced their team rank the past two seasons. When recalculating these rankings using average stars per recruit, Michigan ranks 17th.

20. Miami (FL)

The Hurricanes had a rough season. They ranked 17th in my ensemble rankings but finished with a losing 6-7 record. Al Golden recruited the 26th best class but 16th by average stars.

19. Oregon

Oregon always plays above their rank by recruiting numbers. However, 2015 will be a tough test for Mark Helfrich, as he loses QB Marcus Mariota and has many leaks to plug on the defense.

18. Mississippi

Two years ago, Hugh Freeze made a big splash on recruiting day by signing multiple five star recruits on his way to the 7th best class. However, he hasn’t been able to replicate that success the last two years. It remains to be seen whether their successful 2014 season was a fluke or not.

17. South Carolina

Steve Spurrier really had issues on defense this season, as South Carolina finished 37th in my team rankings in 2014. They didn’t finish outside the top 20 the previous four seasons.

16. Stanford

At least once during every Stanford game, I scream at coach David Shaw for some unthinkably bad decision. However, he wins games, and the 2014 Stanford team was much better than their 8-5 record suggests.

15. Oklahoma

In 2014, the Sooners won a huge bowl game over Alabama and entered the next season overrated. In 2015, they blew their bowl game against Clemson and will probably be underrated heading into next season. Bob Stoops continues to recruit at the same level, so expect them to challenge TCU and Baylor for the Big 12.

14. UCLA

The Bruins had a tremendous signing day, finishing with the 4th best class by average stars per recruit. Let’s see if this makes them into the top 10 team that people expect each preseason.

13. Texas

Charlie Strong recruited the 12th best class to Texas. This is a fine haul anywhere except Texas, a program that had one class outside the top 5 from 2006 through 2012 under Mack Brown.

12. Florida

It seemed like new coach Jim McElwain had a good National Signing Day when five star CeCe Jefferson committed. However, Jefferson still hasn’t sent his letter of intent, and Florida has the 23rd best class, their worst rank in any year since 2002.

11. Tennessee

Butch Jones recruited his second straight 5th ranked class. Perhaps Tennessee can finally overcome the curse of Phil Fulmer, the Hall of Fame, national championship winning coach they fired in 2008.

10. Georgia

Mark Richt always recruits well. That’s why he can find a freshman (Nick Chubb) to replace the best running back in the country (Todd Gurley) when he gets hurt.

9. Clemson

Dabo Swinney recruited the best class of his tenure as Clemson head coach (4th by team, 7th by average stars). With a healthy DeShaun Watson at QB for the next two seasons, the future looks bright for the Tigers.

8. Texas A&M

The numbers back up Kevin Sumlin’s reputation as a top recruiter. Texas A&M had its third straight top 10 class in 2015, a feat they didn’t achieve the previous 7 years. Now, they need to fix that defense that has stunk for two straight seasons.

7. Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish recruit well no matter the coach. However, their play hasn’t lived up to their top 10 recruiting rankings, even under Brian Kelly. Since he arrived in 2010, they have finished 32nd, 21st, 11th (reached title game against Alabama), 23rd and 39th in my team rankings.

6. Auburn

It should scare the rest of the college football world that Auburn landed Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. He was an excellent DC at Texas, and his reputation helped Auburn land top recruit Byron Cowart.

5. LSU

Les Miles had only the 13th ranked class by average stars. This is only the second time since 2007 that his recruiting class by average stars finished outside the top 10.

4. Florida State

The Seminoles had the top ranked class in 2015 by average stars. Jimbo Fisher needs some of these guys to step in on a defense that struggled this season.

3. USC

Did these recruits see USC get gashed by Boston College this season? And they still decided to play for Steve Sarkisian and his 9-4 record this past season? USC had the top ranked recruiting class in 2015.

2. Ohio State

For a team that won the first college football playoff, a 9th ranked recruiting class (10th by average stars) seems like a poor haul. However, Ohio State didn’t have one five star recruit on their offensive line that powered their running game this season.

1. Alabama

Duh? What did you expect? Nick Saban must be torturing himself because USC had a better ranked class (the first time since 2010 that Saban didn’t have the top ranked class by Rivals). However, Alabama still ends up at the top of these rankings that look at a four year window.

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.

sec_west_week11_2014

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).

sec_east_week11_2014

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.

Do you pick Alabama or the field? A 2013 SEC college football preview

SEC_win_prob_2013_ThePowerRankNote from Ed: This is a guest post by Chad Peltier. Raised by an Ohio State fan but a graduate of the University of Georgia, Chad spends his spare time uncovering the deepest mysteries in football analytics.

Despite Alabama’s past stranglehold on the SEC (and college football in general), the SEC should be home to one of the tightest, most intriguing races in the country this season.

The numbers suggest that Alabama should remain the favorite, but a crop of other teams will challenge the Tide for supremacy. Texas A&M – with or without Manziel – LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida all have excellent shots at dethroning Nick Saban in the last year of the BCS.

For more on how the win probabilities are calculated, click here.

Let’s break down both divisions, starting with the East.

SEC East

The front end of the SEC East should be extremely familiar, with Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina vying for their ticket to the SEC Championship game. The Power Rank estimates a 92.7% chance that one of these three teams will win the SEC East.

Florida

East win probability: 27.6% (3rd). SEC win probability: 9.7% (5th).

Will Muschamp will field a talented but inexperienced squad in 2013, which includes a devastated secondary (losing Matt Elam and Josh Evans) and linebacker units (losing Jonathan Bostic).

The bigger problem might be the same as last year’s team – the lack of any game-breaking offensive threats. ESPN commentator David Pollack questions, “Where’s the talent? Where’s the offensive talent? I can name three receivers from Alabama and three receivers from Georgia off the top of my head that would be the No. 1 guy for Florida.”

Much depends on Jeff Driskel’s development in the passing game. Senior receiver Andre Debose was injured and is now out for the season, so new wide receivers coach (and former Kentucky head coach) Joker Phillips has his work cut out for him.

Georgia

East win probability: 29.8% (2nd). SEC win probability: 10% (4th).

The Gators’ Cocktail Party rivals lost all but four defensive starters to graduation and the NFL, but it’s simply a matter of reloading the already stockpiled talent at Georgia. The top-end talent is unbeatable on both offense and defense at Georgia, but the question is whether the depth at a few key positions – offensive line, linebackers, and the devastated secondary – can handle the long grind of physical games against USC, Florida, and (potentially) Alabama.

Reports from fall camp suggest that the offensive and defensive lines are deeper this season, with veteran players finally joining the game rotation. The offensive line will be anchored by five-star recruit John Theus, seniors Kenarious Gates and David Andrews, as well as newly eligible Kolton Houston. Star tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall should have plenty of space to run behind this star line, while senior quarterback Aaron Murray will have the time necessary to target one of the deepest receiving cores in the country.

South Carolina

East win probability: 35.3% (1st). SEC win probability: 11.7% (3rd).

The final challenger in the East is South Carolina. Spurrier’s Gamecocks aren’t just a vehicle for creating Clowney highlights (though that wouldn’t be a terrible thing), but have been one of the most consistently good (but not great) teams in the SEC over the past four seasons.

Clowney loses his fellow defensive end Devin Taylor to the NFL, as well as four of five top running backs, three of the top four receiving targets, the top five linebackers, as well as the stud safety behind them, D.J. Swearinger. Spurrier has work cut out for him this season, but it’s impossible to discount how stable Spurrier has kept his Gamecock ship the past four seasons.

Rest of SEC East

Missouri and Tennessee look fairly similar as middle-of-the-road teams on paper. Tennessee first year head coach Butch Jones will attempt to find the cure for the Volunteers poor turnover margin the past few seasons. Missouri must turn its penchant for explosive plays in to some measure of offensive consistency. Dorial Green-Beckham will pace a deep receiving core that will attempt to reclaim the numbers from when Missouri was in the Big 12. Missouri and Tennessee have a slim chance to win the SEC based upon The Power Rank estimates, with a .5% and .4% win probability overall and a 3.4% and 2.8% chance to win the East respectively.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s already poor run defense will be hurt by the loss of the top three defensive tackles. Coach James Franklin has Vanderbilt playing its best football in the history of the program. But this is a critical year as Vanderbilt attempts to break out of the SEC cellar and into the middle of the road group of SEC teams. This is likely not the Commodores year, with a .1% win probability for the SEC and just a 1% chance of winning the East.

First year coach Mark Stoops has his work cut out for him at Kentucky, the reigning basement dweller in the SEC. UK brings a legacy of both underdeveloped and shallow depth as well as a negative turnover margin that will likely frustrate Kentucky fans until Stoops’ surprisingly good recruiting classes get on campus next year. Kentucky has close to no chance of winning the SEC (0.0%) and only a .1% chance of winning the East.

SEC West

While the SEC East is fairly evenly divided between great, middle, and poor teams, the West is more stratified. The top three overall SEC teams should reside in the West, including Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU. However, Ole Miss is certainly doing its best to enter this group under second year head coach Hugh Freeze.

Alabama

West win probability: 62.2% (1st). SEC win probability: 46.7% (1st).

Alabama remains the obvious leader of the Western triumvirate, but it is nonetheless striking how dominant the numbers suggest that the Tide will be in 2013. In The Power Rank’s preseason rankings, the margin between the Tide and the second ranked Aggies (7.5 points) is larger than the difference between the second and seventh-ranked SEC teams (4.8 points).

QB AJ McCarron led one of the most surprisingly efficient offenses in the country. He only threw three interceptions while remaining explosive with receivers Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell, and Kevin Norwood and freshman running back TJ Yeldon. The offense should improve even further in 2013 behind McCarron’s experience and the addition of new threats Robert Foster, Altee Tenpenny, and Derrick Henry.

If there are any areas for concern for Alabama this season, the offensive line does lose its top three (All-American) linemen and hasn’t recruited quite as deeply as we might expect. Many of offensive line coach Mario Cristoball’s players are former three-star recruits that will be pressed in to action this season. Traditionally strong defensive lines at LSU and Georgia, as well as the surprisingly talented Ole Miss line could give the Tide trouble.

With the graduation of Dee Milliner and the Geno Smith’s arrest, Alabama has another pressure point at cornerback. However, the offensive line and cornerback positions are still more solid than many of the other top-10 teams. Alabama has a realistic shot at perfection once again behind a forgiving schedule.

Texas A&M

West win probability: 22.7% (2nd). SEC win probability: 13.7% (2nd).

This was an offseason controlled by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel story-lines, but coach Kevin Sumlin has brought steady growth and consistently entertaining offenses to College Station that justify (most of) the hype.

Interestingly enough, Texas A&M has improved despite its atrocious turnover margin, which has been in the red since the 2007 season.

If anything might derail the Aggies’ ascent to the college football elite, it might be heavy personnel turnover and limited depth. Sumlin can claim the worst personnel turnover in the SEC, with heavy losses at offensive line, linebacker, and defensive line.

The key to 2013 will be the ability of incoming freshmen to fill the holes in the front seven to stop the rush attacks of LSU, and Alabama.

LSU

West win probability: 8.5% (3rd). SEC win probability: 4.6% (6th).

LSU’s season will be built on senior QB Zach Mettenberger, who hasn’t quite exploited his NFL-quality arm in his short starting career. LSU has been consistently good, but only elite in 2011 behind two senior quarterbacks and a dominant defensive line.

The Tigers are hurt by the departures of DE Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, but high-quality recruits should emerge to take the mantle.

With a 4.6% probability of winning the SEC and 8.5% chance at the Western title, the Tigers are just the sixth most likely to take home the SEC title. LSU probably doesn’t have the stars to dethrone Alabama this season, but its defensive line should match up well with the Tide’s offense to make things interesting.

Ole Miss

West win probability: 6% (4th). SEC win probability: 2.7% (7th).

Ole Miss should be one of the most interesting teams to follow in 2013, with the allure of a still new head coach and an exciting offense. Plus, the Rebels welcome a stellar class of young recruits (including the top overall freshman Robert Nkemdiche, five star receiver Laquon Treadwell, and top offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil), and return a defensive line that has the talent (if not depth) to compete with the top offensive lines in the SEC.

The key for Coach Freeze is depth in 2013, as quality depth helps to create consistency. There is perhaps no team in the SEC that is more in need of consistency than the Rebels, who have fielded drastically different teams for the past five years. In fact, the only thing consistent about the Rebels has been their poor turnover margin, which has been negative for the past four seasons.

If Freeze can bring any measure of consistency to the program, then Ole Miss should have a 2.7% of capturing the SEC crown and a 6% shot at the Western title. Ole Miss is just outside the “good” group of SEC teams, with almost the same chance to be the Western representative as LSU.

Rest of SEC West

Auburn, Mississippi State, and Arkansas make up the bottom tier of the West and the SEC as a whole. All had down years in 2012 and shared terrible turnover margins, but things might get worse before they get better for both Arkansas and Mississippi State. These two teams have almost no chance at the SEC title and only a .1% probability of winning the West. Dan Mullen has one of the more difficult jobs in the country, competing in the loaded SEC West and now vying with resurgent instate rival Ole Miss.

Auburn, on the other hand, benefits from a wealth of returning starters and the relative familiarity of first year head coach Gus Malzhan’s offense. Auburn’s team culture suffered heavily under Chizik’s staff, with the team not buying in or giving full effort commensurate with the talent levels on the field. With the Tigers’ talent, new team ethos, and new offensive system, the Tigers should rejoin the good or at least middle-pack teams in the SEC this season. New first string quarterback Nick Marshall will determine Auburn’s ceiling this year, but Auburn still just has a .3% probability of winning the West (.1% overall).

Overview

Between new head coaches at Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee, the relative parity between Georgia, Florida, LSU, USC, and Texas A&M, and the stellar recruiting classes, the SEC races will be exciting in 2013.

Besides the (fairly) easy pick for Alabama to return to the SEC Championship, it’s difficult to pick an eastern representative between Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. As of now, an Alabama-South Carolina bout or Georgia-Alabama rematch is the most probable outcome, but the margins are extremely slim.

As for the eventual SEC champion, we return to our original question: Alabama or the remaining 13 SEC teams?

Take the field. At 53%, the odds are in your favor.