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.

Is Auburn safe from an upset against Missouri?

Before we dive into the SEC title game, the most intriguing game of championship weekend, let’s take a quick look at a few other games.

Check out my Google+ post on Stanford at Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game.

Does Duke have a chance against Florida State?

No. Well, it’s quite unlikely.

From both my calculations and the Vegas odds, Florida State has a greater than 90% chance to win this game. Duke throws the ball well, ranking 30th in yards per pass attempt adjusted for schedule. But that’s about it.

Can Ohio State remain undefeated?

Probably.

The Big Ten title game’s most intriguing match up is Ohio State’s rush offense against Michigan State’s rush defense. The Buckeyes rack up 7.4 yards per carry, by far the best in the nation. You don’t need schedule adjustments to claim they run the ball better than anyone, even Auburn.

However, Michigan State only allows 3.0 yards per carry, by far the best in the nation. This strength on strength match up will determine the outcome of the game.

The Power Rank’s team rankings predict a 4 point win for Ohio State while yards per play gives an 8 point win. This suggests the line that favors Ohio State by 5.5 is about right. The Buckeyes have about a 60% chance to remain undefeated.

Auburn is a traditional powerhouse

Before discussing the match ups in Saturday’s game between Auburn and Missouri, let’s look at the history of these teams.

For each of the last 30 years, the team history visual shows both wins and rating, which gives The Power Rank’s calculation of an expected margin of victory against an average team.

Auburn Team History

Auburn has been mostly successful over the last 30 years. This started with coach Pat Dye, who recently made headlines through his ignorant comments about Condoleeza Rice. He passed the torch to Terry Bowden in 1993, who did quite well before his team imploded in 1998. Tommy Tuberville took over in 1999 and peaked in 2004, the year an undefeated Auburn was not chosen to play in the national title game.

Gene Chizik became head coach in 2009. Behind stellar junior college transfers Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, Auburn won the national title in 2010. Then the wheels fell off the following two years. 2012 was the only year of the last 30 in which Auburn did not rate as a better than average team.

Guz Malzahn came back this season and has worked miracles. Most of us remember Auburn’s stunning kick return to beat Alabama in the final seconds of the Iron Bowl last weekend. But this event was much more likely than the deflected hail mary that miraculously fell into the hands of an Auburn receiver to beat Georgia.

Despite this luck, Auburn is a very good football team. They rank 11th in my team rankings with a rating of 18.2.

Missouri’s ascension under Gary Pinkel

Missouri does not have the same tradition as Auburn.

Missouri Team History, The Power Rank

Except for two good seasons in 1997 and 1998, the Tigers did not emerge as a consistently good team until Gary Pinkel took over as coach in 2001. Missouri went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl over Arkansas in 2007. That was their highest rated team until this season.

Ranked 4th in The Power Rank, Missouri is more than 3 touchdowns better than the average FBS team this season. The media continues to talk about whether Auburn or Ohio State should play in the national title game as if the Auburn has already won the SEC. Their rich tradition probably has a lot to do with that. However, Missouri should be the favorite in Atlanta.

Drilling deeper into match ups

By my offense and defense rankings by yards per play, Missouri has an edge on offense. They rank 11th in the nation behind QB James Franklin and RB Henry Josey. Auburn’s defense has been near average (55th) this season.

However, Auburn has a potent offense, ranking 9th in the nation. They primarily run the ball with QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. Auburn’s rush attack ranks 3rd in yards per carry adjusted for strength of schedule.

And rush defense happens to be Missouri’s only “weakness”. This match up visual, in which better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons, shows the adjusted statistics for Missouri’s offense against Auburn’s defense.

The blue dot for better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons.

Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons.

Members of The Power Rank have access to interactive versions of these visualizations for all 125 college football teams. To learn more, click here.

Prediction

While my team rankings predict a 3 point win for Missouri, yards per play gives an even larger margin (6) for Missouri. The Vegas line seems to agree. It opened favoring Auburn by 3 but has since shifted to 1.5. It should be a close game, with Auburn’s ability to run the ball as the key to the outcome.

Thanks for reading.

College football’s best conference and 5 predictions for Thanksgiving weekend, 2013

I was watching the Arizona State and UCLA game last weekend when the Pac-12 standings popped onto the screen. It said that Utah had 1 conference win.

One conference win? The Utes have only beaten Stanford?

Despite their 4-7 record, Utah is a good team. In their non conference schedule, they beat BYU and Utah State, team ranked 22nd and 47th in The Power Rank. In conference, they have played almost all opponents tough, coming within a touchdown of beating UCLA despite throwing 6 interceptions. Overall, Utah ranks 27th in The Power Rank.

If a team with one conference win ranks 27th, how good is the Pac-12 overall? The visual shows the ranking of conferences by averaging over each team’s rating (The Power Rank’s estimate of that team’s expected margin of victory over an average FBS team).

Computer rankings of conferences in college football, 2013.

The Pac-12 slightly edges out the SEC as the top conference. While this does not conclusively show the Pac-12 is the better conference, it does suggest the two conferences are closer than anyone thinks.

A few other insights from the visual.

  • How bad is the bottom of Conference USA? UTEP (121st), Florida International (124th) and Southern Miss (125th) are the bottom of the FBS barrel.
  • There is a clear distinction between the top 5 conferences and rest. The American Athletic Conference (formerly the Big East) does not make the cut… not by a mile.
  • If not for the brilliance of Florida State, the Big Ten might move past the ACC as the 4th best conference.

The Pac-12 has been remarkably tough this season. We’ll look at games with national title implications today, and none will involve a Pac-12 team.

Alabama at Auburn

Last season, Auburn did not win a single SEC game. This meltdown landed them 76th in The Power Rank by year’s end and got coach Gene Chizik fired, two years after winning a national title.

Former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn took over as head coach and immediately elevated this team, as Auburn ranks 17th in The Power Rank. Some programs always have talent, which makes a quick turn around possible. As another example, Jim Mora has performed miracles at UCLA over the past two seasons.

Auburn has only one loss all season, and a win over Alabama gives the Tigers the SEC West title and a place in the conference championship game. Can Auburn win?

Auburn has an advantage because of their 11th ranked offense based on yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. They run an up tempo spread attack that runs the ball on 69% of plays. However, they are also efficient through the air. QB Nick Marshall has led Auburn to the 14th best pass offense (yards per attempt adjusted for strength of schedule).

Check out this match up visual for Auburn’s offense against Alabama’s defense. Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons.

auburn_bama_Nov2013

Auburn has an edge in the passing game.

Members of The Power Rank have access to interactive visuals like this for all college football teams. For more information, click here.

Alabama is the favorite in this game, and this edge depends on their 15th ranked offense over Auburn’s 40th ranked defense. The Crimson Tide offense started slowly this season. Coach Nick Saban would get steamed each week at their poor execution. This poor play prompted me to predict that Alabama wouldn’t win another championship on Grantland.

But with each passing week, Alabama makes me look more stupid. They are clearly executing better and can throw downfield with QB AJ McCarron.

The line favors Alabama by 9.5, but my yards per play numbers predict a 3 point win. Either way, the margin is close enough that a few turnovers or big plays on special teams could flip the result in favor of Auburn.

Ohio State at Michigan

What will be higher: the win probability for Michigan (25%) or the fraction of red in the Big House on Saturday?

Michigan has struggled this season, losing 3 of their last 4 games. Meanwhile, an undefeated Ohio State creeps further into the national title game conversation each week despite their weak schedule.

Ohio State has a prolific offense, ranked 5th by yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. While their rushing attack behind Carlos Hyde gets most of the attention, they can also throw the ball well. QB Braxton Miller has completed 68% of his passes, leading the 29th best pass offense in the nation. They face a Michigan defense ranked 32nd.

Ohio State does not have such an elite unit on defense. Their 22nd ranked defense is good, but has allowed teams like Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern to stay in games. They face a Michigan offense that has caused their fans more indigestion than Uncle Tony’s nachos last Thanksgiving.

Florida State at Florida

Florida State has jumped to elite this season. The Power Rank gives them a rating of 36 points, which implies they would beat the average FBS team by this margin. Over the last 30 years, this puts them behind only 1995 Nebraska (41 points) and just head of 2011 Alabama (35 points, beat LSU in title game).

Florida State might not maintain this level with at least 3 more games on their schedule. But the Seminoles look potent on both sides of the ball. The offense and defense rank 4th in the nation by yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule.

Florida could stay in this game. Just like Auburn and UCLA, the Gators always have talent, no matter how many wins they have this season. Despite a rash of injuries, their defense still ranks 10th in the nation, which could keep them in this game. However, they continue to struggle on offense, with the 95th ranked unit.

Both the team rankings and yards per play predict a 25 point win for Florida State.

Texas A&M at Missouri

Not many people are talking about Missouri in the national title picture. However, the one loss Tigers will win the SEC East if they beat Texas A&M. If Missouri then beats Alabama or Auburn in the SEC championship game, the BCS title game either includes Missouri (potentially over an unbeaten Ohio State team) or excludes the champion of the conference that has won the last 7 titles.

The offenses will dominate the game between Missouri and Texas A&M.

Missouri has senior QB James Franklin back from a separated shoulder. Their 10th ranked defense faces a Texas A&M defense that has struggled at 92nd in the nation.

Texas A&M’s offense has been just as potent this season as last when QB Johnny Manziel won the Heisman. Both units ranked 2nd in the nation in yards per play adjusted for schedule. Manziel will look for redemption after a terrible game against LSU last week.

The line started at Missouri by 3 but has since moved to 4. Both the team rankings (10) and yards per play (6) predict a bigger margin of victory for Missouri, suggesting some value in this game.

Clemson at South Carolina

South Carolina could lose this non conference game and still make the SEC title game. They win the SEC East if Missouri loses to Texas A&M. Then there is the potential for a 3 loss team to win the SEC championship game.

This game should be close, as both the line and my team rankings predict only a 4 point win for South Carolina at home.

Thanks for reading.

Texas Tech stays unbeaten, and 2 other college football predictions for week 9, 2013

Before we delve into analyzing games, I have an apology.

Previously, I had reported that The Power Rank algorithm predicted 66.8% of winners in college football bowl games from 2005 through 2012. I made a mistake. For the last two seasons, I included the bowl games in the set of regular season games in which I calculated the rankings and predictions. Not fair.

I should have spotted the mistake earlier. I also calculated the prediction accuracy of the Colley Matrix, one of the computer polls in the BCS, with the same data sets. This method predicted 62.4% of game winners, a percentage that seemed high for a system that does not account for margin of victory.

The visual shows corrected results. The Power Rank predicts 63.4% of game winners, a rate competitive with the Vegas line but not quite as good. The Colley Matrix gets 55.1%, consistent with the results of The Prediction Tracker.

Updated results for accuracy of ranking systems at predicting bowl game winners.

Updated results for accuracy of ranking systems at predicting bowl game winners.

Again, sorry. Now let’s look at some football games.

Texas Tech at Oklahoma

AP preview states that Oklahoma ranks first in the nation in pass defense. Man, Texas Tech should have a hell of time throwing the ball against the Sooner defense, especially when redshirt freshman QB Davis Webb will start his 3rd game.

However, tradition college football statistics are stupid in so many ways. First, pass defense statistics do not count sacks as pass plays. As if the offense were running the ball, these negative yards count against rushing statistics. If you include sacks as pass plays, Oklahoma drops to 2nd behind Florida State in pass yards per game.

However, the biggest problem with traditional college football statistics is using yards per game instead of yards per play, a better measure that adjusts for pace of the game. Oklahoma’s pass defense drops to 5th in the nation.

The Power Rank adjusts these pass yards per attempt for strength of schedule. Oklahoma hasn’t played the toughest slate of pass offenses this season. Including sacks in last week’s game, Kansas threw for negative pass yards against Oklahoma. However, Kansas entered the game 112th in pass offense. Oklahoma has also played Louisiana Monroe (114th) and TCU (69th).

After adjusting for schedule, Oklahoma ranks 21st in pass defense, a solid but not elite unit. They face a Texas Tech passing attack that ranks 21st as well. QB Baker Mayfield should get credit for most of this efficiency, as the walk on freshman started until a knee injury against Kansas. However, redshirt freshman Davis Webb hasn’t missed a beat since taking over. In 2 starts, he has thrown for 6.9 yards per play against Iowa State (11th ranked pass defense) and 9.24 against West Virginia (49th).

Texas Tech also has a stout defense, ranked 19th in yards per play adjusted for schedule. This unit made vast improvements last season and continues to improve this season. They face an Oklahoma offense ranked 48th, a match up that favors Texas Tech.

Without any significant turnovers or special teams plays, my numbers see a close game that favors Texas Tech to win (yards per play says 5 points). Hence, the line that favors Oklahoma by 6 doesn’t make sense.

South Carolina at Missouri

A few weeks ago, I estimated Missouri’s chances of winning the SEC East over at Grantland. With the injury to starting QB James Franklin, I assumed their offense would regress towards average.

Then redshirt freshman Maty Mauk threw for 8.2 yards per attempt (6.27 average) against Florida, one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. Missouri’s pass offense shot from 42nd to 18th in my rankings. Can Mauk continue this kind of efficiency?

South Carolina’s defense adds another wildcard factor. This unit ranks 21st in the nation (18th in pass defense), but I have yet to adjust for whether all world DE Jadaveon Clowney decides to play or put forth maximum effort.

On offense, South Carolina lost QB Connor Shaw to an injury last week. They lose some accuracy when back up Dylan Thompson (57% completion rate) takes over for Shaw (63%). South Carolina’s 13th ranked offense can still lean on RB Mike Davis, who has gained 6.7 yards per carry. They face the 17th ranked defense of Missouri.

Yards per play predicts a 6 point win for Missouri at home, while the line predicts a 3 point win. I’m waiting another game to see whether Missouri QB Mauk can keep this offense ticking at the same level.

Abilene Christian at New Mexico State

Abilene Christian is a small school in Abilene, Texas, about a 3 hour drive west of Dallas. It is affiliated with the Churches of Christ and has just under five thousand students. Since you’ve probably never heard of Abilene Christian’s football team, why are they traveling to play New Mexico State this weekend?

It’s probably not for a payout. New Mexico State had no conference when the WAC disintegrated into thin air last season. They play as an FBS independent this season. Head coach DeWayne Walker found the job so stimulating that he left to coach the defensive backs with the Jacksonville Jaguars (no, the NFL has not yet kicked the Jags out of the league for sucking this season).

Abilene Christian is a Division II school in a transition year to the championship subdivision. I presume this allows the game with New Mexico State. Next season, they will play in the Southland Conference, which also adds New Orleans, Incarnate Word and Houston Baptist. Yes, those schools exist and have football teams. The latter two are 239th and 252nd out of 252 schools in my rankings.

Abilene Christian is much better, ranking 193rd, 17 spots ahead of New Mexico State. Both yards per play (13.8) and the team rankings (2.2) predict a victory for Abilene Christian. These calculations come from the 3 games they have played against FCS teams. Despite the small sample size, these games should reflect their best competition.

And, if you’re a really hard core college football fan, you can watch the game on WatchESPN tomorrow night at 8pm Eastern.

Thanks for reading.

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.