Bracket Wisdom #2: The one thing you must get right

You got the memo on using analytics to predict the NCAA tournament. You’re ready to win.

Not so fast. If you get this one thing wrong, you might as well light your entry fee on fire. I explain with an analogy using Steph Curry.

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3 insights from college football playoff probabilities for 2019

To listen, click on the right pointing triangle. You can also read the written version of this episode below.

The second rankings for the college football playoff committee came out this week. The results included:

  • LSU takes over the top spot with their big win over Alabama
  • Georgia sneaks into the top four
  • Minnesota rockets all the way up to 8th

Most people will give you their pick for the four teams to make the college football playoff. However, there is too much randomness in college football for certainty about any four teams.

Instead, I’ll use these rankings and my best college football predictions to assign a probability to the top contenders for the playoff. Here are the numbers for the primary contenders.

1. Clemson, 87.8%
2. Ohio State, 72.8%
3. LSU, 61.8%
4. Utah, 39.9%
5. Oklahoma, 35.1%
6. Oregon, 34.8%
7. Alabama, 23.0%
8. Georgia, 19.2%
9. Penn State, 6.8%
10. Florida, 6.2%
11. Wisconsin, 4.9%
12. Minnesota, 2.4%
13. Auburn, 2.2%
14. Baylor, 1.4%
15. Notre Dame, 1.1%
16. Michigan, 0.2%
17. Texas, 0.1%
18. Iowa, 0.1%

In this article, let’s look at three storylines from these numbers.


Despite being 3rd in the latest committee rankings, Clemson has the best chance to make the playoff at 88%.

This might be surprising, as Clemson has struggled this year. For example, they almost lost at North Carolina earlier this season.

However, Clemson has the best chance to make the playoff because of their schedule. They finish the season with Wake Forest at home and then at South Carolina, who will start a freshman at QB for the injured Jake Bentley.

In the ACC championship game, Clemson will most likely play Virginia (76% chance by my numbers). At this point, my numbers would make them an 18 point favorite in that game.

Most likely, Clemson wins the ACC and makes the college football playoff. It’s the schedule that makes them such a prohibitive favorite.

But let’s dig deeper into Clemson. Are they as strong as last year when they won the college football playoff?

The offense has been good, but not great. To measure this, let’s look at success rate. A play is a success if the offense gains at least:

  • 50% of the necessary yards on 1st down
  • 70% on the necessary yards 2nd down
  • all the necessary yards on 3rd and 4th down

I take the success rate and adjust for strength of schedule with my algorithms.

On offense, Clemson ranks 17th in adjusted success rate. They seem to struggle with the passing game, as they rank 45th in my passing success rate adjusted for schedule.

These numbers depend on sophomore QB Trevor Lawrence. He led Clemson to a national championship last year as a true freshman, and he can’t enter the NFL draft next year. Perhaps a sophomore slump is inevitable?

The criticism of Lawrence has focused on turnovers. He has thrown eight interceptions this year, double his total from last season.

However, other numbers suggest that he has improved this season. For example, his completion percentage has gone from 65% last year to 67% this year.

In addition, we can also look at his grades given by Pro Football Focus. They have multiple people evaluate each play, and this analysis gives a QB credit for making difficult throws but penalizes him for missing easy throws or almost throwing an interception. By these PFF grades, Trevor Lawrence has actually graded out better this year than he did last year.

What about the Clemson defense? This preseason, it was reasonable to expect regression for this unit as they lost their entire defensive line. In addition, three of these linemen went in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft.

However, despite losses to the NFL, DC Brent Venables has had Clemson in the top 10 by my adjusted yards per play each of the past 5 season. This is season is no different, as Clemson ranks 1st in the nation by this metric. In adjusted success rate, they ranked sixth in the nation.

Most likely, there is nothing wrong with Clemson. They will not only make the playoff but contend for another national championship.

The Pac-12 conference

Washington made the college football playoff from the Pac-12 in 2016. However, the conference hasn’t put a team in playoff contention the past two seasons.

The conference must be thrilled to have not one but two teams in playoff contention in 2019. The most recent committee rankings have Oregon at 6th and Utah at 7th. Both of these teams have one loss.

Oregon started their season with a loss to Auburn. They have recovered since then, and they notched a signature win at Washington, a program that has dominated the Pac-12 North.

How has Oregon moved themselves into playoff contention? In the beginning of the season, it was the defense that surged. Over the course of the season, they rank 14th in my adjusted success rate.

More recently, the offense with NFL QB prospect Justin Herbert has excelled as well. The offense ranks 18th in my adjusted success rate, as they had an excellent game in a 56-24 beatdown at USC.

But in the Pac-12, let’s not forget about Utah. They tripped up earlier this season at USC, when the defense allowed 11 yards per pass attempt. However, this was their only poor game. Two weeks ago, Utah traveled to Washington and got a critical road win.

Just like Oregon, Utah looks really good on both sides of the ball. On offense, they rank 18th in my adjusted success rate. The strength of the offense has been the passing game. QB Tyler Huntley has increased his completion percentage from 64% last year to 74% this year.

On defense, Utah ranks a very respectable 7th in adjusted success rate. Despite giving up big plays against USC, Utah allowed a success rate of 44% in that game. This is not much higher than the college football average of 42%.

In addition, success rate is a powerful predictor going forward. Bill Connelly of ESPN did the initial research on this, and I confirmed it based on results from the 2019 season. Utah’s defense is legit despite an off game against USC.

Will Oregon or Utah emerge from the Pac-12? My numbers would favor Utah by 1.5 in the conference championship game over Oregon. Despite being behind Oregon in the playoff committee rankings, Utah (40%) has a better chance to make it than Oregon (35%).

In addition, a one loss Pac-12 champion is certainly in the conversation to make the playoff. While there is no certainty, my numbers give a three and four chance that a Pac-12 team make the playoff, consistent with the sum of the odds for Utah and Oregon.

This chance might seem a little high as Oregon and Utah are both a few spots away from the fourth and final spot in the playoff. However, there are still many games to play, as Georgia and LSU, two teams ahead of the Pac-12 duo, most likely meet in SEC championship game.

In addition, the playoff committee gives a bonus for conference championships and moves these teams ahead of teams that don’t play for a conference title. For example, assume Utah beats Oregon as a one loss Pac-12 champ. Alabama might be ahead of them in the rankings, but Utah probably jumps over Alabama team based on their conference title.


With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, South Dakota State had a 21-20 lead on Minnesota. With the ball, the underdog Jackrabbits needed another score or maybe just a long drive to pull off the upset.

However, South Dakota State fumbled in their own territory. Minnesota recovered the ball 34 yards from the end zone, and they scored a go ahead touchdown and won the game.

It was quite a stroke of luck, as South Dakota State had more yards and better efficiency by yards per play than Minnesota in that game. Had South Dakota State pulled off the win, Minnesota would not be undefeated and most likely not 8th in the current playoff rankings.

The numbers aren’t high on Minnesota. In addition to South Dakota State, they also struggled against Fresno state and Georgia Southern earlier this season.

The Golden Gophers have surged in Big Ten play, but you must consider context. In their cross-division schedule, they played Rutgers and Maryland, two of the worst teams in the conference.

Minnesota’s third cross division game was against a top ten Penn State team, and they won this game at home last weekend. Minnesota showed everyone something in that Penn state win.

However, Minnesota is still far from a legitimate playoff contender. In the college football rankings I use for my best predictions, Minnesota ranks 25th.

Looking forward, Minnesota has two more difficult games in the Big Ten West. This week, they travel to Iowa, and my numbers give them a 37% win probability. At the end of the season, they host Wisconsin and have a 28% win probability.

Minnesota only has to win one of those two games to win their division, and my numbers give a 55% chance to win the Big Ten West. Even with a division title though, they most likely play Ohio state in the conference championship game. My numbers will make them a 21 point underdog in that game.

Don’t expect Minnesota to make the college football playoff, as my numbers give them a 1 in 40 chance.

Get my best college football predictions

All the playoff odds mentioned in the show are based on my best computer predictions for college football. I usually save these for paying members of The Power Rank.

However, you can get a free sample of these predictions by signing up for my email newsletter. Each Thursday at noon, I send out an email with five games, both college and pro, with predictions and analysis.

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Podcast: Edward Egros on predictive football analytics

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, I talk with Edward Egros, a professor at SMU who works at the intersection of journalism and sports analytics.

Among other topics, we discuss:

  • how he built his college football model, and whether recruiting matters (6:06)
  • the method SMU used to thrive in 2019 (10:57)
  • the problems with Texas football, and how this compares with Alabama (14:07)
  • how to find an edge betting the Dallas Cowboys (18:19)
  • his sports analytics class in the SMU journalism school (27:19)

We also talk about Ben Baldwin’s tutorial on getting NFL play by play data and the data visualization of Florence Nightingale.

At the end, I talk about Rotten Tomatoes and picking which movies to see. Wisdom of crowds at work (37:58).

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle.

To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here.

Podcast: Aaron Schatz on predicting the NFL in 2019

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, I’m joined by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. Each year, he and his team put out the Football Outsiders Almanac, an indispensable resource for my NFL preparation.

Among other topics, we discuss:

  • the most interesting frontier in football analytics (2:55)
  • the defensive statistic that is least stable from season to season (5:34)
  • the surprising fact about play action (7:53)
  • the team that will be Jacksonville 2.0 in 2019 (19:36)
  • the team from the NFC North that might surprise you (24:15)

Aaron also discusses Cleveland, Green Bay and Seattle in our wide ranging discussion.

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle.

To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here.