How to instantly evaluate a football game

During the 2014 season, Oregon looked like a clear favorite over Ohio State to win the College Football Playoff title game.

After an early loss to Arizona, Oregon dominated during the last part of the season. Only UCLA came within two touchdowns of beating Oregon. This stretch of games included a rematch against Arizona and the playoff semi-final against Florida State.

Ohio State barely made the college football playoff after an early loss to Virginia Tech, a team that went 3-5 in the ACC. They lost two quarterbacks during the 2014 season, and third stringer Cardale Jones only seemed to excel because he had talented receivers to catch his jump balls.

In addition, the markets opened with Oregon as a 7 point favorite, which implies a 70% win probability. Slam dunk, Ducks.

However, Ohio State dominated Oregon in a 42-20 game to claim the first College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes earned this massive margin of victory despite committing 3 more turnovers than their opponent.

Was there any way to predict this Ohio State victory? There was, but only if you dug past team rankings and looked into how Ohio State matched up with Oregon.

For me, data visualization played a key role in uncovering the key match up. Let me show you.

Oregon’s match up problem

In 2014, Ohio State had an elite ground game. To quantify this, let’s look an efficiency statistic: yards per carry. In college football, sacks count as rushes in the official statistics. Since sacks are pass plays, I exclude these plays in calculating yards per carry.

To adjust yards per carry for strength of schedule, I use a ranking algorithm I developed based on my research in statistical physics. While Ohio State had the 7th best raw yards per carry, these schedule adjustments move them up to first.

In contrast, Oregon had an average rush defense. They allowed 5.0 yards per carry, more than the 4.8 college football average. After schedule adjustments, Oregon ranked 62nd out of 128 teams in rush defense.

Data visualization to evaluate match ups

To look at how Oregon’s rush defense matched up against Ohio State’s rush offense, we can use data visualization based on data prior to the title game. This visual explains how it works.

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For defenses, the better units appear further to the right. This makes it easy to compare with the opposing offense when both units appear on the same line.

In the visual below, the blue dots represent Ohio State’s pass and rush offense while the smaller green dots show Oregon’s defense. Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons, as you’re looking at how a unit compares to average.

Ohio State's offense vs Oregon's defense

The gap between Ohio State’s rush offense and Oregon’s rush defense shows the clear advantage for the Buckeyes.

During the championship game, Ohio State didn’t have remarkable team rushing numbers, as they gained 5.2 yards per carry. However, running back Ezekiel Elliott dominated the Oregon defense by rushing for 246 yards on 6.8 yards per carry and 4 touchdowns.

My analysis of this rushing match up appeared on Deadspin prior to the game, and this comment appeared below the article.

It is the start of the fourth, and it is creepy how on point your predictions are.

commenter on Deadspin

It doesn’t always work out this way. Football has too much much randomness to be right all the time. But analytics provides a firm baseline for your judgments about football.

Predictions based on match ups in football

Members of The Power Rank have access to my ensemble predictions, which aggregate together many predictions to make a more accurate prediction. Before the Ohio State versus Oregon game, this ensemble predicted a 3.2 point win for Oregon, which corresponded to a 59.5% win probability.

However, you should never blindly trust numbers, especially in a game with mismatches. One of the predictors in the ensemble accounted for passing and rushing separately for each team. It considered Ohio State’s significant edge in running the ball and that Ohio State ran the ball on 59.3% of plays.

This match up model predicted a 50-50 game between Ohio State and Oregon.

A cheat sheet for every team saves time

Members of The Power Rank also have access to interactive team pages that show these match up visuals. To view a match up, click on the appropriate opponent in the schedule in the upper right corner. To check Ohio State’s team page after the title game against Oregon, click here.

I use these interactive visuals to prepare for every interview, whether its the Paul Finebaum show or my weekly appearance on WTKA in Ann Arbor. The visuals save a ton of time, as I can scan through the visual for both passing and rushing to find a potential mismatch.

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.

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.

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 safe is Oregon from an upset against Ohio State?

cfb_playoff_trophyOregon looks like a clear favorite over Ohio State in the college football championship game.

The markets opened with Oregon as a 7 point favorite, which implies a 70% win probability. The predicted margin of victory is even higher with my college football team rankings based on margin of victory.

After an early loss to Arizona, Oregon has been dominant. Only UCLA has come within two touchdowns of beating Oregon. This stretch of games included a rematch against Arizona and the playoff semi-final against Florida State.

Ohio State barely made the college football playoff after an early loss to Virginia Tech, a team that went 3-5 in the ACC. They’re playing a third string quarterback lucky to have receivers talented enough to catch his jump balls.

Oregon should win, right?

In reality, Ohio State is a terrible match up for Oregon. Let me explain.

Oregon’s biggest match up problem

Ohio State has an elite ground game. To quantify this, let’s look an efficiency statistic: yards per carry. In college football, sacks count as rushes in the official statistics. Since sacks are pass plays, I exclude these plays in calculating yards per carry.

To adjust yards per carry for strength of schedule, I use a ranking algorithm I developed based on my research in statistical physics. While Ohio State has the 7th best raw yards per carry, these adjustments move them up to first. Ohio State is predicted to gain 6.78 yards per carry against an average FBS rush defense.

And Oregon has essentially an average rush defense (52nd of 128). Ohio State ran all over Wisconsin (13th ranked rush defense) and Alabama (2nd). They should do even better against Oregon.

The visual shows the difficult match up for Oregon. The blue dots represent Ohio State’s pass and rush offense. The smaller green dots show Oregon’s defense, and better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons. You’re looking at how a unit compares to average.

Ohio State's offense vs Oregon's defense

The gap between Ohio State’s rush offense and Oregon’s rush defense shows the clear advantage for the Buckeyes.

They will give most of the carries to Ezekiel Elliott, who has gained 6.9 yards per carry this season. We all saw his speed when he outran the Alabama defense for a 85 yard touchdown in the semi-final game. Quarterback Cardale Jones will also run the ball, and he’s a load to bring down at 6’5″, 250 pounds.

Offensive line coach Ed Warriner deserves much of the credit for Ohio State’s explosive run game. He had to groom four new starters this year, and none of the candidates had 5 star recruiting credentials. While the offensive line came into the season with question marks, it now looks like the strength that could carry them past Oregon.

Oregon’s other match up problem

Oregon, led by Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, excels at throwing the ball. To quantify this, let’s look at yards per pass attempt, an efficiency statistic that includes sacks. After adjusting for schedule, Oregon has the top ranked pass offense. They are predicted to throw for 9.04 yards per attempt against an FBS average pass defense.

However, Ohio State’s strength on defense is against the pass. They had the 9th best pass defense by adjusted yards per attempt. Against Alabama, they didn’t allow star receiver Amari Cooper to make big plays. While Cooper averaged 13.9 yards per catch this season, his longest against Ohio State was 15 yards.

The visual shows how Oregon’s offense matches up with Ohio State’s defense.

Oregon's offense vs Ohio State's defense

The gap between Oregon’s offense and Ohio State’s defense shows the size of the advantage. Oregon should still be able to throw the ball against Ohio State. However, it won’t be as easy as against Florida State.

The visual also show Oregon’s edge in running the ball. They should run it often (and they did on 55.9% of plays this season) and set up play action for Mariota.

Prediction

For college and pro football this season, I started aggregating many predictions into one ensemble prediction. This ensemble, which includes my adjusted numbers and data from the markets, predicts Oregon by 3.2 points, which corresponds to a 59.5% win probability.

However, you should never blindly trust numbers, especially in a game with mismatches. One of the predictors in the ensemble accounts for passing and rushing separately for each team. It considers Ohio State’s significant edge in running the ball and that Ohio State runs the ball on 59.3% of plays.

This matchup model predicts a 50-50 game between Ohio State and Oregon.

I think the game will be very close. Can Mariota have a monster game and carry his team? Or does Elliott break off big run after big run?

This game most likely comes down to a field goal in the final minutes. I give a slight edge to Oregon to win, but don’t be surprised if Ohio State pulls it out.