Stats and eyeballs frequently agree. According to last year’s Massey Composite Ratings — a cumulative set of almost every college football computer ranking known to man — Alabama finished first, Clemson second and Ohio State third. To anybody who actually watched college football games in 2015, this sounds about right, just as it seemed right that some combination of Charlotte, UCF, Eastern Michigan, North Texas, ULM, Hawaii and Kansas would rank at the bottom.
Outside of the extremes, however, the math and the eyes may begin to see things differently, especially when you boil things down to a single formula (or set of formulas).
I have been maintaining the S&P+ ratings at FootballOutsiders.com since 2008. They represent an attempt to dig down to a level few computer ratings go, deriving efficiency and explosiveness from the play-by-play level. They combine aspects of football that affect college football’s Five Factors — efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers — into a single, opponent-adjusted number.
This system of ratings attempts to derive value from every play and drive of a given game (filtering out garbage time), and it watches every game, so to speak. We probably do not.
S&P+ saw the game the same way you did at the top: Alabama was first, Clemson second and Ohio State third. But as was customary, there were some more antisocial results beneath the top layer. Western Kentucky ranked in the top 15, for instance. Iowa and Northwestern, a combined 22–5, both fell out of the top 40 with blowout bowl losses.
Each year, S&P+ produces results that make you doubt its creator’s sanity. But if you know what you are looking for, a system like this can be very useful. Among other things, it can drop pretty strong hints regarding who’s about to have a really good, or really poor, season.
In 2007, Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators went 9–4 thanks to three gut-wrenching losses but ranked third. The next year, they won the national title.
In 2009, Oklahoma fell from the BCS title game to a ho-hum 8–5, but the Sooners still graded out sixth in S&P+. They went 12–2 the next year.
In 2011, Notre Dame went 8–5 and ranked 11th while Texas A&M ranked eighth but blew a ton of leads and went 7–6. The next year, the two teams went a combined 23–3, with the Irish reaching the BCS title game and the Aggies taking home a Heisman (Johnny Manziel) and a win over Alabama.
You get the idea. What might seem like strange rankings could be reminders that the college football season is a small-sample exercise.
With that in mind, let’s look at teams who may have either looked out of place in the 2015 rankings or might be due to surprise in 2016.
This piece by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly and more are available in the 2016 Athlon Sports national college football preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store powered by Amazon.
From a quality perspective, Washington has already broken through. We’re simply waiting on the results to follow. In this way, the Huskies are this year’s Arkansas.
In 2014, Arkansas played mostly awesome football. The Razorbacks ranked a staggering fifth in S&P+ thanks to the dominance of their wins — they didn’t just beat Nicholls State, they beat the Colonels by 66. They beat Northern Illinois by 38, Ole Miss by 30, UAB by 28, Texas by 24, Texas Tech by 21 and LSU by 17. And since S&P+ filters out garbage time results, they didn’t get any extra credit for running up the score.
Proving you’re capable of results like that is a good way to get computers to like you. So is losing to good teams by small margins. The Hogs fell to Alabama by one and to Missouri, Texas A&M and Mississippi State by seven points each, suffering some bad breaks along the way.
Washington didn’t rank fifth like Arkansas last year, but the Huskies ranked a healthy 12th. They suffered competitive losses to solid Oregon and Boise State teams and faded late in losses to Utah and Arizona State. More important, they looked like world beaters in wins. They beat USC in the Coliseum, and crushed Arizona, Oregon State, and Washington State by an average score of 49–7.
More than anything else, advanced stats tell us what would happen if we weren’t so reliant on single-game outcomes. If football teams played a 30- or 82- or 162-game schedule, the teams most capable of dominance would likely be the ones who won the most. But with only 12 games, we can get distracted.
Washington showed immense upside in 2015 and did so with an absurdly young team. The Huskies listed 56 players on their two-deep for the Heart of Dallas Bowl — 27 on offense and 29 on defense. A whopping 35 of them were either true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Only 10 were seniors.
On average, you tend to take your biggest developmental leaps within your first couple of years in the program. So a majority of last year’s two-deep can expect to take a step or to forward, and very few difference makers are gone. And again, this was already a good team last year.
If you pay attention only to wins and losses, you may be a little bit confused by the Washington hype. Sure, the Huskies beat USC and looked good in their bowl win, but really? Pac-12 North favorites? Beneath the surface, though, the Huskies were far better than your typical 7–6 team, and they were incredibly young as well.
Of course, you still have to learn how to win. For as good as Arkansas may have been on paper, the Razorbacks still only improved from 7–6 to 8–5 in 2015 because of a slow start to the season. The same close-loss symptoms that held them back the previous fall bit them against Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M during a 1–3 start. But they very much looked the part down the stretch, beating Ole Miss and LSU on the road and whipping Missouri and Kansas State to end the year and managing another top-15 S&P+ finish in 2015.
For all we know, the record won’t show it with Washington, either. But you should really keep an eye on this exciting Huskies team, just in case.
Turnovers luck can make such a difference in a short season. While we expect the bounces to even out over time, 12 games isn’t a long enough span for that to happen. Some teams recover 65 or 70 percent of fumbles in a given season, and others recover 30 or 35 percent. That alone can make a difference of five or 10 turnovers in a given year. Plus, some teams hold onto their interceptions, and others don’t.
The simple fact that the ball is pointy adds a significant amount of randomness to a 12-game season. And Nebraska is pretty clear evidence of that. In 2015, the Huskers recovered just 10 of 26 fumbles (38 percent) and managed to pick off 10 passes while breaking up 50. That means that just 17 percent of the Huskers’ passes defensed were interceptions; the normal average is between 21 and 23 percent.
Opponents, meanwhile, caught 21 of 68 passes defensed, 31 percent. Add all of this up, and you’ve got a Nebraska turnover margin of minus-12 when national averages would have suggested something closer to even. Do you think an extra turnover per game might make a difference in a year that saw you lose six games by one possession?
Let’s put it this way: According to S&P+, Nebraska ranked 36th in offensive S&P+ and 57th in defensive S&P+; 12–2 Iowa, meanwhile, ranked 32nd on defense and 56th on offense. On a play-by-play basis, the Hawkeyes and Huskers were very similar. And while Iowa got its hands on more passes and prevented opponents from doing the same, its turnover margin should have been around plus-6 or plus-7. Instead, it was plus-11.
Keep this in mind when you’re taking stock of the Big Ten West landscape. Both Nebraska and Iowa ranked in the 40s in S&P+ last season — yes, the 40s; Iowa didn’t beat a team that ranked higher than 31st, got destroyed by No. 10 Stanford, and eked by No. 60 Indiana and No. 61 Illinois, among others — and now Nebraska returns its leading passer, rusher, receiver and 12 of last year’s top 16 tacklers. The Huskers have issues but aren’t nearly as far from the top of the West as you might think.
How many consecutive years can you be a team on the rise? Because of strong recruiting, it has felt like Butch Jones is going to break through with the Volunteers any minute now, but close losses have consistently held the Volunteers back. They lost to Georgia, Florida and Missouri (combined record: 28–11) by a combined 12 points in 2014 and lost to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama (43–12) by a combined 17 in 2015. They owned the dubious distinction of leading two separate College Football Playoff participants in the fourth quarter but losing to both.
As you are learning, however, close losses against good teams don’t hurt you very much with the computers. In 2015, Tennessee beat three 10-win teams (Bowling Green, Georgia and Northwestern) by a combined 75 points, won nine games for the first time in eight years and ranked a healthy 22nd in S&P+. They sustained 2014’s gains, and with ongoing quarterback issues at Florida and a new regime at Georgia, they will seem to many like the safest bet in the SEC East.
Of course, like Washington, the Vols still have to learn how to win. There’s no guarantee that experience will alleviate the sort of conservatism and clamminess that beset them late against Oklahoma and Florida in particular. But while Jones is just 6–9 in one-possession games at Tennessee, he’s 22–21 for his career. At the least, this serves as a reminder that clamminess isn’t always a concern. And if UT gets about half a quarter better, look out, SEC.
Les Miles’ LSU Tigers looked abysmal during a three-game, season-defining stretch last November. After running into a jackhammer known as Alabama in Tuscaloosa, they followed with a 17-point home loss to Arkansas and a 21-point road loss to Ole Miss. This very nearly got Miles fired and distracted us from the fact that LSU was awfully good the other nine games.
Thanks in part to one of the hardest schedules in the country, LSU finished the season 9–3 but ranked ninth in S&P+, ahead of 12–2 Stanford (No. 10) and 12–2 Michigan State (No. 13). With a kinder schedule, perhaps the young Tigers wouldn’t have briefly run out of gas.
LSU wasn’t as bad as you thought, and now the Tigers return more of last year’s production than anyone in the country. They started only four seniors in the bowl win over Texas Tech and lost only two early entries to the draft. They return their Heisman favorite running back, their two deep-threat receivers, four starters on the line and 10 defensive starters. Plus, they likely made an upgrade in defensive coordinators, from Kevin Steele to Dave Aranda.
LSU has plenty of questions left to answer. The quarterback position has been in flux for a couple of years, and the defense was pretty weak against the run. But if Aranda can shore up the latter, Father Time might help with the former. Brandon Harris actually has some experience this time around. And he still has some murderous skill position weapons around him.
At first glance, UCLA’s 2015 season was a disappointment. Ranked as high as seventh in the AP poll early in the year, the Bruins stumbled to an 8–5 record, ending two streaks in the process — a three-game winning streak over USC and a three-year run of nine wins or more.
But the Bruins still finished with a decent No. 23 ranking in S&P+. They beat solid BYU, Cal and Utah teams, lost perhaps their two best defenders to early-season injuries, and suffered some unlikely circumstances in some of their losses. They recovered neither of two fumbles and strangely gave up two safeties against Arizona State, and they recovered zero of two fumbles again against USC while giving up two return scores (one off of a fumble).
The numbers care about these things even if our eyes only see losses by double digits.
Oh yeah, and the Bruins had a true freshman at quarterback. Even a blue-chipper — and to be sure, Josh Rosen was the bluest of blue chippers — is going to suffer through inconsistency as a freshman.
With USC changing coaches (and quarterbacks), Utah replacing most of its offense and four of its top five tacklers, and Arizona and ASU both looking to rebuild after disappointing campaigns, UCLA might return enough to become the Pac-12 South favorite. Rosen loses his leading rusher and receiver, but normal year-to-year development could make him awfully good in 2016, no matter the supporting cast.
If you can survive an extreme youth movement and keep both your two-deep and your job intact, you usually see the fruits of your labor by your third year on the job. Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson stripped the building down to its foundation in his first year and saw modest improvement in his second, and now he might have the pieces in place for a run at .500.
Wake Forest went just 3–9 last season and isn’t a division contender like the other teams on this list. But the Demon Deacons suffered from pretty poor turnovers luck and lost four games by one possession, all to bowl teams (Indiana, Florida State, Louisville, Duke). And after plummeting to 112th in S&P+ with the worst offense in the country in 2014, the Deacs improved to 92nd last fall. The defense was competitive (61st in defensive S&P+), and at the very least the offense was less awful (107th in offensive S&P+).
It’s always easy to say that a team that bottomed out like Wake in 2014 is going to rise because it almost can’t fall anymore. But Wake improved by 20 spots despite a lineup that was still terribly young: Of the 48 names on the season-ending two-deep, only seven were seniors, and only four of those were starters. There were eight true freshmen — that’s right, there were more true freshmen than seniors — along with 12 redshirt freshmen and 10 sophomores.
In a division that features both Clemson and Florida State, there’s a pretty hard ceiling for a program like Wake Forest at the moment. But don’t be surprised if the Deacs improve into at least the 70s and pull an upset or two.