Analytics can tell us which teams are poised to surprise in 2017.
Looking back at the preseason polls once a season has ended is like looking at an old yearbook before your high school reunion. I really thought that hair style looked good? And what’s with that shirt? What was I thinking?
I really thought Tennessee was a top-10 team? How could I have believed that Ole Miss and Michigan State were going to be fine after what they lost following 2015? And really? Notre Dame?
College football is inherently and beautifully unpredictable, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Still, we should be using every tool at our disposal to keep the humiliating recollections at a minimum. That includes computers. Now, to be sure, computers wouldn’t have saved you from Notre Dame, and they would have worked really hard to convince you that 2016 really was Ole Miss’ time to shine. But they would have told you not to waste your time with TCU or Iowa, and they would have told you that you should really think twice about Michigan State. They would have also told you to trade Stanford for Washington. That would have been a start, at least.
I’ve been maintaining the S&P+ ratings at FootballOutsiders.com since 2008. They represent an attempt to dig deep, 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.
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.
What might seem like strange rankings could be reminders that the college football season is a small-sample exercise. Distill a college basketball team’s schedule down to four non-conference games and eight conference games, and you can easily produce mediocre records for great teams and great records for mediocre teams.
Last year, in this space, we discussed some potential statistical outliers for the 2016 season and listed six teams that might end up doing quite a bit better than their 2015 results would suggest.
Washington was one of those teams. “If you only pay attention to wins and losses, you may be a little bit confused by the Washington hype,” we said. “Sure, they 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.” Indeed, those close losses became close wins, and the easy wins got even easier.
Washington improved by five wins in 2016, and two other teams we listed — Wake Forest (plus-4) and Nebraska (plus-3) — drastically improved in the win column as well. Granted, two others (LSU and Tennessee) basically held steady, and one (UCLA) fell apart.
Still, that’s like hitting two home runs, a double and a sac fly in a baseball game while striking out once on three pitches. You’ll take it.
On the flip side, S&P+ projected AP top-20 teams Houston (53rd), Iowa (38th), TCU (31st) and Michigan State (22nd) far lower than the humans did. Combined, these teams won 22 fewer games in 2016 than in ’15.
What are the computers — and the S&P+ rankings in particular — saying about 2017? To answer that, let’s begin by once again looking at teams that may have either looked out of place in the 2016 rankings or might be due to surprise in 2017.
2016 S&P Rankings
|S&P Rank||Team (Record)||S&P Rank||Team (Record)|
|1||Alabama (14-1)||11||Wisconsin (11-3)|
|2||Clemson (14-1)||12||Louisville (9-4)|
|3||Michigan (10-3)||13||Auburn (8-5)|
|4||LSU (8-4)||14||Miami (9-4)|
|5||Ohio State (11-2)||15||Florida (9-4)|
|6||Florida State (10-3)||16||WKU (11-3)|
|7||Washington (12-2)||17||Virginia Tech (10-4)|
|8||Penn State (11-3)||18||Colorado (10-4)|
|9||USC (10-3)||19||Boise State (10-3)|
|10||Oklahoma (11-2)||20||Pitt (8-5)|
6 Teams Trending Up in 2017
Rarely is a dichotomy as perfect as it was for LSU’s offense in 2016. The Tigers played 12 games last fall — four against teams that were ranked in the top 10 of Defensive S&P+ and eight vs. teams that weren’t
Against the eight defenses outside of the top 10, LSU was dominant. The Tigers averaged 7.5 yards per play and, despite a slow tempo, 37.9 points per game. They went 8–0 in these contests, winning by an average of 21.8 points. This includes games against five bowl teams and a bowl matchup against Lamar Jackson and Louisville.
Against the four teams with elite defenses, however, the results were just slightly different: 4.9 yards per play, 9.3 points per game, and an 0–4 record despite a defense that allowed just 15 points per game in these contests.
As observers, we see that and tie it to previous seasons. Les Miles couldn’t develop a quarterback! LSU’s offense stunk (because of a tiny sample)! The Tigers were overrated … again.
The numbers, however, see a team that was really, really close to a brilliant season. They were a late interception away from potentially beating an eventual 11-win Wisconsin team and suffered late goal-line miscues in losses to both Auburn and Florida. And while Alabama’s 14–0 start featured 12 wins by at least 18 points, the Tide were tied with the Tigers, 0–0, heading into the fourth quarter.
S&P+ sees a team that had a brilliant defense and an offense that had four great gears but needed a fifth. It also sees a team that recruits at an elite level and has won an average of 10 games per season in the rugged SEC West over the last 14 seasons (and a still-solid 9.6 over nine years since its 2007 national title).
It sees, in other words, one of the safest bets in college football. Dominating iffy teams while losing tight games against good-to-great ones is a way to get overlooked in human polls while setting yourself up beautifully for the future, and LSU was closer to 10–2 or even 11–1 than 7–5 last year.
Of course, LSU does, in fact, need a quarterback. And while turnover was kept to a minimum during Ed Orgeron’s shift from interim head coach to full-timer, the Tigers still have a lot of their hopes pinned on a new offensive coordinator. That’s always a scary proposition. But it’s hard to find many teams with more impressive raw materials, and there are just enough new influences involved to make you think this might be the year LSU again lives up to its full potential.
Speaking of losing close games to good teams, Notre Dame nearly trademarked the concept last season. Against teams ranked 17th, 23rd, 25th and 36th in S&P+, the Irish went 0–4 with each loss coming by a touchdown or less. They suffered a whopping eight losses in 2016, and only one was by more than eight points. Meanwhile, they beat an excellent Miami team (14th in S&P+).
S&P+ uses a concept called win expectancy; it basically says, “Based on the key stats of this game — success rate, explosiveness, field position factors, etc. — you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time.” Win expectancy said Notre Dame had a 62 percent chance of winning the game it lost, 38–35, to Duke. The Irish had a 52 percent chance of beating Stanford; they lost, 17–10. They had a 67 percent chance of beating Navy; they lost, 28–27.
They had a 56 percent chance of beating Virginia Tech; they lost, 34–31.
It’s really hard to lose basically every tossup game you play. It’s also not sustainable. Notre Dame may have gone 4–8, but the Irish still ranked 26th in S&P+, higher than in either 2013 (9–4 but 34th in S&P+) or 2014 (8–5, 31st). On paper, they were much more like a 7–5 team — not good enough for Brian Kelly or Notre Dame fans, but not as embarrassing as 4–8.
Like LSU, Notre Dame hopes that new coordinators will turn fortunes around. Kelly brought in Wake Forest’s brilliantly successful Mike Elko to fix a defense that wasn’t terrible under Brian VanGorder — 40th in Defensive S&P+ in 2014, 34th in 2015, 28th in 2016 — but also wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, former Memphis offensive coordinator Chip Long takes the reins after Mike Sanford took the Western Kentucky job. A blood transfusion on the coaching staff can often be exactly what a disappointed team needs, but it adds to the uncertainty surrounding a team that shouldn’t have been nearly that disappointing a year ago.
Per win expectancy, the Longhorns were about a seven-win team; they had a 69 percent chance of beating West Virginia and an 85 percent chance of beating Kansas, and they lost both games by a combined seven points. That doomed Charlie Strong in his efforts to turn the Longhorns around even though the Longhorns did improve from 69th in S&P+ to 36th.
It did bring Tom Herman to Austin, however. And the former Houston coach inherits a team that returns a good percentage of last year’s production. Quarterback Shane Buechele was a true freshman, and a staggering 11 of the top 15 tacklers were either freshmen or sophomores. Most of the receiving corps and offensive line are back, too.
A team that improved 30 spots in S&P+ despite extreme youth, returns most of its starters, and consistently recruits at a top-30 level? You can probably expect that team to, at worst, maintain last year’s form. And if the good fortune evens out, that probably means Texas’ win total will improve by a decent amount in 2017 even if the Longhorns are still learning what Herman is trying to teach them.
Auburn’s 8–5 record was primarily an effect of the Tigers’ schedule. They played four teams ranked in the S&P+ top 10 and lost to three of them. They also made the mistake of playing Texas A&M (S&P+ No. 24) in September, when the Aggies have been at their best for the last few years.
Again, though, the way you dispose of lesser competition can be as telling as how you play against good teams. (And to be sure, Auburn wasn’t awful against top teams, beating LSU and nearly taking down eventual national champion Clemson.) Against teams ranked 27th or worse, the Tigers went 7–1 with an average score of 41–12. Their defense was strong all season, ranking ninth in Defensive S&P+, and when healthy at quarterback, they showed promise offensively.
As with every team on this list so far, Auburn is working with a new offensive coordinator. The Tigers have a new starting quarterback (Jarrett Stidham), too. But if Kevin Steele’s defense lives up to last year’s promise once more, Auburn has a ceiling higher than many realize.
A coach’s second year is perhaps when a program is most likely to improve. That’s good news for several SEC East teams (South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri), but at first glance, you might not think there was much of a second-year effect in Corvallis last year. Sure, Oregon State improved from 2–10 to 4–8 in Gary Andersen’s second year in charge, but you might be writing that off as the effect of playing Idaho State early and taking on Arizona and Oregon teams that had fallen apart late in the season.
S&P+ sees something more. Oregon State improved by 35 spots, from 100th to 65th, in 2016. That put them ahead of, among others, a rising SEC East fivesome (Kentucky was 67th, Georgia 68th, Missouri 69th, Vanderbilt 71st and South Carolina 79th) that we’ll address next. And the Beavers pulled that off with a sophomore quarterback, sophomore and freshman running backs, a receiving corps that featured four sophomores and two freshmen and a defense that had only three seniors among its top 16 tacklers.
OSU suffered three tight losses to good teams in 2016 (Minnesota, Utah, Washington State) and could stand to improve dramatically with just a little bit of progress in the passing game.
The SEC East was absurdly young in 2016. South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia all return some of the highest production rates in the country, and Missouri isn’t that far behind. One of the stories of the season could be the improvement that these five teams, and therefore the division as a whole, begin to show.
South Carolina wasn’t a good team last fall. The Gamecocks ranked 79th in overall S&P+ and needed four one-possession wins to reach bowl eligibility. But they were also maybe the youngest team in a young division. Two freshman quarterbacks (Jake Bentley and Brandon McIlwain) combined for 2,020 passing yards, two freshman running backs combined for 1,261 rushing yards, and freshmen and sophomores accounted for almost every receiving yard. So when you see that the Gamecocks ranked 107th in Offensive S&P+, don’t automatically write this off as the Will Muschamp Effect.
At the same time, the defense was more experienced than the offense but still returns a majority of a unit that improved from 95th to 50th in Defensive S&P+. The Gamecocks should expect to field their best defense since Jadeveon Clowney was suiting up. If experience results in simply mediocre offense, South Carolina could threaten to crack the top 40.
Teams on the Decline
Jim Harbaugh has quickly built a sturdy, dangerous program, albeit one that hasn’t quite mastered the art of finishing a season strong just yet. His recruiting and general coaching prowess should assure the Wolverines of plenty of success moving forward, but extreme turnover could limit Michigan in 2017. Michigan must replace its leading rusher, its three leading receivers, its Heisman-finalist defender, and, in total, 17 starters. That much turnover all but assures short-term regression.
WVU fans are excited about Florida transfer Will Grier taking over at quarterback, and he could combine with running back Justin Crawford to create one of the Big 12’s better backfields. But you need a little bit more help than this duo might get in 2017. The Mountaineers must replace 14 starters from a team that S&P+ didn’t like that much to begin with. They ranked just 29th in S&P+ despite winning 10 games, a product of winning four one-possession games and losing badly to good teams. WVU played three S&P+ top-30 teams in 2016 and went 0–3 with an average score of 41–21.
The Cornhuskers were on last year’s “likely to improve” list, but really, only the win total improved. Nebraska actually fell from 36th in S&P+ in 2015 to 46th last fall. What changed? Luck and close-game performance. Based on national averages for fumble recoveries and the ratio of interceptions to passes broken up, Nebraska’s turnover margin should have been about plus-0.5 in 2015 and minus-4.8 in 2016; instead, it was minus-12 in 2015 and plus-5 last year. This drastic shift in turnover luck put its finger on the scales. The Huskers were 3–6 in one-possession games in 2015 and 3–1 in 2016. Otherwise, they were, at best, basically the same team. That’s not necessarily encouraging considering Nebraska now returns only 12 starters, third fewest in the Big Ten.
Written by Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.