I ranked all 128 college football teams for the 2016 season. For fun!
Preseason polls: Pointless, arbitrary, and a hell of a lot of fun. Too much fun, to be honest, at least for a certain type of person. (Me.) God knows what else I could have accomplished with the countless summer hours I’ve spent over the past two decades poring over depth charts and schedules, charting, tweaking, revising, devising elaborate, foolproof formulas to account for a multitude of variables and second-guessing them immediately. But whatever it else I might been doing, I almost certainly would not have cared as much.
College football is ideal for this sort of obsession; the offseason is interminable, there are a lot of teams to account for, and subjectivity is baked into the sport’s DNA — for years the national championship was literally determined by opinion polls. These days the question of who gets to play for one is in the hands of a committee, which has merely reduced the number of opinions that matter. And because they play such an outsize role, the way those opinions are formed matters, too.
So, in that spirit, before we get to my opinion about how the 2016 season will shake out I thought I’d outline the process behind it. If you don’t care, you can just skip the next part and scroll down to the good stuff.
Step one: Establishing a baseline rating for all 128 FBS teams. I arrived at that number by grading each team (on a 1.000 scale) in 17 categories, which can be grouped under four broad headings:
• 2015 Win %
• Five-Year Win %: From 2011–15.
• 2015 Baseline: Final 2015 rating, as determined by me.
• 4-Year Recruiting: Total accumulated points for 2013–16 recruiting classes, according to 247Sports’ composite rating. (Unfortunately, 247’s great Team Talent Composite based specifically on 2016 rosters wasn’t available in time to be incorporated into my system, so I had to rely on the original ratings without regard to subsequent attrition.)
• Offensive Talent: Average 247 composite rating for each player on the offensive depth chart.
• Defensive Talent: Average 247 composite rating for each player on the defensive depth chart.
• Experience Points: Based on Phil Steele’s annual rating of roster-wide experience.
• Offensive Starts: Career starts for all players on the offensive depth chart.
• Defensive Starts: Career starts for all players on the defensive depth chart.
• FPI Offense/Defense: Projected offensive/defensive rating per ESPN’s Football Power Index.
• Massey Offense/Defense: Projected offensive/defensive rating per Kenneth Massey.
• Scoring Offense/Defense: Projected points scored/allowed per game (per Phil Steele).
• Total Yards +/–: Projected difference in yards gained vs. yards allowed per game (per Phil Steele).
(There are no categories specifically for coaching, because there’s no good way to quantify it, or for special teams, because the impact of the kicking game — while substantial — is just too diffuse and unpredictable. But to some extent coaching should be reflected in all the categories based on offensive/defensive production.)
Once I had numbers for each those 17 categories I averaged them together to get a single catchall number for each team as a whole — the baseline.
Step two: Applying baselines to schedules. To get a sense of how the season will actually play out, I used the baseline ratings to generate two more all-defining numbers for each team — overall strength of schedule (the average baseline rating for all opponents) and a category I’ll call “Win/Loss Score,” a number between 0 and 10 assigned to each game based on the baseline margin between the team in question and each individual opponent. There was a small, uniform adjustment for home-field advantage, and I included projections for conference championship games (although not for bowl games).
For the last step, I added together the W/L Score of each game into an overall number for each team, multiplied that number by the overall strength of schedule, and voila. There’s your final rating.
Got all that? Don’t sweat it: The details aren’t really important, except to illustrate that a) This shit has been researched to the hilt, like, almost embarrassingly so; b) None of the numbers involved are based in any way on my subjective opinion; and c) I didn’t “rig” the system to achieve any particular outcome. I was focused on the process, and if some of the results raise a few eyebrows, believe me, they probably raised mine, too. But note also that there are no “corrections” — the numbers are the numbers, and none of them have been changed to reflect my intuition. Because Nick Saban] I trust the process.
Anyway, here you go (click to enlarge):
(For the record, the bottom eight teams that wouldn’t fit on this otherwise pristinely formatted chart:
122. Eastern Michigan
123. Texas State
124. New Mexico State
126. North Texas
127. Kansas — although the Jayhawks should win their opener vs. Rhode Island their chances of picking up a second win are abysmally low, even compared to their fellow bottom-dwellers
I think the outcome mostly speaks for itself, but a few quick observations:
1. LSU, huh? Yes! Although the Tigers’ baseline rating was slightly lower than Alabama’s, the adjustment for home-field advantage (this year’s Bama-LSU tilt is in Baton Rouge) was just enough to tip the scales in the head-to-head matchup, and subsequently in the final tally for the SEC West; tack on a projected victory in the SEC title game and LSU is comfortably on top. I didn’t expect to get that result — it goes without saying that Bama graded off the charts in most of the baseline categories — but it does jibe with my intuitive sense of how these teams shape up: On paper, LSU is as loaded as it’s been under Les Miles while the Crimson Tide are as green as they’ve been under Saban. If the Tigers can’t get over the hump this year, with Leonard Fournette, a blue-chip quarterback in his second season as the starter, and Bama coming to Tiger Stadium, then when?
Again, though, these numbers don’t attempt to project beyond the regular season, which leaves open the very real possibility of a 2011 rerun in which LSU takes the first battle in November but Alabama rebounds to win the war in January. Extrapolate the numbers into the playoffs, where there is no adjustment for home field, and the edge still belongs to the Tide.
2. I’m officially on the Tennessee bandwagon… Sure. I mean, I guess. Like most people, my general impression of the Vols is of a borderline top-10 outfit, a veteran group that more or less came of age last year — remember, they led in the fourth quarter in all four 2015 losses, including nail-biters against a couple of eventual playoff teams, Alabama and Oklahoma — and looks like the obvious favorite in the SEC East. But I haven’t made the mental leap yet to imaging them as a serious playoff threat, a reflection mainly of just how irrelevant the program has been since its last trip to the SEC title game in 2007. (More concretely, I’m not sold on the transcendence of workmanlike QB Joshua Dobbs, either.) While there’s no truth at all in the perception that Tennessee has perennially fallen short of preseason hype, that’s only because prior to last year there hadn’t been any hype to speak of; close calls notwithstanding, this is the same group that fell out of the AP poll last year just two weeks into the season and remained unranked until surging back to no. 22 in the final poll in January. So a top-five projection is a dramatic leap of faith.
Still, Tennessee ranks (according to Steele) as the most experienced team in the SEC and doesn’t have any glaring deficiency. It will also be favored in every game except its October date with Alabama and — assuming it gets there — the SEC Championship; otherwise, outside of an early trip to Georgia, the Vols should be favored big in every game. Win the ones they should and they’re only a minor upset away from the final four.
3. …but not Washington’s. I saw the Huskies in person last December for their bowl win over Southern Miss, which moved them to 7–6 for the season. The fringe of the top 20 is exactly where they should be.
4. Houston: Hello. I’m not the only one picking Boise State to edge Houston for the automatic Group-of-Five slot in the Cotton Bowl, but I’m obviously in the vast minority, and in this accounting it’s not even that close. Part of the gap between the Broncos and Cougars is that the former looks like a solid favorite in every game (Boise’s two biggest tests, against Washington State and BYU, will both come on the blue turf) while Houston is facing a likely 0–1 start at the hands of Oklahoma; beyond that, Boise is also further ahead of the rabble in a weaker conference and presumably less likely to suffer a random upset. Houston is still the class of the AAC, but not by the margin that the Broncos look to be in the Mountain West.
5. Nebraska in the top 20 seems… enthusiastic. I agree, especially for an outfit that came in at no. 29 according to the baseline; no other team made a larger leap in the final order after the baseline numbers were applied to schedules. That was probably the single biggest surprise to me in the final results as well.
But it’s not crazy. the Huskers were probably a lot closer to that kind of finish last year than their 6–7 record suggested: Remember, they were 1–5 in games decided by five points or less, the lone victory coming against playoff-bound Michigan State, and a handful of those losses came down the final play. I don’t know that Tommy Armstrong Jr. is about to make any great leap forward as a senior after three mediocre seasons at quarterback, but I do have Nebraska as the best team in a tightly packed Big Ten West and only project it as a clear underdog in one regular-season game (at Ohio State). Flip a couple of those toss-ups and 10 wins is very much within reason.