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College football rankings 2019: Early 130-team projections – SB Nation

The preseason S&P+ projections are a simple mix of three factors: recent history, returning production, and recruiting. To come up with 130-team projections for all of FBS, I create projected ratings based on each factor. Here’s how the process works:

  • For recruiting, I create a rating based on these weighted four-year recruiting rankings. The weighting (67 percent this year’s class, 15 percent last year’s, 15 percent the year before that, three percent the year before that) is based on what makes the ratings most predictive.
  • For returning production, I take each team’s returning offensive and defensive production (which are on different scales) and apply projected changes to last year’s ratings. The ranking you see below is not where they rank in returning production but where they would rank after the projected changes are applied to last year’s S&P+ averages. This piece makes up a vast majority of the overall S&P+ projections.
  • For recent history, I’ve found that getting a little weird predicts pretty well. This number isn’t a strict five-year average — last year’s ratings already carry heavy weight from the returning production piece. Instead, what you see below is a projection based solely off of seasons two to five years ago. Recent history doesn’t carry much weight in the projections, but it serves as a reflection of overall program health. We overreact to one year’s performance sometimes.

Enough talk. Here are the preliminary projected S&P+ rankings for 2019.

Your projected conference leaders

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

You can sort by each category above, but here are the top three projected teams in each conference:

  • AAC: No. 26 Memphis, No. 27 UCF, No. 44 Cincinnati
  • ACC: No. 3 Clemson, No. 19 Miami, No. 28 Florida State
  • Big 12: No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 22 Oklahoma State, No. 34 TCU
  • Big Ten: No. 7 Ohio State, No. 9 Michigan, No. 11 Wisconsin
  • Conference USA: No. 74 Southern Miss, No. 77 Marshall, No. 79 FAU
  • MAC: No. 75 WMU, No. 76 NIU, No. 78 Toledo
  • Mountain West: No. 24 Boise State, No. 42 Utah State, No. 51 Fresno State
  • Pac-12: No. 15 Washington, No. 17 Utah, No. 20 Oregon
  • SEC: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia, No. 4 LSU
  • Sun Belt: No. 31 Appalachian State, No. 69 Troy, No. 70 Arkansas State

Projected conference averages

  1. SEC (+18.1, down 0.5 from 2018)
  2. Big Ten (+9.0, up 1.2)
  3. Big 12 (+7.6, down 0.2)
  4. Pac-12 (+7.2, up 1.1)
  5. ACC (+6.6, up 1.3)
  6. AAC (-3.0, same)
  7. MWC (-3.1, down 2.3)
  8. Sun Belt (-6.5, up 1.1)
  9. MAC (-8.9, up 0.4)
  10. Conference USA (-10.3, same)

In January I made revisions to the S&P+ algorithm, discussed here and elsewhere. One of a few tweaks was a conference-wide strength adjustment.

After the ratings are determined, I project previous games based on those ratings, and I track each conference’s average performance versus projection. For the top conference, I found that by the end of the season it was aiming low by two or three points per game per team. For the bottom conference, it was the reverse.

Shifting each team’s rating based on this conference average, and increasing the weight of said adjustment as the season progresses, basically improves against-the-spread performance by about 1 percentage point per season and cuts the average absolute error by somewhere between 0.2 and 0.3 points per game.

That doesn’t seem like much, but look at the Prediction Tracker results and note how much of a difference 1 percent and 0.3 points per game could make to your projective ranking there.

It does, however, mean a fundamental shift in how mid-major teams are judged.

For a given season, shifting each conference team in this manner can mean that the best conference in FBS ends up with quite a few teams near the top. For the 2008 season (as presented in the example above), that means a heavy Big 12 presence. And for 2018, it means that the SEC dominated the ratings as much as any conference ever has — as much as SEC fans like to think their league dominates every year.

In the adjusted S&P+ rankings for 2018, SEC teams occupied six of the top nine spots in the rankings. That’s … significant … but transitively, it ties together pretty well. No. 1 Alabama’s only loss came to No. 3 Clemson (with wins over five other top-10 teams); two of No. 2 Georgia’s three losses came to teams in the top five; No. 5 LSU lost only to the No. 1, No. 9, and No. 11 teams while beating No. 7, No. 8, and No. 18; etc.

(This adjustment also means that national champion Clemson now ranks third instead of second. That’s awkward, but again, the conference-level adjustment makes S&P+ more accurately predictive overall. Nothing’s going to fit perfectly with our perceptions.)

So if the SEC was easily the best-graded conference in 2018 — far better than it had in any season since 2014 — and only a couple of league teams are on the bad side of the returning production measure, there’s probably no reason to think it will be projected much lower in 2019. And I would figure “10 teams in the top 21” qualifies as “not projected lower.”

What about unit rankings?

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama

Alabama’s Dylan Moses
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the same S&P+ projections, only with projected offensive and defensive ratings included.

Easily the most interesting tidbit to me here: Alabama’s defense projects 10th overall … and just fifth in the SEC. After a down year by Bama standards (the Tide were seventh in Def. S&P+), Nick Saban’s squad now has to again replace most of its difference-makers. It’s easy to assume a rebound — Bama hadn’t finished lower than fourth in Def. S&P+ since 2010 and had finished first for four years running — but Saban will need quite a few new starters to play like All-Americans. Lord knows it’s happened before.

(Even with this merely awesome, but not historically amazing, defense, Bama still ranks an easy first overall thanks to an offense that is as loaded at the skill positions as any Bama offense ever has been.)

Stats vs. conventional wisdom

It’s pretty clear at the end of one season who will be picked atop the rankings for the next. In most Way Too Early Top 25s for 2019, Clemson is a virtually unanimous No. 1, Alabama a unanimous No. 2, and Georgia a unanimous No. 3. Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame make up spots 4-6 in some order, and some combination of Florida, Texas, LSU, Michigan, and Oregon rounds out the top 10.

Texas A&M, Washington, and Penn State are is most top-15s, and Utah, Wisconsin, Iowa State, and Northwestern are in or near the top 20.

S&P+ doesn’t disagree much at the top, even if there’s a slightly different order (Clemson’s third).

It thinks more highly of LSU (fourth versus a consensus of about ninth), and it doesn’t punish Auburn for always having a ridiculous schedule — the Tigers are projected eighth as opposed to the Way Too Early consensus of something around 23rd. It values another set of SEC Tigers (Missouri) more highly, too, and it’s more bullish on a couple of Big Ten teams as well (Wisconsin and Michigan State).

As a whole, though, advanced stats are a lot more useful in judging who’s overvalued than who’s undervalued.

S&P+ didn’t think highly of Northwestern (68th in 2018) or Syracuse (40th) despite nice win totals, and it doesn’t see much reason to change its mind in 2019 — when the Wildcats are projected 57th, the Orange 56th.

It also suggests we tap the brakes on Nebraska. The Huskers are projected 45th but are receiving plenty of top-25 votes from the humans.

Perhaps the most noteworthy disagreement between humans and this computer:

Texas is 35th???

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas

Tom Herman
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars enjoyed a magical run. They went 13-1, rolled to the AAC title, and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The numbers were unimpressed. UH ranked just 53rd in (the updated version of) S&P+, looking more like a 10-4 team on paper and propped up by five points per game of good turnovers luck.

In Houston’s 2016 preview, I wrote this:

Houston is going to be good. In 2016, something like a 9-3 record would be considered disappointing. This scenario plays out a lot in this sport, and it shouldn’t a surprise that it’s what the skeptical S&P+ ratings are projecting.

Houston improved to 39th in S&P+ … and went 9-3. You can defy the numbers once, but it’s really hard to do it twice in a row.

Herman’s team might have something familiar going on heading into 2019.

In 2018, another Herman team defied both expectation and statistics. In his second year at Texas, his Longhorns ranked 32nd in S&P+ and, per second-order wins, had the look of an eight-win team. For every strong performance (namely, wins over Oklahoma and Georgia), there was a dud or near-disaster — a loss to Maryland, near-losses to Tulsa, Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas, etc. Against anyone but the top teams, they did the bare minimum; it bit them once and nearly did so many other times.

Still, they won 10 games, finishing with a win over a depleted but talented UGA in the Sugar Bowl. From that point forward, they were all but guaranteed to find a spot in everyone’s preseason top 10.

The final piece of the puzzle for Herman in Austin might not be filling in holes on the two-deep. It will be figuring out how to field a team that plays every game like the Sugar Bowl.

S&P+ doesn’t tend to trust teams that perform so inconsistently. Plus, Texas must replace a higher percentage of last year’s production than any other power conference team.

The Horns bring back quarterback Sam Ehlinger and receiver Collin Johnson as headliners, plus the fruits of successful recruiting.

They do not, however, return their leading rusher (Tre Watson), leading receiver (Lil’Jordan Humphrey), three honorable mention all-conference offensive linemen, their top three tacklers on the defensive line, their top two linebackers, and three of their top five defensive backs, including corner Kris Boyd, who led the team in havoc plays (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed).

Herman has signed two straight dynamite classes, and his Horns have what appears to be a manageable schedule for a top-10 team, if they can get by LSU at home. But they’ve got a lot of churn to overcome, and they used a lot of good fortune last year.

S&P+ is going to project them to win about seven games. A Herman team has defied stats a couple of times now, but they haven’t yet done it back-to-back.

OK, there might be one more team that stands out:

Tennessee is 21st???

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia

Tennessee’s Josh Palmer (84) and Ty Chandler (8)
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols might have more going for them than we realized.

  • For starters, Pruitt has recruited well. According to the 247Sports Composite, he inked the No. 21 class in FBS in 2018, then one-upped himself and signed the No. 12 class this year, despite what we’ll politely call a lack of proof on the field. Granted, recruiting has never been a problem in Knoxville, but …
  • The Vols were crazy-young in 2018. They return more of last year’s production than any P5 team, and it would defy recent history if they weren’t to improve by at least a few points per game.

S&P+ projections are primarily made up of returning production and recent recruiting; Tennessee looks awfully good in both of those areas and therefore gets a potential boost.

There’s an obvious parallel: Georgia was mediocre in Kirby Smart’s first year, then paired heavy returning production with great recruiting to enjoy a major second-year breakthrough in 2017.

Tennessee is starting from a lot further behind. I’m doubting there’s a run to the national title game in the works. Still, Pruitt and his coaches have vastly more to work with in 2019.

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