College Football Preview 2017 Part 4: Projections

The first 3 parts of this preview series looked at coaches, rosters, and schedules. Now, we’ll put it all together and project how well each FBS team will perform this season.

The table below will be updated throughout the season to track up-to-date projections as well as compare against how accurate the pre-season projections turn out to be. In addition to team and conference affiliation, the table displays the following:

Preseason expected wins (this will remain unchanged throughout the season)

Over/under win totals, per Bovada

Current expected wins (will be updated weekly throughout the season)

Difference between current expected wins and over/under (updated weekly)

Favored games (number of games where team has greater than 65% win probability)

Favored toss-ups (between 50-65% win probability)

Underdog toss-ups (between 35-50% win probability)

Underdogs (less than 35% win probability)

Current probability that team will be undefeated in regular season (updated weekly).

To open table in a new window, click here

A few takeaways from this table:

  • It would take a mild upset somewhere along the way for each of Ohio State, Alabama, Washington, and South Florida to not go 12-0 in the regular season.
  • My numbers are very optimistic on UAB, Nevada, Hawaii, and UTEP; each with more than 2.5 expected wins above the Bovada over/under.
  • Conversely, my numbers are not high on Minnesota, Army, San Diego State, Louisiana Tech, and Miami OH; each with more than 2.5 expected wins below the Bovada over/under.
  • It is a bit surprising to see Boise State projected at only 6.17 and Stanford at 6.77 wins. Stanford has a pretty brutal schedule, but Boise’s is manageable. They’re one to keep an eye on.
  • UCLA at only 5.48 wins doesn’t bode well for Jim Mora coaching the Bruins in 2018. Notre Dame at 7.06 may not be enough for Brian Kelly, either.

Postseason Outlook

It really doesn’t make much sense to forecast postseason results before the season has begun because so many factors have yet to be realized (injuries, breakout players), but for ease of interpreting my full FBS projections here are the projected postseason championships based on the information available today.

Conference championship projections (projected winners in bold)

ACC Clemson vs Miami FL

Big Ten Ohio State vs Wisconsin

Big XII Oklahoma vs Texas

Pac12 Washington vs USC

SEC Alabama vs Georgia

American South Florida vs Memphis

CUSA Western Kentucky vs UTSA

MAC Ohio vs Central Michigan

Mountain West Hawaii vs Colorado State

Sun Belt Appalachian State (Sun Belt championship game beginning in 2018)

Playoff Projection (does this look familiar?)

Ohio State vs. Clemson

Alabama vs. Washington

Championship game: Ohio State vs Alabama

National Champion: Alabama

Despite a projected 13-0 season, South Florida’s schedule is far too weak to be considered for a playoff berth. It is thoroughly disappointing that my numbers project the same 4 teams as appeared in the 2016 College Football Playoff, but each of these 4 returns a very strong roster (the top 3 nationally plus Clemson at 8th nationally), their schedules are manageable (Alabama’s is the toughest at 16th but their toughest game is in week 1, while the other 3 schedules rank in the 50s), and they’ve all been on the biggest stage recently so they know what it takes to get there. At any rate, I’m confident some sort of chaos will derail at least one of these teams’ chances, but I don’t have a way to quantify that chaos yet.

This marks the end of my 2017 season preview series. Now we have actual college football games to watch this week! Win probabilities for Week 0 games will be posted prior to Saturday.


National Championship Win Probability

Updating for game results and injuries, I’ve run my model to generate a win probability for the National Championship game on Monday between Alabama and Clemson:

Projected winner Opponent  Win Prob.
Alabama Clemson 68.37%

This equates to a line of Alabama -7 (as of this writing the Las Vegas consensus line is Alabama -6.5).

The advantage for Alabama is largely from their roster value; coaching efficiency slightly favors Clemson in a weighted average over the past 4 seasons, despite an edge to Alabama for the 2016 season (coaching efficiency measures how well teams fare compared to expectations based on roster value differences. The higher mark for Clemson here implies that Clemson has performed better than expected against their opponents over the last 4 years when isolated to roster values compared to Alabama’s expectations. The edge in 2016 for Alabama is largely due to Clemson’s loss to a less talented roster compared to no losses for Alabama). Alabama’s season performance rates a little higher than Clemson’s (again, due to Clemson’s loss), and there is no tangible home-field advantage for either team.

What does this all mean?

Alabama is more likely to win, but it would not be shocking to see Clemson come out on top. For reference, my model had the line at Alabama – 16.5 against Washington (Alabama won by 17, covering by 0.5; nice), and Clemson +3 against Ohio State (Clemson won by 31, covering 34; not so nice).

Throughout the season Alabama rarely covered the spread my model set for them (only 4 out of 14), but the average spread was about -34 so that doesn’t really imply under-performance. In fact, this is the first spread my model has for Alabama that is not double digits (the next smallest was -14 against LSU).

Clemson followed a strikingly similar path, also covering only 4 of 14 with an average spread of about -31. My model had Clemson favored by double digits in all but two games: -7 against Florida State and +3 last week against Ohio State.

A few factors to consider in this game that are not accounted for in my model:

  • Lane Kiffin is no longer running the offense for Alabama. This will be Steve Sarkisian’s first time running the show for Bama; quite a stage for a debut. Perhaps Sark has been more involved behind the scenes all year? It’s hard to imagine Saban wasn’t prepared for this scenario.
  • Will Alabama be a little complacent? Clemson fell just short in this game last year, and the revenge-seeking emotional edge could be enough to overcome the slight talent disparity.
  • Going 15-0 is really hard to do. Clemson entered this game last year at 14-0 while Alabama was 13-1. In 2014, Florida State entered the playoff at 13-0 and was obliterated by a 1-loss Oregon team. Sometimes the experience of a loss helps later in the season. Small sample size caveats aside, is this Alabama team led by a freshman QB really going to be the first to go 15-0?

A look back on the 2016 Preview

I posted a season preview in early August which included projections on conference champions and NY6/CFP participants. In the interest of maintaining accountability, let’s reflect on how those projections turned out.

Conference Champion Runner-up Conference
Florida State Clemson North Carolina VA Tech ACC
Ohio State Penn State Nebraska Wisconsin Big Ten
Oklahoma Oklahoma State Big XII
UCLA Washington Oregon Colorado PAC12
Alabama Georgia Florida SEC
South Florida Temple Houston Navy AAC
Western Kentucky Southern Miss LA Tech CUSA
Northern Illinois W. Michigan Ohio MAC
San Diego State Boise State Wyoming MtnWest
Arkansas State (co-champs) Appalachian State SunBelt

Yeesh, not great. Had a good pulse on the Big XII and Sun Belt, but a lot of swings and misses elsewhere.


Final Four picks   Bowl
Alabama Oklahoma Peach
Florida State Ohio State Fiesta
Other New Years 6 picks   Bowl
Clemson San Diego State Orange
Michigan UCLA Rose
Tennessee Notre Dame Sugar
Oregon Georgia Cotton

Picked 2 of 4 playoff teams correct, and had a 3rd in the NY6. The two other playoff picks weren’t far off, both landing in other NY6 games. Total of 6 out of 12 NY6 participants correct, but with most of the misses being comically bad.

Title Game   Location
Alabama Florida State Tampa


National Champion

Alabama is still very much in play to win the national title, and I wouldn’t change my pick now.

CFP Instant Reaction

The field is set:

#1 Alabama vs. #4 Washington at Peach Bowl

#2 Clemson vs. #3 Ohio State at Fiesta Bowl

Close, but out: Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma

What went wrong?

Penn State lost a non-conference game to Pitt. Had they scheduled a super weak slate like Washington and gone 3-0 in non-conference, the rest of their schedule was strong enough to leap Washington. Lesson: Schedule non-conference games that you will win. The Big Ten is strong enough that winning the conference (or not!) is good enough to get in, so long as you don’t lose out of conference.

Michigan lost two conference games in November. Margin of loss was irrelevant; two losses is too many when 4 teams have fewer than two losses. Lesson: Schedule night games at home every year. Michigan needs to re-think their ban on night games against Michigan State and Ohio State. Both are at home next year, and at least one should be played at night. The atmosphere provides a massive home-field advantage which can make the difference in a super close game.

Oklahoma lost two non-conference games. The Sooners went 9-0 in the Big XII, which was plenty good enough to earn a bid as Alabama was the only other P5 team to go unbeaten in conference play. Lesson: Ease up a bit on the non-conference scheduling. A win against a lesser mid-major instead of a loss at Houston may have been enough to jump Washington. The non-conference slate becomes even less relevant once the Big XII adds a championship game.

It is unfortunate for college football fans as a whole that Washington is rewarded for going unbeaten in a super weak non-conference schedule. Expect to see even more cupcake games among contenders going forward.

Comparing the CFP Contenders

I’ve put together a side-by-side comparison of all possible playoff teams in a Google spreadsheet. The color scale is to aid visually by column from best (green) to worst (red). I’ve excluded Western Michigan for now, but will add them as well as any other NY6 invitees after the regular season. I will also update final numbers to reflect the complete season.

Path to the Playoff, 11/27/2016

For the final time before the bowl selections on December 4th, I will highlight the least convoluted path a team can take to get into the playoff.

Alabama: Playoff lock.

Ohio State: Playoff lock.

Clemson: Win ACC championship, otherwise out.

Washington: Win PAC12 CG, otherwise out.

Penn State: Win Big Ten CG AND either Clemson or Washington loses.

Wisconsin: Win Big Ten CG AND either Clemson or Washington loses.

Oklahoma: Beat Oklahoma State AND Clemson loses AND Washington loses.

Colorado: Win PAC12 CG AND Clemson loses AND Oklahoma loses.

Two spots are already clinched (barring a spectacular change of heart from the committee), and six teams are fighting over the final two spots. The Big Ten still has a shot at two teams in (and according to this guy, has a shot at three teams in), and the Big XII is once again on the outside looking in.

I am fascinated by Nick’s scenario for three Big Ten teams, and even though it absolutely makes sense on the surface it is extremely difficult to see two teams that didn’t win their division make the field of four over three conference champions. Ohio State is in a unique spot as one of four Power 5 teams with fewer than 2 losses; they also have wins over two teams vying for a playoff bid, a narrow loss to another contender, and a recent win over the next team outside the contenders listed above. Their resume is flat out better than everybody save Alabama, so the committee has no choice but to include them.

Even though Michigan has wins over three of the teams above, and a last-play-of-the-game loss on the road to a fourth, their two losses and lack of conference championship game appearance are just a bit too much to overlook. Had Michigan beaten Iowa their case would be every bit as strong as Ohio State’s, plus they’d be playing for a championship this week to solidify their spot in the playoff. Michigan is a lock for a NY6 bowl, but would need the committee to move really far from their stance that conference championships are a primary factor. Having fewer losses than a conference champion can justify a bid, but having the same number of losses very likely cannot.

Path to the Playoff, 11/20/2016

Each week, I will highlight the least convoluted path a team can take to get into the playoff. Granted, many alternate scenarios could result in the same outcome for a given team. In the interest of keeping this concise and easy to follow, I’ll only give the clearest scenario and whether or not the team can afford a loss and still make the field of 4.

Alabama: Win out, win SEC CG. Can lose to Auburn, but probably need to win the conference.

Ohio State: Win out, whether that is only one game or two, Ohio State cannot lose again.

Clemson: Win out, win ACC CG.

Michigan: Win out, win Big Ten CG.

Penn State: Win out AND Michigan loses to Ohio State AND win Big Ten CG.

Wisconsin: Win out, win Big Ten CG.

Washington: Win out, win PAC12 CG AND one of Clemson and winner of Michigan/Ohio State loses again.

Colorado: Win out, win PAC12 CG AND two of Clemson, winner of Michigan/Ohio State and Oklahoma loses again.

Oklahoma: Win out AND PAC12 champion has two losses AND one of Clemson and winner of Michigan/Ohio State loses again.

We’re now down to only 9 contenders for the 4 playoff spots. The only conference with a shot at two teams in is the Big Ten, and it would only be if Ohio State beats Michigan but doesn’t play for the conference championship.

Absolute Chaos

The following scenarios would leave the entire Power 5 with no teams with fewer than 2 losses. It would open the door for many possibilities not outlined above.

  1. Alabama loses to Auburn and loses SEC championship game
  2. Clemson loses ACC championship game
  3. Michigan loses at Ohio State or in the Big Ten championship game
  4. Ohio State loses to Michigan or (if Penn State loses again) in the Big Ten championship game
  5. Washington loses at Washington State or in PAC12 championship game