October 16, 2013
Since this is the widely accepted “mid-way point” of the college football season, let me ask you question: Who are you picking to make it to the national title game? Do you have a pick yet? Because if you don’t, here’s some information that might influence your decision.
Back in July, I decided to take a look at what the past six national champions had in common, and, since everyone’s in a “midterm report” kind of mood, it felt like a good time to revisit that and apply it to this year’s group of title hopefuls.
To refresh, here’s the methodology I used then:
To answer that question, I recorded the national rank of the last six national champions (2007 to 2012) in 45 different statistical categories. No advanced stats here, just standard stuff — rushing offense, scoring defense, turnover margin, etc. National rank is nice because it offers a measure of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses relative to the rest of college football in that given year.
What I wanted to see was not what the last six national champions did best — though that ended up covering the majority of the top categories anyway — but what those teams had most in common. To do that, I used standard deviation. A small standard deviation represents a tightly grouped data set. It represent, for lack of a better term, more “consistent” results than a larger standard deviation.
That method gave us a top-10 list of what the champions shared but to compare it to this year’s teams, I’m going to use the average national rank of the national champions combined with that standard deviation. This changes the top-10 list slightly and maybe for the better. Gone are sacks, passing yards, red zone percentage and opponent third down percentage. In are turnover margin, points per game allowed, yards per play allowed, and yards per game allowed.
Combining the average with standard deviation gives us a range of where past national champions have ranked, making it easy to see which teams this season are making the grade. The charts below show the 14 zero- or one-loss teams currently ranked in the top-15 of the latest AP poll, as well as one wild card team to be named later just to spice things up. It also means that there are some teams who still technically have a shot — Texas Tech (6-0), Virginia Tech (5-1), Oklahoma (6-1) — that aren’t on the list. Sorry guys, but I just don’t see it.
If one of our current contenders falls within the statistical range of the past six national champions, they get a check in that box. Simple as that. So which teams check the most boxes? Have a look:
Now, some thoughts:
–There’s little difference in the championship profile between Clemson and UCLA at this point. Both check five boxes — the same five actually — but the Bruins have three “near misses” — defined here as 10 or fewer spots off the upper limit of the range — while the Tigers have two. Clemson also ranks fourth in turnover margin, the most random stat in the top-10.
–Alabama also only checks five categories, but they do get two of the four “most exclusive” categories in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry. The offense has to get better, however, if the Tide is to win its third-straight title.
–Baylor, Miami and Florida State all check six boxes, but the Seminoles also have three near-misses. They look more like a championship-caliber squad than any of the teams mentioned thus far, but they’ll also likely have to win at Clemson, against Miami and at Florida. It’s not hard to foresee a scenario where the Seminole’s title run is derailed by the Gators in the final game of the regular season.
–Which teams are the best off right now? Ohio State checks eight boxes and has near misses in the other two. Oregon checks eight and near misses on one. Louisville also gets eight of 10, and clearly has the easiest route to Pasadena but it might be that schedule that ends up eliminating the Cardinals.
–You can pretty much eliminate Texas A&M in my mind. The Aggies’ defense is nowhere near good enough. LSU is looking like a long shot and South Carolina and Stanford don’t look like they’re going to get there either. Missouri was actually looking almost as good as the Clemson/UCLA group, but with James Franklin out that’s no longer realistic.
–Any guesses as to the wild card team? They’re 4-2 right now and not even ranked in the coaches’ poll, yet they check seven total boxes, all four of the top categories, and hit every defensive benchmark in the top-10. That team is Wisconsin and, unfortunately for Badger fans and the Big Ten as a whole, there’s really nothing they can do about it. The fluke loss to Arizona State (Gary Andersen isn’t guilt-free in that one, though) and a touchdown loss on the road to Ohio State mean the Badgers are eliminated from contention, which is too bad because this is, perhaps, the best Wisconsin team ever. And the Badgers probably deserve to be ranked 15-20 spots higher than they are, but even getting to that point by the end of the year is going to be a struggle.
To bring this post back “on-brand,” let’s spend a little bit of time on the increasingly interesting Legends Division race. Using the same method as above, which of the five contenders for the division crown — sorry Minnesota — comes the closest to resembling a national champion? (We’re all well aware that none of them are that close, but this is for the purposes of comparing them to one another.)
This chart will award a check to only one team — the team that either fits the best (i.e. ranks highest) or is the closest to fitting our national champions’ profile:
And now a few thoughts on the “local” perspective:
–Nothing too surprising here. Michigan State has the most “wins” (5) by dominating the defensive categories. Nebraska is next with four “wins,” all offensive categories. The Spartans’ defense is national title caliber — they’re actually in the profile range in five categories — as is the Huskers’ offense (particularly the run game).
–Not only do Michigan State and Nebraska have the best defense and offense (respectively) among the Legends contenders, they are also the only two teams that don’t have to play either Ohio State or Wisconsin. Michigan has the Buckeyes to close the season, Iowa still has to play both of them and Northwestern’s already lost to both of them.
–Michigan and Iowa are also playing excellent defense. They both fall within the national championship range in four defensive categories, making them a tough out for all of the remaining teams on their schedules.
–Northwestern’s one win comes in turnover margin per game. Again, that’s something a team doesn’t totally control. Everything else at this point is looking pretty average for the Wildcats.
–This race to Indy is going to be fascinating.