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Power Ranking the FBS

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The challenge of ranking 128 teams that only play 12 game schedules

Ohio State HC Urban Meyer struggles to explain why the Big Ten sucks so badly in football.
Ohio State HC Urban Meyer struggles to explain why the Big Ten sucks so badly in football.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that MLB and the NBA have going for them is the length of their seasons.  Their scheduling methodology allows each team to play a preponderance of other teams in their conference, and there are only two conferences.  This allows analysts to compare most teams directly when trying to evaluate one against another.

College football, for all its awesomeness, doesn't even come close to allowing that.  FBS teams play in 10 conferences with a few independents playing games across several conferences.  The 3 or 4 non-conference games that an FBS team can fit into its annual schedule are often planned more for ensuring a victory (or a fat paycheck for smaller schools) or filling concessionaire coffers than for creating opportunities to evaluate football skill.

The College Football Playoff, by considering strength of schedule, may change this somewhat as teams now have a greater incentive to play more challenging games.  But this is really more symbolism over substance.  There simply aren't enough Saturdays available to ensure that teams play enough football to make reasonably objective assessments of who is better than who.

With 128 FBS teams, each would have to play approximately 40 randomly assigned games to have a 90% chance of being no more than 1 game removed from every other team. For instance.  Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech which lost to East Carolina.  Ohio State is one game removed from East Carolina in this scenario.

Clearly, a 40 game, computer-generated random schedule is never going to happen.  So we have to rely on other, much more subjective means to rack and stack teams for the college football playoff.

That presents the obvious question of "What is important and what isn't?"  The College Football Playoff has already said that strength of schedule will be considered in the committee's choices.  In the BCS, margin of victory was not considered in the computer polls, even though it is highly correlated to overall winning percentage.

I believe that a computer ranking model that indexes margin of victory by strength of schedule presents the most viable ranking system.  It is a methodology that fine tunes itself as the season progresses.  It is also the most defensible.  Nothing is more highly correlated to winning that scoring offense and scoring defense.

My ranking model uses scoring offense, scoring defense, season-to-date strength of schedule, and a small adjustment for winning percentage to capture other intangibles in the game.  Using this to make all teams play a model 127 game, round robin schedule we can get a good picture is who is playing better than who at this point in the season.

Through three games, the top 10 and most likely College Football Playoff contenders are:

Rank
Team Rating
Conf
1 Baylor 0.89 Big 12
2 Florida State 0.88 ACC
3 Texas A&M 0.87 SEC
4 Alabama 0.86 SEC
5 Oklahoma 0.85 Big 12
6 Auburn 0.81 SEC
7 LSU 0.81 SEC
8 Oregon 0.79 Pac12
9 Mississippi 0.77 SEC
10 Notre Dame 0.77 Ind

There is little separation between the top 5.  In fact, the point separation between 1 to 5 is the same as between 5 and 6 and 6 to 10.  Note the conspicuous absence of the Big Ten from the Top Ten. The average rankings of each conference make the degree to which the Big Ten has slipped into gravitated toward mediocrity is clear.  The SEC's ranking at the top by a large margin, is even more impressive when one considers that Vanderbilt is dead last in the FBS.

Conf Conf Ave.
SEC 0.660
ACC 0.616
Pac12 0.603
Ind 0.589
Big 12 0.576
B1G 0.524
FBS Average 0.508
CUSA 0.463
AAC 0.433
MWC 0.397
Sun Belt 0.389
MAC 0.353

For the morbidly curious and Big Ten fans, here's the rest of the FBS.

Rank 
Team Rating 
Conf
11 Georgia 0.75 SEC
12 Ohio State 0.75 B1G
13 Michigan State 0.74 B1G
14 Pittsburgh 0.74 ACC
15 Missouri 0.73 SEC
16 East Carolina 0.73 AAC
17 Utah 0.71 Pac12
18 Cincinnati 0.71 AAC
19 Duke 0.70 ACC
20 USC 0.70 Pac12
21 Arizona 0.70 Pac12
22 Northern Illinois 0.70 MAC
23 Clemson 0.69 ACC
24 Louisiana Tech 0.68 CUSA
25 California 0.68 Pac12
26 West Virginia 0.68 Big 12
27 Stanford 0.68 Pac12
28 BYU 0.68 Ind
29 TCU 0.67 Big 12
30 Georgia Southern 0.67 Sun Belt
31 Tennessee 0.67 SEC
32 Louisville 0.66 ACC
33 Arizona State 0.66 Pac12
34 Marshall 0.64 CUSA
35 Kentucky 0.64 SEC
36 Wisconsin 0.63 B1G
37 Penn State 0.63 B1G
38 Arkansas 0.63 SEC
39 Kansas State 0.63 Big 12
40 Nebraska 0.62 B1G
41 Temple 0.62 AAC
42 Virginia Tech 0.61 ACC
43 Oklahoma State 0.61 Big 12
44 Miami (Florida) 0.61 ACC
45 Texas State 0.60 Sun Belt
46 Akron 0.60 MAC
47 UCLA 0.60 Pac12
48 Appalachian State 0.59 Sun Belt
49 Syracuse 0.59 ACC
50 UAB 0.58 CUSA
51 Virginia 0.58 ACC
52 South Carolina 0.58 SEC
53 Boston College 0.58 ACC
54 Maryland 0.56 B1G
55 Boise State 0.56 MWC
56 Memphis 0.56 AAC
57 San Diego State 0.56 MWC
58 UTSA 0.55 CUSA
59 Mississippi State 0.55 SEC
60 Middle Tennessee 0.55 CUSA
61 North Carolina State 0.55 ACC
62 Colorado State 0.54 MWC
63 Navy 0.54 Ind
64 Michigan 0.53 B1G
65 North Carolina 0.52 ACC
66 Houston 0.51 AAC
67 Georgia Tech 0.50 ACC
68 Texas 0.50 Big 12
69 Western Kentucky 0.49 CUSA
70 Nevada 0.49 MWC
71 Rutgers 0.49 B1G
72 Washington 0.47 Pac12
73 Minnesota 0.47 B1G
74 Oregon State 0.46 Pac12
75 Air Force 0.46 MWC
76 Indiana 0.45 B1G
77 Arkansas State 0.45 Sun Belt
78 Florida 0.44 SEC
79 Washington State 0.44 Pac12
80 UCF 0.43 AAC
81 Bowling Green 0.43 MAC
82 Illinois 0.42 B1G
83 UTEP 0.41 CUSA
84 Hawai'i 0.41 MWC
85 Louisiana-Monroe 0.40 Sun Belt
86 Wake Forest 0.40 ACC
87 Florida Atlantic 0.39 CUSA
88 Old Dominion 0.39 CUSA
89 Toledo 0.39 MAC
90 Utah State 0.39 MWC
91 Iowa 0.38 B1G
92 North Texas 0.37 CUSA
93 Army 0.37 Ind
94 Iowa State 0.37 Big 12
95 Ball State 0.36 MAC
96 Florida International 0.36 CUSA
97 Central Michigan 0.36 MAC
98 San Jose State 0.35 MWC
99 Wyoming 0.35 MWC
100 South Alabama 0.35 Sun Belt
101 Northwestern 0.35 B1G
102 Rice 0.34 CUSA
103 Tulane 0.33 AAC
104 Connecticut 0.33 AAC
105 Ohio 0.32 MAC
106 Colorado 0.32 Pac12
107 Louisiana-Lafayette 0.32 Sun Belt
108 New Mexico State 0.31 Sun Belt
109 Texas Tech 0.31 Big 12
110 Purdue 0.31 B1G
111 Western Michigan 0.31 MAC
112 Massachusetts 0.26 MAC
113 UNLV 0.25 MWC
114 Kansas 0.25 Big 12
115 Buffalo 0.25 MAC
116 Southern Mississippi 0.24 CUSA
117 Miami (Ohio) 0.24 MAC
118 Idaho 0.23 Sun Belt
119 Fresno State 0.22 MWC
120 Georgia State 0.21 Sun Belt
121 South Florida 0.21 AAC
122 Tulsa 0.20 AAC
123 Eastern Michigan 0.19 MAC
124 New Mexico 0.18 MWC
125 Kent State 0.17 MAC
126 Troy 0.14 Sun Belt
127 SMU 0.14 AAC
128 Vanderbilt 0.14 SEC