Not Much Deviation Among Top Predictions: Everyone has Alabama getting to the College Football Playoffs again, joined almost as universally by Clemson and Oklahoma. The only suspense seems to be who will be the fourth school in the mix. I guess there's really not much reason to play the regular season and conference championship games. We should just have a playoff between Ohio State, Michigan, LSU and Florida State to see who gets the final spot. If we believe the early prognosticators, teams like Tennessee, Stanford and Baylor might make things fun for a while, but when it all shakes out, the drama will have evaporated and we'll be down to the favorites. Of course, I beg to differ, if for no other reason than to present another point of view. I've taken a look at all of the Big Five conference teams as well as a few of the others, including independents and Group of Five conference teams that may compete at the national level. Using some easy to find criteria, I scored every team and came up with conference and national rankings. The intent was to find out who had the best chance to win their division and conference, thus enabling them to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoffs. It was not intended to provide a full ranking of all of the teams. The methodology doesn't hold up well for teams in the middle of the pack.
Wins in 2015: Like it or not, in college football, the prior season's results are a fair indicator of the prospects for the current season. I began with the number of victories each team had last season, including conference championship games, the bowls and any playoff wins. This obviously afforded the successful teams from a year ago a significant advantage.
Returning Offensive Starters: For the top teams or even ones that had moderate success, bringing back experienced players is an advantage. On the offensive side of the ball, I gave teams an additional point if they have their starting quarterback returning. Although teams have been able to win with a new signal caller, it's a big advantage to have continuity at that position from season to season.
Returning Defensive Starters: No extra points for any particular position and I also didn't include any special teamers, such as placekickers or punters.
Conference Schedule Adjustment: Even though schools play in the same league, or even in the same division. their schedules can still vary greatly, especially because imbalances create different matchups with teams from the opposite division. This is the case in every conference with the exception of the Big 12, whose teams play a round robin schedule. Still, home and road games are sometimes inordinately skewed in a team's favor. The adjustments are subtractions for tougher schedules and additions for easier ones.
Non-conference Schedule Adjustment: The same logic as the previous criterion, but taking into consideration the quality of opponents faced outside of their conference. For independents, this is an adjustment based on their entire schedule.
ACC: Not a big surprise, as Clemson topped the Atlantic division and the league with a score of 28. The Tigers benefited greatly from a favorable conference schedule, which sees them take on a rebuilding Georgia Tech and a decent Pittsburgh squad from the Coastal division. A team that probably under-performed last season, the Louisville Cardinals, came in a close second, also getting a break in their conference schedule, with bottom feeders Boston College and Virginia on the schedule. Where is Florida State, you're asking? They came in third in the Atlantic, due to a much tougher conference slate that includes North Carolina and a Miami team that's expected to be much improved under new coach Mark Richt. In the Coastal, look for North Carolina to have a leg up in what is always a dogfight, made more so this year if Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente gets the Hokie offense in gear.
Big 12: Oklahoma advanced to the College Football Playoffs last season and are looking to take it to another level, getting to the final and perhaps getting another national championship for coach Bob Stoops. But their biggest competition might just be from their home state, as rival Oklahoma State returns ten offensive starters to a team that didn't exactly have trouble putting points on the board last season. The problem for the Cowboys came from the other side of the ball as they surrendered 151 points in season ending losses to Baylor, Oklahoma and Ole Miss. The seven returning defensive starters will need to get some help if they are to live up to the 28 points in my study, tops in the conference.
Big Ten: Michigan, in coach Jim Harbaugh's second season in Ann Arbor, is a popular pick to challenge Ohio State for their division and the conference, but to advance to the playoffs as well. Although I tend to think it's a bit premature to expect the Wolverines to unseat Urban Meyer's Buckeyes as the top dog in the Big Ten, my scoring method actually has them coming out on top. Ohio State, with only three offensive and four defensive returning starters, will be looking to reload the team that was arguably the best in college football last season. But unlike last year, when the East clearly had more depth and talent than the West, the league may have a bit more balance. Iowa went into the Big Ten championship undefeated and were within a field goal of defeating Michigan State. Another favorable schedule again has the Hawkeyes clear favorites in their division, and with eight defensive starters back, they can once again challenge for a spot in the playoffs. Wisconsin will be victimized not only by graduation, but also by a brutal schedule that has them playing at Michigan State and Michigan in back to back weeks, then after a bye week hosting Ohio State and traveling to Iowa. No chance.
Pac-12: After getting shut out of the playoffs last year, most pundits have it happening again. The conference is deep and because the teams play a nine-game league schedule, the chances of dodging good teams in the regular season are slight. The favorites coming into the season are Stanford in the North and UCLA in the South, and my numbers add up the same way. But unlike a lot of experts that are falling in love with Washington, I believe the team from the other side of the state has a great chance to surprise some people. It's true that Washington State's head coach Mike Leach has never really paid much attention to defense, but with a little improvement on that side of ball could push the Cougars to the next level. Offenses are scoring more points than ever, and one need look no further than last year's championship game to see Alabama win despite giving up 40 points to Clemson. In the South, the Bruins will be challenged by a good USC team and Utah, who will need to find some offensive replacements for a group that had trouble scoring at times last season.
SEC: Alabama leads the nation in championships the last seven seasons and the conference has dominated for well over a decade. Can the Crimson Tide continue their run, despite losing half their starters, including the quarterback? My numbers say no. As predicted by many, LSU stands to make a leap and finally give Alabama a run in the West. But that half of the conference is so strong, that it may be difficult to have a clear enough winner to have a representative in the playoffs. Arkansas gets Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville this season, while Mississippi State and Ole Miss might take a step back. In the East, Tennessee returns almost the entire team and looks like the favorite to unseat Florida atop the division. My analysis has Georgia a close second, making the October 1 matchup between the two as critical a game as any on the season's schedule.
Others: Three other teams in particular stand out from the non-Big Five. San Diego State has a lot of talent returning from an 11 win team and also plays California, giving them a chance at a quality win. Houston, hosting Oklahoma in their opener, has a great opportunity to build on last season, where they picked up 13 victories with a defeat of Florida State in the Peach Bowl. One more that could make some noise is Appalachian State. Although they are a recent addition to the FBS, they open at Tennessee after picking up 11 wins and bowl victory over Ohio. Notre Dame, while having a schedule worthy of any conference school, just won't have enough horses to make it beyond the regular season.
Comments: What the numbers can't take into consideration are factors such as quality of recruiting classes, coaching ability and the talent of replacements. So while the exercise was enlightening, it didn't totlally dictate who I picked to win conferences and advance to the playoffs.
ACC: Atlantic - Clemson; Coastal - North Carolina; Championship - Clemson
Big 12: Oklahoma State
Big Ten: East - Ohio State; West - Iowa; Championship - Iowa
Pac-12: North - Stanford; South - UCLA; Championship - Stanford
SEC: East - Georgia; West - LSU; Championship - LSU
College Football Playoffs:
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