Analytics and college football fandom have a tempestuous relationship. If a system spits out a favorable projection for your favorite squad, it’s gospel. When the computers foretell doom, the nerds must be tinkering with their numbers to screw your team specifically.
The stats geeks will leave fans falling in and out of love all over again this year. The coronavirus-inflicted chaos of 2020 yielded screwier data than usual. Meanwhile, programs are navigating the new terrain of the transfer portal and changing guidelines on transfer participation. Oh, and the NCAA ruled that no one used a year of eligibility in ‘20, meaning that rosters might look pretty funky in the fall.
The end result: Plenty of head-scratching rankings. A quick and dirty look at a sample of some initial rankings for the upcoming season highlight just how strange they are.
For the purposes of this exercise, I compiled top 25 rankings from four separate sources:
- ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI)
- Adam McClintock’s Analytics
- Sharp College Football
- SP+ from ESPN analyst Bill Connelly
When you compare preseason rankings from different stats-based systems, you usually see teams clustering in fairly consistent groups. In a macro sense, the comparisons provide a sense of consensus about many – if not most – teams. But here’s how the four sets of top 25 rankings for 2021 shake out:
Consensus that is not.
A total of 13 teams appeared in all four sets of top 25 rankings. I compiled them for comparison’s sake and calculated each team’s average ranking.
A few observations:
*We’d be remiss if we didn’t give Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics mad respect for the courage of his convictions. Walder oversees the FPI, which took nonconformity to new heights with the top 25 it published this week.
It’s standard fare in the top seven, but Mississippi State at eight is flabbergasting. The other three don’t even have the Bulldogs in the top 25 – McClintock has next highest ranking for MSU at 32. FPI’s No. 9 team, Oklahoma State, only shows up in one other place. Then there’s Texas Tech checking in at 21.
Dare to be great, FPI.
*We can say the quants do have a consensus on the top three: Oklahoma, Clemson and reigning national champion Alabama. Advanced stats always tend to look favorably on the Oklahoma Sooners, but even more so this year.
Notably, the numbers indicate the gap between the Crimson Tide and its top two challengers has shrunk. SP+ would favor Bama over OU and Clemson by about 2.5 points, while FPI likes Bama by 1.5 over OU. Sharp would actually have the Sooners on top of the Tide by about a half point.
*Clearly, Iowa State has the attention of the analytics community. Take a look at what the Cyclones have returning and you understand why.
The Clones are sitting in a unique position insofar as Matt Campbell and his staff don’t stockpile highly-touted recruits. That doesn’t matter when you're fielding a starting lineup full of veterans who have produced in the past. It does make a difference if injuries start adding up during the season, though.
Of course, the hope in Ames is that the same eyes for talent and development magic responsible for coaching up middling prospects such as Brock Purdy and Mike Rose would have capable backups ready to go. That still doesn’t inspire the same level of confidence in the long run as knowing that your team has a former blue-chip recruit waiting in the wings when starters go down.
The guess here is that ISU is absolutely equipped to play like one of the 10 best teams in the country this season; unfortunately, a couple injuries in key spots could have an outsized effect on the Cyclones’ performance relative to the teams in that peer group.
*Staying on the Big 12 tip, the geeks seem to think the conference as a whole will be salty this year. Texas joins OU and ISU among the group of teams included in all four sets of rankings. Meanwhile, West Virginia and TCU appear in three of four.
*If you compare these rankings against Clemson’s schedule, it looks as though the Tigers should cruise after their opener against Georgia.
*If I were to gauge how the different rankings align with my own personal opinion, I’d say (most to least): McClintock, SP+, Sharp, FPI.