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College Football Math-Based Analysis: Mid-Season Update

Back in the summer, we made some predictions using a little #math. Let’s check back in on some of those picks and maybe make a few adjustments

Back in the summer, I went through my annual process of crunching all of the numbers that I could find in an attempt to predict how the 2022 college football season might play out. We have now reached both the mid-point of the season as well as a much-needed bye week for the Michigan State Spartans. It seems like a good time to revisit and revise some of those projections now that we have a lot more information and data.

Overachievers and Underachievers

There are a lot of prognosticators out there who make predictions about the college football season in the summer. Some of those analysts will even use some of the same mathematical tools that I employ. But what makes my method unique and (frankly) more accurate is that my calculations always take into account the known uncertainty in the preseason rankings.

As it turns out, human beings are simply not very good at projecting how good college football teams are going to be before the ball is ever snapped. I have looked at several years of preseason and postseason data, and the numbers indicate that any given team’s preseason ranking is accurate only to about plus-or-minus 20 slots on average.

Back in the summer, the data compelled me to project that Oklahoma would run the table, win the Big 12, and earn the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoffs. I projected that they would face 11-2 Notre Dame in the national semifinals. In reality, both teams might struggle just to get to .500 this year.

As it turned out, both the Sooners and the Fighting Irish simply are nowhere near as good as the experts predicted during the summer. Both teams were supposed to be top-10 quality. Neither in fact are.

Table 1 below summarizes the top 20 and bottom 20 teams as sorted by each team’s change in rank today relative to the preseason rankings which were derived from a selection of publications such as Athlon Sports and Phil Steele. In this case, I am using my current power ranking for each team as the current rank.

On the overachiever side of the house, FBS newcomer James Madison is at the top of the chart with fellow Sun Belt member South Alabama coming it at No. 2. Those teams were both ranked in the 110s out of 131 FBS teams back in the summer. The notable Power Five teams in the overachiever category include Kansas, Illinois, Duke, Syracuse, Iowa State, Kansas State, Maryland, TCU, and UCS.

The right hand side of Table 1 shows the teams who are not having as good of a season as they had hoped for back in August. So far the biggest underachiever of 2022 (as I am measuring it) is Miami. The other teams who have been major disappointments so far include Boston College, Notre Dame (as expected), Pittsburgh, Michigan State (sigh), Nebraska, and Virginia Tech. Oklahoma also just sneaks in at the bottom of the list.

Note that in a few cases, the teams who are on the underachiever list actually have overall records that are fairly respectable. Pittsburgh is 4-2, Boise State is 4-2, and Cincinnati is 5-1. However, all three teams have still not played to the level which was expected at the beginning of the year. Furthermore, all three teams are not expected (at least by my algorithm) to have strong finishes to the season.

As a part of my preseason analysis, I performed a deep dive on a wide variety of season bets, including wagers on division races, conference races, playoff spots, the national champion, and total regular season wins. In all honesty, a lot of those suggestions do not seem to be panning out well.

However, the data generated so far in the first half of the season provides an opportunity to revisit the odds for various teams to taste post-season glory. It also provides the opportunity to make a few new wagers.

In Table 2 below, I summarize the latest money lines from our friends at DraftKings SportsBook for a selection of Power Five teams to both twin their conference and win the National Championship. I have converted these money lines to percentage odds, and I have compared these number to the percentages that result from my latest Monte Carlo simulation of the remaining games.

When I compare my odds to the odds from DraftKings, it is possible to calculate a return on investment (ROI) for a 100 dollar bet on each outcome. The results of these calculations are shown in the rightmost columns of Table 2. I have also highlighted in green all the potential wagers where the ROI is significantly positive. As we can see, the majority of the bets have a negative ROI (which is how Las Vegas remains profitable)

As Table 2 shows, the oddsmakers currently have a lot of faith in both Georgia and Ohio State right now. Those two teams have the best odds to win the National Title with a money line of +180 (which translates to odds of about 36 percent). Alabama has the next-best odds at +450 (18 percent).

Clemson is sitting in fourth place at +1,000 (nine percent) with Michigan and Tennessee rounding out the top six with a money line value of +1,600 (six percent). No other team has effective odds over two percent to win the National Title.

My calculated odds tell a slightly different story. My numbers suggest that the six teams with the best odds to win the National Title are all overvalued with the exception of one: the Michigan Wolverines. My computer gives a positive ROI for Michigan to win both the Big Ten and the National Title. I feel obligated to note here that my computer has so far been wrong a lot this year.

As for a few other teams that might be worth a bet or two, my computer likes the odds for USC, Ole Miss, and Texas as dark horse conference champions and even as national champions. Betting on Tulane and Utah to win their respective conferences is also a positive ROI bet with a reasonable probability. Bets on Kansas State and Oregon State as long-shot conference champions also might be interesting bets.

That all said, there are two teams in particular who are very highly regarded by my computer relative to their current Vegas odds. Both Illinois and Syracuse are ranked in the top 10 of my current power rankings, and both teams have ridiculously high ROIs in Table 2 for both a conference title and the national title.

In this case, it seems likely that my computer is simply overvaluing both the Illini and the Orange. That said, if you are looking for a long-shot bet that might not actually be that much of a longshot, a small bet on Illinois and/or Syracuse might be worth your while.

Updated Conference Projections

In closing today, I would also like to provide an updated projection for each conference race and the New Year’s Six Bowl Games. These projections are based on a combination of math and my own intuition.

Big Ten

The Big Ten East looks like it will almost certainly come down to the annual showdown between Michigan and Ohio State at the end of the year. While my computer is starting to believe in the Wolverines, I just cannot see the Buckeyes losing twice in a row to Michigan and especially not at home this year. Unless there is a snow storm and flu outbreak, I think Ohio State runs the table and returns to the Big Ten Championship Game.

In the Big Ten West, my computer really likes Illinois and I see no reason to question that. I predict the Illinois will sweep the other teams in the West and will advance to the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State. The only question is if Illinois can steal a victory from the Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Nov. 19. It is hard to make that prediction, but I think that game will be a lot closer than many people expect. Either way, I predict a win for the Buckeyes in Indianapolis to cap an undefeated season.

SEC

Tennessee is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz right now, but in order to win the SEC East, the Volunteers will need to beat Georgia in Athens. I just don’t see that happening. I have Georgia once against winning the East.

In the SEC West, I think things might get more interesting. Alabama is still ahead in odds, based on my calculations, but the Crimson Tide have back-to-back road games at LSU and Ole Miss coming up in early November. I am going to go ahead and pick Ole Miss in an upset which will eventually result in the Rebels winning the West even if Ole Miss themselves drop a road game at LSU or Texas A&M. But the Rebels will be no match for Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

Big 12

The Big 12 might just be the most competitive conference in the country this year, and as such, it looks difficult to handicap. Therefore, I am just going to revert to my simulation’s results. It says that Texas will edge out Kansas State for the Big 12 Championship. Let’s go with that.

ACC

The ACC races looks very straightforward. While it is possible that Syracuse upsets Clemson this weekend and disrupts everything, this is Clemson’s league to lose. I project that Clemson will win their division and then beat North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. But, can the Tigers get past Notre Dame on the road to complete a perfect regular season? Somehow, I think the Fighting Irish will find a way to steal the win and knock Clemson from the ranks of the undefeated and out of the playoff conversation.

Pac-12

My calculations suggest that a match-up between Utah and USC is most likely in the Pac-12 Championship game, but I am going to call an audible here and predict that UCLA will upset the Trojans to knock them out of the top two spots in the standings. When the dust settles, Utah will beat UCLA to claim the Pac-12 crown.

Group of Five

Conventional wisdom would suggest that one of three teams currently at the top of the standings in the American Athletic Conference will eventually finish the season as the top ranked Group of Five Champion. But, I like the odds for South Alabama to run the table, win the Sun Belt, and find itself in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

New Year’s Six Predictions

When the dust settles, here is how I see the match-ups shaking out:

• Peach Bowl: No. 1 Georgia (13-0) versus No. 4 Michigan (11-1)
• Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) versus No. 3 Tennessee (11-1)
• Rose Bowl: Utah (11-2) versus Illinois (10-3)
• Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss (11-2) versus Texas (11-2)
• Orange Bowl: Clemson (12-1) versus Alabama (10-2)
• Cotton Bowl: USC (10-2) versus South Alabama (12-1)

For the record, I would currently project Georgia to be favored over Michigan by 6.5 points and for Ohio State to be favored over Tennessee by five points. A potential National Title Game between Georgia and Ohio State would likely see Georgia favored by around seven points.

That is all the analysis I have for today. Until next time, enjoy the bye week and Go State, beat the Skunk Bears!

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.