Sunday, January 22, 2017

NFL Blowouts

The playoffs have been, with the exception of 1 day, a snooze. 8 of 10 games were a blowout. Unfortunately injuries played a significant role: Derek Carr's broken leg pretty much guaranteed the Raiders would be out, Earl Thomas's injury had the Seahawks collectively limping. Both had, otherwise, teams capable of making a Super Bowl run. It's definitely part of the game, but it's always too bad when a team is derailed by injury.

On the other hand we can argue that New England weathered the injury of its 2nd-best player and continues to dominate, making them a clearly great team: capable of adapting to adversity.

Let's hope the Patriots-Falcons game will be exciting. My gut feel is the Pats will find a way to corral the Falcons offense and come out on top. I'll be grilling for the occasion.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

2016 Mock Draft

I'm headed to Mexico in a few days and creating a mock draft will not be one of my top priorities. I'm just going to assume that all the craziness is over. The draft capital spent by the Rams and Eagles is, in every sense of the word, an all-in move. They are betting the farm on getting their one pick right. It's simply too much to recover from if they don't. Some have theorized that the Rams' glut of young players means all those picks are less valuable, but show me a team that's not constantly looking for a cheaper next man up when good players hit free agency. The Eagles have shipped so many players away and frankly, have to get this right. Let's proceed! The Rams are on the clock.

1. Los Angeles Rams - Jared Goff, QB, Cal.
Debates are swirling about Goff v Wentz here, but I liken them to the "debate" about Luck v Griffin. People are too smart for their own good, and love to delve into contrarian theories. It's particularly easy when their money (or draft haul) isn't at stake. There is no way a QB from outside the BCS goes number 1. So, the Rams will take Goff and then go home for the next day and a half until they get to pick again. In fact, the Rams won't have a meaningful pick until the 2nd round of 2017.

2. Philadelphia Eagles - Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
The Eagles said they're picking a QB. They also said Sam Bradford is their guy. What's for sure is they kept a 2nd rounder, but no longer have a 1st rounder next year, nor a 3rd or 4th this year. And also, they are picking a QB. Wentz is the only other one in the legit top-10 conversation.

3. San Diego Chargers - Laremy Tunsil, OT, Mississippi
This one fell right into the Chargers lap. Poor Philip Rivers has been desperate for an offensive line, and the clear-cut, top-graded player, who happens to be a left tackle, is on his way to San Diego. The Chargers roster is completely depleted so they could go other directions, but there's no reason to get cute here.

4. Dallas Cowboys - Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida St
Another need meets value pick! If this were a few years ago, I'd bet on the Cowboys screwing this up somehow, but they've calmed down recently and have been making good picks. This will be another, and will quiet any talk about them signing Josh Norman. They can then spend the rest of the draft on some secret service to keep Tony Romo from getting injured. They really are that close to being a contender.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars - Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
The Jaguars' offense came to life last year with a 4000-yard passer, promising rookie running back and 2 1000-yard receivers. But, they lost a lot of games because opposing offense also looked great against them. This is a team that can become competitive with a few more good pieces, however, and I think they can take this in a lot of directions. Bortles got sacked a lot, so an offensive line investment could be in play. Is Ronnie Stanley a good value here? Is there a good fit for him on the existing line? They also lacked a dominant pass rusher and gave up lot of yards on the ground. I think in the end Jack's incredible ceiling wins out, but I wouldn't be surprised at Stanley, Bosa or Buckner either.

6. Baltimore Ravens - DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
The Ravens were sunk due to injuries last year and have a rare opportunity to get a blue-chip player. Many have them linked to Bosa, but that would be a mistake. I'm going to project that they're smart enough to figure that out. Going with an outside linebacker makes sense because they lost Upshaw and Dumervil and Suggs are getting older. But, I think they'll remember how their entire defense's identity changed with the right defensive linemen up front. I would pick Darron Lee as the alternative here, not Bosa.

7. San Francisco 49ers - Darron Lee, OLB, Ohio State
The 49ers scored less than 15 points per game, have no viable quarterback, had no pass rush, got sacked a lot and their top receiver turns 36 this year. Translation: they need good players, at any position. In my view, Lee is the best hope. The 49ers saw what a massive exodus on defense can do. They lost Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland from their front seven and they need to reload. I think Lee fits their 3-4 better than Bosa and they go this route. I wouldn't fault them for going with Ronnie Stanley either; their dominant days were when their line featured 3 1st-round picks.

8. Cleveland Browns - Joey Bosa, OLB, Ohio State
By all indications, Cleveland is an analytics shop under new management. What better treat for such a scenario than the best player on the board still available at 8? Scheme mismatch? Who cares. The Browns weren't horrific for a while last year, but injuries completely sunk their season. Their offense was not good, but their defense really imploded. They gave up 4.5 yards per carry, but also 34 passing touchdowns. They need some teeth back in that thing. I could also see them going with Sheldon Rankins to fortify the interior.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Laquon Treadwell, WR, Mississippi
Tampa had a quietly solid season. Winston got a ton of the press, but the team performed reasonably well. To help their offense get to the next level, Winston needs another weapon across from Mike Evans. Tampa's major issue was giving up 31 passing touchdowns despite decent sack numbers, so a corner would be in order, but it's just too early here. There are a number of solid options who could still be on the board in early round 2. Drafting a good tackle is always a reasonable choice with the 9th pick as well, so Stanley could get the call.

10. New York Giants - Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
Another need meets value! The Giants roster is a complete mess, and they need good players. Tackles are some of the safest bets, and it's a position of need for them. Easy pick.

11. Chicago Bears - Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
The Bears are also a mess, but nowhere more so than on the defensive line. They picked up Bobbie Massie in the offseason to be their right tackle and have Kyle Long on the left side, so Conklin doesn't seem like the right pick here. Rankins may not be a sexy pick, but he's the one they need.

12. New Orleans Saints - Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
After years of high-profile offensive linemen, the Saints are reduced to a who's who of players. Conklin should be an immediate upgrade. The Saints biggest need is a better secondary, but they'll have to address that later in the draft because the value just isn't there right now.

13. Miami Dolphins - Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia
Miami could go a few ways with this one, but they seem hell-bent on throwing capital at their front seven. Despite pretty good pressure, they gave up an unholy 45 passing touchdowns last year which suggests they need help in the secondary. Ryan Tannehill also got sacked 45 times, so their line is suspect. However, they ran the ball well ... so maybe that's more on Tannehill? I could see the Dolphins reaching big-time for Vernon Hargreaves too.

14. Oakland Raiders - Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State
The Raiders' rebuild is coming along. They looked considerably better last year. Derek Carr looks promising and Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree seem to be clicking with him. Their defense took strides forward on the backs of Khalil Mack and Charles Woodson. Woodson is done now, and someone will have to fill his shoes. This defense could be quite imposing with another dominant pass rusher on the other side. In our scenario, all the 1st-round talent is off the board, and instead they pick up an heir apparent to the aging Donald Penn.

15. Tennessee Titans - Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama
As it sits, the Titans miss out on the top end of offensive linemen, which would really help their cause. Marcus Mariota was sacked 54 times last year and they struggled to run the ball. I wonder if they would try to deal and move up to 13 after Conklin comes off the board (or maybe even to 11 after Stanley comes off). Offensive line seems to be their dire need. They certainly have the draft capital, and I bet the Dolphins would deal. The move would cost them a 4th rounder, which they happen to have a spare one of. As it sits, I think they address inside linebacker. The Titans could also trade down and amass even more picks in the process. I don't get the sense there's a ready-made trade partner here, but the Titans could give a discount and pick up another 3rd or 4th for moving down. There's always the risk that they trade so far back as to miss all the high-impact players, but this is a team that needs more shots at good players than they do a few shots at amazing ones.

16. Detroit Lions - Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama
This teams knows all too well what happens when a dominant defensive interior leaves town. For all the talk about whether Stafford is their guy, he sure looked fine to me. Half the NFL would gladly swap their starter for him. The other gaping hole is left by Calvin Johnson's departure. Could they go with Josh Doctson instead? No one in this draft will replace Megatron, but Golden Tate is likely not a true #1. They'll need an explosive group to maximize Stafford's potential, but first things first: they give up too much on the ground.

17. Atlanta Falcons - Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Atlanta's run defense was terrible, pass pressure was non-existent, and pretty much nothing worked besides Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. Atlanta has to address the defensive side of the ball. Lawson fits their 4-3 and figures to help both facets of their defense.

18. Indianapolis Colts - Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
That the Colts are picking this late is a miracle in itself. They couldn't run, couldn't keep a quarterback upright, gave up a ton of points on the ground and through the air. Frank Gore was their one effective player, but he's aging out. I think they get a player to help their offense by adding another dimension, then spend the next few rounds on offensive line and pass rush help.

19. Buffalo Bills - Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
The run on pass rushers continues! Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams tied for the team lead with 5 sacks each, and Williams is now gone. Tyrod Taylor was a find for them and their offense is decent. They need help generating pressure. Ogbah may be a reach here but his upside is tremendous.

20. New York Jets - Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis
The Jets have gone to the QB well many times, and pulled out duds. But, while Ryan Fitzpatrick had a very good year for them, he's still in a contract dispute and not a long-term answer. Since the Jets have no other pressing needs, it's time to take a shot at the future. I think wide receiver is in play too here, considering there's not much behind Eric Decker and the aging Brandon Marshall, or Elliott (if he's still on the board) to replace the departed Chris Ivory.

21. Washington Redskins - Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia
Kirk Cousins was a revelation last year (count me surprised!), and lead a surprisingly potent offense. The Redskins also struggled to run the ball. Alfred Morris didn't look right and Matt Jones mixed explosion with some bad plays and fumbles. But, there's no one on the board worth taking for that. Defensively, they need help in the secondary.

22. Houston Texans - Germain Ifedi, OT, Texas A&M
The Texans really are a competent quarterback away from being a deep playoff team. They need some help in the running game, but they also need to keep new hope Brock Osweiler intact. Beefing up their line should help on both accounts.

23. Minnesota Vikings - Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame
The Vikings were a really solid team, but need more punch. They hit the late-round jackpot with Stefon Diggs, but they need more. We're into the sweet spot for the wide receiver talent pool here and the Vikings go for it.

24. Cincinnati Bengals - Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida State
The Bengals have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. They can go BPA, or fit a need. With the departure of Marvin Jones, #2 receiver becomes a need to keep defenses from keying on AJ Green. But, the loss of Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall is bigger. They have to shore up their secondary.

25. Pittsburgh Steelers - William Jackson III, CB, Houston
The Steelers biggest weakness was giving up big plays and touchdowns through the air. If any highly-rated pass rushers are left, they could go that route to cycle out Jarvis Jones (who's looking like a bust at this point).

26. Seattle Seahawks - Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
With Russell Wilson's growth, surrounding him with playmakers would make this team almost unstoppable. The Seahawks showed last year their defense is still elite, so they can continue to push the offense here. Thomas Rawls will take over for Lynch (he was the better back already last year), and the Seahawks' continued success is not in doubt.

27. Green Bay Packers - Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State
This offense just wasn't the same without Jordy Nelson. Aaron Rodgers did his best, but this team needs weapons to get the most out of the elite quarterback. Hunter Henry could give him a dynamic he hasn't had in a few seasons. But, the Packers are getting Nelson back and need to take a defensive lineman to help their struggling run defense, especially with BJ Raji's sudden leave from the league.

28. Kansas City Chiefs - Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas
A curious pick, no doubt, given the presence of the excellent Travis Kelce. But, Kelce is due for a big pay raise this year and it never hurts to have a backup option, especially with a quarterback who works as well with a tight end as Alex Smith does. Also, imagine placing two playmaking tight ends into a lot of run formations in a run-heavy offense. Play-action galore!

29. Arizona Cardinals - Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
The Cards can go a lot of directions here. The Chandler Jones trade and Evan Mathis signing frees them up to pick the best player available with no pressing need. Their defensive line has been primarily manned by elder 1-year-deal guys and Calais Campbell, who's quietly turning 30 this year. Rodney Gunter was a great find, but they need to reload with youth. They also have to start thinking about life after Larry, but the top batch of wideouts is already off the board.

30. Carolina Panthers - Eli Apple, CB, Ohio St
The Panthers were probably the strongest team last year. They lost Jared Allen (though he was no longer elite) and are on the verge of losing Josh Norman. I think they have an appreciation for what a top notch corner can do, and look to replace him.

31. Denver Broncos - Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
The Broncos won the Super Bowl with downright dismal quarterback play. They are in a perfect position to draft a rookie, start him and still be a decent team by supporting him with the run and defense. I think they go for the upside of Cook, despite his personality red flags.

As usual, I'll get most of these wrong. A single trade can upset everything, as can a wrong guess. I'd be surprised if the top 5 were correct, teams simply have too many directions they can go and too much variance in how they evaluate/value players. I'll check back in a week and see how I did.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Pass rushing prospects

Using the guidelines I've come up with, it's time to evaluate the combine performances of the top pass rush prospects using Mel Kiper and Todd McShay's lists, as well as identify any high-upside players outside the top-ranked lists. As usual, I'll break them out by 4-3 DE vs 3-4 OLB.

NamePosition40 dash10yd splitBroad jumpVertical
Myles JackOLB--------
Darron LeeOLB4.471.5411'135.5
Leonard FloydOLB4.60--10'739.5
Noah SpenceOLB4.801.6110'135
Kamalei CorreaOLB4.691.629'033
Emmanuel OgbahOLB4.631.5810'135.5
Joey BosaDE4.86--10'032
Shaq LawsonDE4.701.6310'033

Plain and simple, Joey Bosa is the big loser. If I'm picking, I don't spend a 1st rounder on him. He simply doesn't project to Pro Bowl levels of performance, and there's simply too much other value available to use that pick on such an outcome. But, someone will take him. His college tape at a big-name school is just too good. Buyer beware.

Shaq Lawson is mixed. The optimist will see his numbers as good with a few exceptions, the pessimist as borderline. I don't know what it is about Clemson defensive ends, but there's just not a lot of success in the NFL.

Noah Spence ran a curiously slow 40 despite having a very good 10-yard split. Coupled with off-the-field concerns, he falls out of the first 2 rounds as well. Those picks should go towards high-floor impact players, not headache concerns.

Kamalei Correa has been getting buzz, but his measurables leave too much to be desired. I'd drop him to at least the 4th round. He had decent college production, but in a smaller conference; the league is full of great college players whose athleticism kept them from being impact NFL players.

Darron Lee and Leonard Floyd look great and should be the top 2 taken. Ogbah should probably be next in line. Myles Jack's tape shows extreme athletic ability as well, so maybe his lack of numbers isn't a big deal.

The lower-graded prospects have a number of high-upside options

NamePosition40 dash10yd splitBroad jumpVertical
Travis FeeneyOLB4.501.5810'1040
De'Vondre CampbellOLB4.581.649'834
Deion JonesOLB4.591.6010'033
Montese OvertonOLB4.611.5910'334
Devante BondOLB4.701.6210'137.5
Charles TapperDE4.591.599'1134

There is a glut of interesting potentially 2nd- and 3rd- round players here. Many of these players had good college production too. I'd certainly take some of these players over Spence or Correa. In a league desperate for an impact pass rush, I'd rather spend a pick on whomever a team thinks fits their culture and system than on a running back or guard or a #3 wide receiver.

Some teams will make some serious mistakes and overvalue players. As usual, smart teams can benefit.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Checking back on point differential predictions

I wrote an entry predicting final season outcomes after week 7, based on point differentials at that point in the season. Let's see how they fared, along with some retrospective notes and commentary.

AFC EastPredictedActualFinal diff
New England Patriots15-112-4+150
New York Jets12-410-6+73
Miami Dolphins9-76-10-79
Buffalo Bills8-88-8+20

All teams were within a game of their differential-based expectations, but they all fizzled in the latter half of the season for various reasons. The prediction of finish order in the division had no material errors, but the Jets did miss the playoff.

AFC NorthPredictedActualFinal diff
Cincinnati Bengals13-312-4+140
Pittsburgh Steelers10-610-6+104
Baltimore Ravens6-105-11-73
Cleveland Browns6-103-13-154

Well, there's a reason Mike Pettine is no longer employed. These predictions were materially spot on: Cinci won the division but missed out on the bye, and Pittsburgh is awarded a wild card berth. Based on differential, we'd normally expect the Steelers to reach 11 wins, but their highly bipolar games (with vs without Roethlisberger) explain that outcome.

AFC SouthPredictedActualFinal diff
Indianapolis Colts6-108-8-75
Tennessee Titans6-103-13-124
Houston Texans5-119-7+26
Jacksonville Jaguars4-125-11-72

The Texans turned their season around as effectively as they jettisoned Ryan Mallett. Clearly he was not the answer, and going to Brian Hoyer was the trick. The Colts stayed right on track in point differential, but managed to squeeze 2 unexpected wins out. The Titans and Jags underperformed their expectations by 1 game each. This division went completely against projections, though a statistician would argue that there was a lot of noise in the signal in Week 7. All the teams looked bad, there was no way to guess who would get their act together.

AFC WestPredictedActualFinal diff
Denver Broncos11-512-4+59
Oakland Raiders7-97-9-40
Kansas City Chiefs6-1011-5+118
San Diego Chargers6-104-12-78

Who saw the Chiefs coming back to win 9 of their last 10 without Jamaal Charles? Seriously, that's crazy. The really crazy thing is their point differential puts their expectation just slightly towards 12 wins! Denver, on the other hand, outperformed their differential by 2 wins. I'm proud of the projection though, it's meaningful to project that a 6-0 team will be barely over .500 the rest of the way. The Chargers battled hard and we'd normally expect to see 6 wins at -78 points, but they just couldn't close out games. The projections correctly identified the division winner, but missed on the wild card.

Overall in the AFC, we correctly predicted 3 division winners and 1 wildcard (though to be fair, none of those predictions was a stretch), and a total of 4 playoff teams correctly.

NFC EastPredictedActualFinal diff
Philadelphia Eagles10-67-9-53
New York Giants9-76-10-22
Washington Redskins7-99-7+9
Dallas Cowboys5-114-12-99

The two teams that looked to be the favorites imploded down the stretch and are now searching for new coaches, and somehow Kirk Cousins channeled his inner Drew Brees. Redords are all within a game of where differential expects; everyone but the Cowboys changed course in the back half. The Cowboys ... well. The projections missed on the division winner, but correctly predicted no wild card teams. That counts for something, right?

NFC NorthPredictedActualFinal diff
Green Bay Packers13-310-6+45
Minnesota Vikings10-611-5+63
Detroit Lions4-127-9-42
Chicago Bears3-136-10-62

Projections identified both playoff teams (though the Vikings were in the maybe bucket with Atlanta), just in reverse order. This wasn't a stretch either. The Bears and Lions turned in respectable second halves, and the Packers completely underperformed. Records are where we'd expect them to be based on differentials.

NFC SouthPredictedActualFinal diff
Carolina Panthers12-415-1+192
Atlanta Falcons11-58-8-6
New Orleans Saints6-107-9-68
Tampa Bay Buccaneers5-116-10-75

A clean sweep! Remember at the time that many were doubting the Panthers despite their perfect start. They actually outperformed expectations at the end, +192 would project to 14 wins; they made a really strong run at 16-0. Differential at the time correctly predicted Atlanta's decline, but even it wasn't detached enough to see a 2-7 finish and missing the playoffs coming.

NFC WestPredictedActualFinal diff
Arizona Cardinals14-213-3+176
Seattle Seahawks10-610-6+146
St Louis Rams7-97-9-50
San Francisco 49ers3-135-11-149

Another really good projection! We nailed the division winner and the wildcard. Records were right where final differentials would expect, except for the 49ers who really had the differential of a 3-13 team but pulled some miracle version of Blaine Gabbert from their bench.

Overall in the NFC, we hit 3 of the division winners and 1.5 wild cards (calling Falcons/Vikings a 50/50), but overall got 5.5 of the playoff teams right.

For the NFL as a whole, using point differential after week 7 to predict final outcome was reasonably good. The method picked 6 of the 8 division winners and 9 or 10 of the 12 playoff teams. The method of using point differentials isn't anything earth-shattering or super insightful. The interesting question here is if representative data is present after 7 weeks. The answer seems to clearly point to yes.

The appeal of the method is its simplicity. It requires no complex math, no models adjusting for strength of schedule or opponents; it's something anyone can use in their head or on a napkin. If I felt up to it, I'd do an analysis of how many playoff teams are correctly predicted as a function of number of games played. Any strong indicators could be useful, say, in Vegas.

Per differential, the Panthers are favored in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals are 2nd and the Seahawks barely trail the Patriots for 3rd. Adjusting for injuries and when teams are peaking (or flailing), and it really seems like the top 3 contenders are from the NFC.

Friday, January 1, 2016

College football bloat season

Oops, that should be "bowl season".

The 2015 season features 40 bowl games (not including the national championship game), meaning over 2/3 of teams get to finish their season in a bowl. This is even more egregious than the NBA playoffs, where each year 16 of 29 (55%) of teams make the postseason. Aside from diluting the meaning of "making the postseason", this leads to a giant collection of non-competitive games. There's no reasonable way to pair up teams to begin with, and conference affiliations on many bowls further limit possibilities. I mean, why should the 5th best team from one conference vs the 6th best from another be a good game? Even the 6-wins criteria is laughable since most teams collect 3 wins against FCS teams; or in the cases of Minnesota and Nebraska, a losing regular season record was good enough.

So, how many of the 40 games are remotely competitive? And how does that break down between games where both, one, or neither team is ranked?

Here are the games between each group (red indicates a 20+ point margin of victory, green is 8 or less):

#1 Clemson vs #4 Oklahoma, 37-17
#2 Alabama vs #3 Michigan State, 38-0
#5 Iowa vs #6 Stanford, 16-45
#7 Ohio State vs #8 Notre Dame, 44-28
#9 Florida State vs #18 Houston, 24-38
#10 North Carolina vs #17 Baylor, 38-49
#12 Ole Miss vs #16 Oklahoma State, 48-20
#13 Northwestern vs #23 Tennessee, 6-45
#14 Michigan vs #19 Florida, 41-7

#20 LSU vs Texas Tech, 56-27
#21 Navy vs Pittsburgh, 44-28
#22 Utah vs BYU, 35-28
#24 Temple vs Toledo, 17-32
#25 USC vs Wisconsin, 21-23

Arizona vs New Mexico, 45-37
Appalachian State vs Ohio, 31-29
San Jose State vs Georgia State, 27-16
Louisiana Tech vs Arkansas State, 47-28
Western Kentucky vs South Florida, 45-35
Akron vs Utah State, 23-31
Boise State vs Northern Illinois, 55-7
Georgia Southern vs Bowling Green , 58-27
Western Michigan vs Middle Tennessee, 45-31
San Diego State vs Cincinnati, 42-7
Marshall vs Connecticut, 16-10
Washington State vs Miami, 20-14
Washington vs Southern Mississippi, 44-31
Duke vs Indiana, 44-41
Virginia Tech vs Tulsa, 55-52
Nebraska vs UCLA, 37-29
Minnesota vs Central Michigan, 21-14
California vs Air Force, 55-36
Nevada vs Colorado State, 28-23
Auburn vs Memphis, 31-10
Mississippi State vs NC State, 51-28
Louisville vs Texas A&M, 27-21

Not yet played:
#11 TCU vs #15 Oregon
Penn State vs Georgia
Kansas State vs Arkansas
West Virginia vs Arizona State

Interestingly, the games between unranked teams had a lot more drama. There was literally not a single game between ranked teams that was decided by one score or less, and 6 out of 9 were by 20 or more. These are the top-tier games and they are blowouts. The other games with one ranked teams did barely better. Overall, the count in played games of close-normal-blowout for each group is:
2 ranked teams: 0-3-6
1 ranked team: 2-2-1
2 unranked teams: 11-6-5

The overall tally is 13-11-12. Put another way: practically random. The lack of quality games involving a ranked team (2-5-7) is particularly sad. I'm not sure what to do about this, or if this just means the comparisons between conferences are a crapshoot.


What if college football used my what-if system?

I've written several times about an alternate approach to the college football playoff, and even outlined how it would have been more relevant last year. Time to do the same again as Stanford is beating down Iowa. For the record, here are the 6 BCS bowls, as played:

#1 Clemson vs #4 Oklahoma, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl **
#2 Alabama vs #3 Michigan St, 38-0, in the Cotton Bowl **
#5 Stanford vs #6 Iowa, 45-16, in the Rose Bowl
#7 Ohio State vs #8 Notre Dame, 44-28, in the Fiesta Bowl
#9 Florida State vs #18 Houston, 24-38, in the Peach Bowl
#12 Ole Miss vs #16 Oklahoma St, 48-20, in the Sugar Bowl

** - National championship game semifinal

Between scheduling and playing, all but one of these games were either blowouts or featured teams well outside of the top 12 teams in the country. Ohio St vs Notre Dame was the only decent game featuring teams with legitimate claims to a BCS bowl. Why is Houston or Oklahoma more deserving than #10 North Carolina and #11 TCU? Flipping it around, why is Ole Miss more deserving than Michigan or Northwestern?

To look at the what-if games, let's remind ourselves of the traditional bowl affiliations:
Orange Bowl: ACC champ vs at-large
Cotton Bowl: Big-12 champ vs SEC
Rose Bowl: Pac-12 champ vs Big Ten champ
Peach Bowl: SEC vs ACC
Sugar Bowl: SEC champ vs at-large
Fiesta Bowl: Pac-12 vs at-large

And remind ourselves of the top teams and Power 5 conference champs (in bold):
1. Clemson (ACC) 13-0
2. Alabama (SEC) 12-1
3. Michigan St (Big Ten) 12-1
4. Oklahoma (Big 12) 11-1
5. Iowa (Big Ten) 12-1
6. Stanford (Pac-12) 11-2
7. Ohio St (Big Ten) 11-2
8. Notre Dame (Ind) 10-2
9. Florida St (ACC) 10-2
10. North Carolina (ACC) 11-2
11. TCU (Big 12) 10-2
12. Ole Miss (SEC) 9-3
13. Northwestern (Big Ten) 10-2
14. Michigan (Big Ten) 9-3
15. Oregon (Pac-12) 9-3
16. Oklahoma St (Big 12) 10-2
17. Baylor (Big 12) 9-3
18. Houston (American) 12-1

Unlike many previous years, there isn't a highly ranked true outsider (like Boise St, TCU and Hawaii in the latter part of the previous decade). Using the affiliations as guidelines, we get partial games:

#1 Clemson vs at-large in the Orange Bowl
#2 Alabama vs at-large in the Sugar Bowl
#3 Michigan St vs #6 Stanford in the Rose Bowl
#4 Oklahoma vs SEC in the Cotton Bowl
at-large vs #15 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl
SEC vs #9 Florida St in the Peach Bowl

Oregon is a stretch to make a BCS game, so we should consider swapping in a significantly more deserving non-Pac-12 team. We also don't have 3 deserving SEC teams for their 3 traditional slots. We now have to dole out the remaining teams in the at-large pool while maintaining high-caliber matchups to help get a real feel of how these teams rank against each other. Clemson already played Notre Dame so we don't want a rematch. The simplest thing would be to have Iowa play Clemson and Ohio State play Alabama. This gives us a rare chance to evaluate three conference champs against clearly comparable teams:

#1 Clemson vs #5 Iowa in the Orange Bowl
#2 Alabama vs #6 Ohio St in the Sugar Bowl
#3 Michigan St vs #6 Stanford in the Rose Bowl
#4 Oklahoma vs SEC in the Cotton Bowl
at-large vs #15 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl
SEC vs #9 Florida St in the Peach Bowl

The next teams on the list are Notre Dame, North Carolina and TCU. Ole Miss is the only SEC team left, and their overall ranking suggests they should go to the Peach Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl. Thus, the SEC should lose their Cotton Bowl spot in favor of a more deserving team. Oklahoma is realistically very far on the outside looking in already, so "only" getting Notre Dame is ok. And thus, the BCS bowls become:

#1 Clemson vs #5 Iowa in the Orange Bowl
#2 Alabama vs #7 Ohio St in the Sugar Bowl
#3 Michigan St vs #6 Stanford in the Rose Bowl
#4 Oklahoma vs #8 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl
#10 North Carolina vs #15 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl
#12 Ole Miss vs #9 Florida St in the Peach Bowl

It features 11 of the top 12 teams in theoretically competitive matchups (though of course we don't know how any of these would actually turn out). Oregon has clearly the weakest resume and I wouldn't really argue against swapping in another team (TCU, Northwestern or Michigan, or Houston), but it's at the tail anyways so it's not going to affect the championship game. If Clemson and Alabama both win, the decision is easy. If either (or both) lose, it gets progressively more complicated, of course. But let's remember: every game should count!

If we accept that only a conference champ should even be in the national championship game conversation, the above essentially plays like the playoff, but gives Stanford the slightest glimmer of hope if they win big and every other top seed loses. I think a non-zero claim to the championship game is legit in that case because the overall records differentiate less, and Stanford would have beaten the top Big Ten team (while Clemson and Alabama would have lost to comparable, but technically lesser, ones).

Realistically this year it all worked out the way it "should have" considering Alabama and Clemson were the clear top two. But, we'd hopefully see a few more competitive games along the way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Projecting final standings

We're now 7 weeks into the season and can get a sense of how good teams really are. Using point differential, we can project final standings, so let's see how we'd expect teams to finish. Of course there are caveats: for example this won't account for remaining strength of schedule or significant injuries, but it's something. Let's see how close to reality we get!

The model uses the very strong correlation of every 2 points differential per game with 1 game away from 8-8. Due to rounding errors, the total wins and losses in the table might not quite add up.

AFC East
New England Patriots15-1
New York Jets12-4
Miami Dolphins9-7
Buffalo Bills8-8

AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals13-3
Pittsburgh Steelers10-6
Baltimore Ravens6-10
Cleveland Browns6-10

AFC South
Indianapolis Colts6-10
Tennessee Titans6-10
Houston Texans5-11
Jacksonville Jaguars4-12

AFC West
Denver Broncos11-5
Oakland Raiders7-9
Kansas City Chiefs6-10
San Diego Chargers6-10
NFC East
Philadelphia Eagles10-6
New York Giants9-7
Washington Redskins7-9
Dallas Cowboys5-11

NFC North
Green Bay Packers13-3
Minnesota Vikings10-6
Detroit Lions4-12
Chicago Bears3-13

NFC South
Carolina Panthers12-4
Atlanta Falcons11-5
New Orleans Saints6-10
Tampa Bay Buccaneers5-11

NFC West
Arizona Cardinals14-2
Seattle Seahawks10-6
St Louis Rams7-9
San Francisco 49ers3-13

The predictions generally feel sound, though it's unlikely that Arizona will go 9-0 the rest of the season, or that the Bears or 49ers will only win one more game. I'd also guess the Jags are trending upwards and will finish with more wins than the Texans, but the projections pass a gut check.

In the AFC playoffs we have division winners New England (bye), Cincinnati (bye), Indianapolis and Denver along with wildcards New York and Pittsburgh. The Colts would be the worst-ever division winner, but the AFC South looks to be really that bad. Looking at their schedule, their likely wins are in the last 6 weeks of the year when facing the Bucs, Jags, Texans and Titans.

In the NFC playoffs we have division winners Arizona (bye), Green Bay (bye), Carolina and Philadelphia and wildcards Atlanta and Seattle or Minnesota depending on tie-breaks. I personally feel better about Seattle's chances of getting to 10-6; the Vikings have tough games left against likely playoff teams Green Bay (twice), Atlanta, Seattle and Arizona, while St Louis and the Giants aren't easy outs either. Seattle's tough games are Arizona (twice), Minnesota, Pittsburgh and St Louis.

Tony Romo and Dez Bryant may return just in time to get the Cowboys a few wins and take them out of prime drafting territory. Early indications show 4 top-tier quarterbacks who could all go in the top 10; the rest of the top 10 is dominated by offensive tackles and defensive ends. Going from 5 wins to 7 would mean moving from picking around 3-5 to around 12-15. They'd miss out on either a blue chip player or the opportunity to wheel and deal.

San Francisco and Chicago would pick 1-2. Both have franchise quarterbacks who are underperforming. The top picks would be great opportunities to take a shot at the future. In our scenario, the Jags and Lions pick next. I think neither needs a QB so they get to make prime picks. Next come the Texans (need a qb), leaving the Cowboys to play host to a potential bidding war by quarterback-needy Cleveland and Kansas City, and maybe even New Orleans and/or San Diego if they're looking to the future. In other words, a lot rides on the draft order this year. It seems to be a rare year for quarterback talent and there's always more demand than supply. Then again, these draft player projections will change drastically by next March. They always do.