By: Edward Egros

college

It's a Must Win for Alabama

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Let's suppose Oklahoma wins the Big 12 Championship, Ohio State wins the Big Ten, Clemson takes the ACC and, wait for it, wait for it, Georgia claims the SEC title. In other words, Alabama is the only team in the Top 6 to lose AND, aside from Notre Dame, the only team not to have a conference championship.

Seth Walder of ESPN says
Alabama would still make the College Football Playoff, per their Playoff Predictor. This metric offers a likelihood a team makes the playoff, given its resume, taking into account five variables: Strength of Record, Football Power Index, Number of Losses, Conference Championship and Independent Status. This model says Bama would have a 43% chance to make it, while Ohio State would have just a 37% shot and Oklahoma at 28%.

With all due respect to the model, the 6% difference is not large enough to feel comfortable about the prediction (confidence intervals and comparisons are not readily available). Also, if there are messages or lessons the committee is trying to teach college football fans, in 2015 we learned conference championships are hugely significant, unless that team suffered two losses, like 2016 when the two-loss Big Ten Champion Penn State Nittany Lions missed out to one-loss Ohio State, or 2017 when one-loss Alabama edged the two-loss Big Ten Champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

This year, if Alabama loses in this scenario, they would be compared with a one-loss Big 12 champion and a one-loss Big Ten winner for one available spot. Again, this is unlike last year when the committee compared Bama with a two-loss team. There are three teams instead of two to consider, and each have one loss.

If consistency is something to be strived for, and conference championships deserve added weight, and if
geographic diversity is still a consideration, then Alabama, despite everything accomplished this year, is in a "must win" game Saturday afternoon to make the College Football Playoff.

It May Seem Like Mayhem, But...

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Though a few schools decided to start the college football season one week early, the heavyweights, the blue chippers, the ones who are constantly atop any set of rankings you can find and are in contention for that trophy…begin this weekend.

As before, we can use parts of our
college football prediction model to determine who is likeliest to have the most talent and the most favorable schedule, including who has the toughest games at home and if the toughest games are on days with ample rest and preparation.

Using all of this information, my prediction for who will make this year's College Football Playoff are:

Alabama
Ohio State
USC
Florida State

Virtually every year, there is a surprise team sparingly chosen that charges from
outside the Top 10 to the Final Four. This year, I am picking two. First, while many say Washington will represent the West coast, I like USC because of more highly ranked sophomore and junior classes (per 247 Sports) and Washington begins the season in Auburn (a Top 10 team in many metrics including ours), while USC's toughest non-conference opponent is at Texas (not as strong as Auburn), and the Huskies are likelier to lose than the Trojans while USC still earns solid strength of schedule numbers. The Trojans also boast one of the better receiving corps which should help a true freshman quarterback in JT Daniels feel comfortable.

The other outsider is Florida State, edging a perennial contender in Clemson. Again, the Seminoles have more highly ranked second-year and third-year classes and Clemson plays at Florida State. Last season, the Seminoles were ranked third in the AP Preseason. You can make the argument: had they not lost starting
quarterback Deondre Francois for the season with an injured patella tendon in his left knee, they would have been in contention. The running game also carried that offense, and with Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick providing depth in the backfield, this offense should not be overlooked.

This playoff is entering its fifth season. Even though USC and Florida State are outside of the AP Top 10, the Seminoles have been in the playoff before, and the Trojans are the defending Pac-12 champions. It may seem like mayhem, but it's not.

Ohio State's Less Important Question

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Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer continues to face the possibility he will not coach the Buckeyes ever again. The school placed him on paid administrative leave as it investigates if he failed to report (or do anything about) an assistant coach allegedly committing domestic violence. This assistant may have exhibited a pattern of horrific behavior, yet remained on Meyer's coaching staff at Florida and Ohio State for years after reported incidents. The school announced it would like to end its investigation in the coming days.

What matters far less than potentially covering up violent crime is football itself. There exists the serious reality an entire football team will have to scramble to organize, practice and get through a gauntlet of a season, all because its leader exhibited incredibly poor judgment. There also exists an unfortunate reality if no reasonable explanations can be uncovered during this investigation: doing the right thing has consequences.

Other college football programs have parted ways with its head coach within a couple of months of the season's kickoff. In 2017, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze resigned
after questions were raised about phone calls made to a female escort service. One year earlier, Baylor fired head coach Art Briles after a couple of his players were convicted of sexual assault and many more women came forward alleging some within the football team committed multiple acts of violence against them. Lastly, in 2012, Arkansas fired head coach Bobby Petrino for unfairly hiring a mistress, not disclosing the nature of that relationship to his boss and not admitting to authorities she was present when Petrino suffered a motorcycle accident.

In each case, I looked at how many wins each team was projected to win prior to each scandal,
according to our prediction model. This model takes into account recruiting rankings of the sophomore and junior seasons from 247sports (the classes we found to be statistically significant), home and away schedules and if any games were played other than on Saturdays. Here are the results:

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For Ole Miss, near the end of the season the Rebels had four games decided by one possession. In each game we projected them to win; however, they went 2-2. An 8-4 possibility became a 6-6 performance. For Baylor, there was a three-game stretch near the end of the season where things seemed to fall apart (i.e. losses to Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia). The Bears could have gone 10-3, but instead finished 7-6. Lastly, for Arkansas, we suspected a dip in performance after coming off an appearance in the Sugar Bowl, but the downtick turned out to be more severe. Instead of perhaps going 7-5, they went 4-8.

Several other factors could have caused an underperformance of these projections, so it cannot be definitively concluded the departure of the head coach caused the unforeseen losses. However, intuitively it might make sense that a coaching change late in the offseason could mean two or three additional losses. If, indeed, Ohio State decides to fire Urban Meyer, and if it does mean the Buckeyes narrowly miss out on championships, only Meyer is to blame.

Georgia or Alabama?

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The field is set inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for college football's national championship game. Aside from the playoff logo in the center, it looks a lot like what the SEC Championship will probably look like for years to come. Alabama has shown few signs of slowing down from its dynastic pace, while Georgia's achievements on the field and in recruiting suggest they may be that next major program to become a staple of the playoff.

Those games in the future will never have the stakes of tonight. So who will win?

As previously mentioned, Charles South and I put together a prediction model using advanced analytical techniques (you can see our
poster presentation here). Quick warning: you are about to see a long list. The significant variables—pertinent to tonight—that determine the outcome of a football game are:

- Yards per Pass Attempt
- Yards per Rush Attempt
- Rush Attempts
- Total Yards
- Yards per Play
- Turnovers
- Opponent Points Scored
- Opponent Yards per Rush Attempt
- Opponent Total Yards
- Opponent Turnovers
- Opponent Penalty Yards
- Average Point Differential
- Opponent Offense Passing Yds
- Opponent Offense Yards per Rush Att
- Opponent Offense Total Yards
- Opponent Offense YPP
- Opponent Def Total Rush Yds
- Opponent Defense YPRA
- Opponent Defense Total Yards
- Opponent Def Yards Per Play
- Opponent Defense TO
- Opponent Avg Points Differential
- Difference in Win %
- Recruiting Rankings

If you survived reading that long, congratulations! What's important to learn is the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide excel in just about every category. The difference in yards, points and statistical increments are razor thin, no matter your perspective. Without going into every variable, we can summarize several of them into overall offense, defense, schedule and recruiting.

Georgia's rushing attack with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb comprise most of its offense. They overcame the massive deficit in the Rose Bowl, they make the game manageable for a freshman quarterback and, as part of the backfield, they average more yards per carry and rushing attempts than Alabama. Neither team throws it much, though Georgia is more efficient through the air, by roughly one-third of a yard per attempt. Though Alabama is less efficient overall, some of that fact can be attributed to having big leads early in games, then cruising the rest of the way; it is why the Tide have more total yards than the Dawgs and Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts is the second-leading rusher on his own team, to preserve those leads.

Defensively, there seems to be few weaknesses with Alabama, though outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings will not play because of a knee injury. Near the end of the regular-season the injury problems mounted, but were under control in the Sugar Bowl, limiting the number-one ranked team to just six points and 188 total yards. Its rushing defense is best in America, allowing 2.7 yards per carry. The team passing efficiency defense also gives Bama the edge. Led by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, they've allowed just seven passing touchdowns and has an efficiency mark a full 17 points better than Georgia (1st in college football vs 13th nationally).

These statistics can be misleading given the small sample sizes in college football. Georgia did play an additional game, and often another contest can help a team historically. Alabama has only a slightly better point differential this season than Georgia. The Bulldogs faced the best offense when it comes to passing efficiency (Oklahoma). The best Alabama went up against was Auburn at 13th; a game they lost (Georgia split the two meetings). The Bulldogs got to face a Top 10 rushing attack in Notre Dame, while the Tide never faced anyone in the Top 25. The best passing efficiency defense Alabama faced was in the Sugar Bowl (5th) while the best Georgia saw was 19th (Auburn). The schedule favors Alabama but only slightly.

Finally, our study used
247Sports Composite Class Rankings to determine who has the best talent. Our study highlights the second-year and third-year classes, but also analyzes the average ranking of the first three classes. In this case, Alabama had the top class the past three years, though Georgia consistency fielded a Top 10 group.

Again, it is clear how evenly matched these teams are and how similar they are in terms of their approaches and philosophies. It promises to be an exciting game, and while the unpredictable like turnovers or missed field goal attempts prove all of the difference, if what's controllable decides this game, Alabama should have a narrow victory.

Predicting the College Football Committee

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The penultimate College Football Playoff rankings are out and those conceivably in the running are:

1. Clemson
2. Auburn
3. Oklahoma
4. Wisconsin
5. Alabama
6. Georgia
7. Miami
8. Ohio State

Before predicting how the playoff will develop, it is important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the College Football Playoff committee has
outlined some of the things they hope to accomplish picking the four teams. Among the most relevant items:

- Consider geography
- Avoid rematches in the regular-season
- Consider strength of schedule
- Consider conference championships won

It is also important some of the things the committee has never done in three years:

- Taken two teams from one conference
- Taken a two-loss team
- Taken three teams from the same region of the country

Using these guidelines, here is how the playoff will be decided:

- The winner of the ACC Championship between Clemson and Miami gets in, the loser is out.
- The winner of the SEC Championship between Georgia and Auburn gets in, the loser is out.
- Oklahoma gets in if they win the Big 12 Championship, TCU cannot get in.
- Wisconsin gets in if they win the Big Ten Championship. If Ohio State wins, they get in if TCU wins.
- Alabama gets in if Oklahoma loses OR Wisconsin loses.

It is impossible point differential matters in any of these league championship games (it is the committee, it is omnipotent). But chances are, we have our blueprint for who will compete for the national title in January.

Gary Patterson is the Most Hated Man in College Football

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(Courtesy: Getty Images)

It's not Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or some college football pundit who polarizes fan bases to insanity, just for that monthly paycheck.

It's TCU head coach Gary Patterson, who's led the program since 2000, including a pair of conference transitions and two New Year's Six Bowl victories. Despite few controversial issues within his program, Patterson earns this distinction because of who he is and where he works.

Who he is, is a winner. Perhaps most notable among his accomplishments, his teams are 43-5 when ranked in the Top 10. This record suggests the longevity of having played so many games near the top of the poll du jour, but also a near perfect winning percentage when expected to succeed.

Where he works is a small, private university with
roughly 10,000 students. To compare, this student body is 1/4 the size of Alabama's and roughly 1/5 the size of other highly touted college football schools like Penn State and Ohio State. Also, many of these schools are flagships of their own state, meaning their fan bases extend well beyond those who actually attend the university. Not only can't TCU boast being a flagship, it operates from a state with some of the larger followings in America like Texas and Texas A&M.

Gary Patterson is a successful coach who works for a small school with a smaller fan base trying to get his team into Year 4 of the College Football Playoff. He came close during the inaugural year of the playoff, but was pushed aside for: Ohio State (Baylor also finished ahead of TCU but was also left out, another small private university). Some will argue vindication for the eventual champion Buckeyes, but how TCU would have performed in the playoff that year remains a mystery, even more shrouded given its 39-point victory over 9th-ranked Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. The gripes only grow louder knowing TCU
controlled games better than Ohio State, had a better defensive efficiency (a metric that predicts success better than offensive efficiency) and the strength of schedule between the Frogs and Buckeyes were roughly the same.

TCU's lone loss that season was to Baylor, and committees historically rank good losses worse than mediocre defeats. The trend seems counterintuitive, but rhetorically serves as an acceptable argument within college football. Also, because the Frogs and Bears split the Big 12 Championship, despite the head-to-head result, they could have "canceled each other out", opening the door for Ohio State.

Still, the only other school with a successful season these last four years most like TCU is Stanford, with an
enrollment roughly 50% larger than the Frogs'. In 2015, they won the Pac-12 Championship, but two losses locked them out. The last two-loss team to win a National Championship was LSU in 2007, so opportunities for those in Stanford's position have always been limited.

Today, TCU is in a more advantageous position than three years ago. The latest College Football Playoff poll has TCU ranked 6th. They will face 5th-ranked Oklahoma and could face the Sooners again in a separate Big 12 Championship Game, something that did not exist during the TCU/Baylor controversy. The conference added this contest because their analytics suggest the game gives a Big 12 team
a greater likelihood of making the Final Four. Two wins over a highly ranked Sooners squad would give the Horned Frogs an undisputed league championship, something that is a statistically significant variable for making the playoff. Their strength of schedule ranking would also increase and defensive efficiency may also rise because a win would include containing Sooner quarterback and Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield.

Despite the lone loss, if TCU wins its remaining games, the Frogs' resume would be arguably as bulletproof as any one-loss team. The committee admits to wanting geographic diversity, but there would not be another program in that region of the country with a more attractive resume. If TCU is still left out, something should be considered amiss. Having a smaller following could be assumed as a factor for being left out. Gary Patterson would then spotlight a problem with this era of determining a National Champion: he has done virtually everything he can to put his team in a position to play for a title; and yet gets left out for a second year. A conspiracy theory, true or otherwise, that undermines the validity of the selection process, is something the sport and the committee would hate.

A New NCAA Tournament

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There's no doubting the increased awareness of analytics in predicting the NCAA tournament field in college basketball. Instead of just diagnosing a team's record against the Top 50, it's Rating Percentage Index or Ken Pomeroy rankings, that are becoming more commonplace. It has gotten to where data scientists are actually meeting with the NCAA to determine if one metric should be used above all others to pick tournament teams.

Perhaps surprisingly, data scientists want simpler criteria for picking teams: who wins, who loses and who have you played. This is opposed to other explanatory variables used in more advanced metrics, like margin of victory and offensive/defensive efficiency. Coaches, on the other hand, would prefer more complex formulae for determining the tournament field. Logically, this approach makes more sense from their perspective, because of competition. If a coach has figured out a style of play or way to schedule opponents that increases the likelihood of making the tournament, they develop a competitive advantage. Data scientists want to keep it simple for fans, coaches want a figure out a competitive advantage.

Perhaps in this same spirit of transparency, the tournament selection committee released "in-season" projections for the first time ever, one month before Selection Sunday. It only has the top four seeds of every region, but it is added information for where highly ranked teams really sit. As with any analytic project, more data "usually" means more robust forecasts. Already, it is easier to make more accurate assumptions and offer a better glimpse as to what the committee is looking for.

However, these in-season projections do not include the full field of 68, and what usually causes the most consternation is simply who does and does not make the dance. While it makes sense not to include the full field because you have to assume certain conference champions in mid-major conferences, something that would include all "at large" teams would provide even more information as to the criteria for inclusion.

Nothing is easy about picking 68 teams to play in a tournament, and while analytics may be helpful in forecasting a Final Four, easy-to-understand criteria can help teams and fans quell any controversy.

A New Journalism Feature

Pasted GraphicEach week, I will air a segment on Good Day on Fox 4 in Dallas/Fort Worth that takes an analytic look inside college football. First, I look at a statistical trend inferring something we saw from the weekend before, the challenges predicting games and the secrets to being a more informed fan. Second, I use data and modeling to forecast games featuring some of the favorite teams from north Texas.

I will then post these segments to YouTube and share the links on the Journalism section here. You can click Journalism at the top of the page or
click here.

Evaluating Your Bracket

Pasted Graphic 1The Law of Conservation of Mass tells us: matter is neither created nor destroyed. When you burn your horribly incorrect college basketball bracket, remember, you never destroyed it, it is in another form somewhere in the universe. So instead of ignoring your transgressions, let's embrace what still exists and see which approaches were the best when predicting who will be in the Final Four.

There's a one-seed (North Carolina), a couple of two-seeds (Villanova and Oklahoma) and a 10-seed (Syracuse). There is not as much parity with this quartet as with some tournaments in the last few years. Still, some of the favorites to win the National Championship did not survive the first two weeks of this crucible. For instance, the top three teams in the Pythagorean Rating at the end of the conference tournaments are not playing in Houston. In fact,
Syracuse did not even crack the top 25, until recently. ESPN's Basketball Power Index offers these rankings: North Carolina (1), Villanova (3), Oklahoma (6) and Syracuse (39). The LRMC Basketball Rankings still has its two, three and seven, but ranks the Orange 41st.

Some computer models have resorted to predictions without solely implementing historical data. How is this possible? Microsoft's search engine, Bing, uses social media to determine which teams will survive and advance.
It has already proven successful in other sporting events like the World Cup and NFL games. But how did it fare for this tournament? Sadly for Bing, it only predicted one Final Four team correctly (North Carolina). In fact, the system predicted the Orange to lose their first game.

It should be clear by now the two schools that ruined this tournament's predictiveness: Kansas and Syracuse. The Jayhawks were the top team by nearly all accounts, yet lost in the Regional Final,
perhaps uncharacteristically. At the other end of the spectrum, Syracuse could be the worst team ever to make the Final Four. There have been 11-seeds to make it to the final weekend of the season, but many debated if Syracuse even deserved to make the tournament. Their RPI was 72 at the time of selection, worse than other schools that were not chosen (e.g. Valparaiso, San Diego St. and St. Bonaventure). Instead of the favorite vying for the National Championship, it's the controversial at-large two wins away from glory.

Even listening to me would not have been wise. Using my own system, I only correctly predicted one team (and it was a different school than what I said was coming out of that Region on Fox 4). My National Champion was knocked out during the Elite Eight (Kansas) and my second place team lost in the First Round (Michigan St.).

So what is the best way to fill out your bracket for the next tournament?

I don't know.