College football begins a new era today. After years of frustration with the Bowl Championship Series, there's finally a playoff to crown a national champion. If you haven't followed the season closely to this point but want to follow along, here's a quick rundown of what you should know about each team, and their chances to win the playoff.
Ohio State will play Alabama in one semi-final game while Florida State battles Oregon in the other. Four teams might seem like too few, especially for the Big 12 conference, but the new playoff is much better than its predecessor.
We'll take a look at these four teams and their paths to the first college football playoff. A few numbers will guide us on this journey.
Rank in preseason AP poll. The higher ranked team in the preseason AP poll has won 59.1% of bowl games from 2002 through 2013, a remarkable accuracy. For comparison, the Colley matrix, a computer poll used by the BCS, predicts 54.0% of bowl games. It seems that crowds of sports reporters are good at judging talent before the season starts.
Ensemble rankings at The Power Rank. These rankings are calculated from margin of victory and yards per play statistics from this season. An algorithm I developed from my academic research in statistical physics adjusts for strength of schedule and devalues the importance of blow outs. The offense and defense rankings below are based on the yards per play rankings.
Playoff win probability. This prediction comes from averaging my calculations based on the ensemble rankings above and the implied probabilities from the betting markets. Aggregating multiple predictors usually makes for more accurate predictions.
We'll go from least to most likely to win the first college football playoff.
13-0, Preseason AP #1, The Power Rank #10, 9.7% playoff win probability.
The Seminoles began the season with high expectations after winning the national championship last season. They returned many starters from last season on both sides of the ball, including Heisman winning QB Jameis Winston.
However, Florida State never looked dominant this season. They went 7-0 in games decided by 7 or fewer points, and this win percentage in close games is unsustainable in the long run.
Having a perfect record in close games requires some good fortune. Notre Dame scored a go ahead touchdown late in the 4th quarter but had it called back on a correct-if-fortuitous pass interference penalty. Against Miami, a tipped Florida State pass landed in the hands of Karlos Williams, who scored a touchdown that propelled another come from behind win.
Thanks to this copious good luck, Florida State went undefeated and earned its spot in the college football playoff. The offense led the way, as they were ranked 5th in yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. Winston led the way, though he threw fewer touchdown and more interceptions than last season, and looked completely out of sorts for entire halves at a time.
Florida State struggled this season because of the defense. After two season in the top 5 of my rankings, the Seminoles dropped to 36th this season. They could not overcome the loss of tackle Tim Jernigan and cornerback LaMarcus Joyner to the NFL. In addition, coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left for the same position at Georgia.
The pass defense is their weakness, as Florida State ranks 53rd of 128 teams by yards per attempt adjusted for schedule. They can't generate a pass rush, as they have sacked the opposing quarterback on 4.1% of pass plays.
12-1, Preseason AP #7, The Power Rank #4, 11.3% playoff win probability.
Ohio State started the season with crushing news. Returning QB Braxton Miller, a threat with both the pass and run, was injured and done for the season. Ohio State would start freshman J.T. Barrett at QB.
The news grew worse the second week of the season when they lost to Virginia Tech at home. Virginia Tech would end the season with a 3-5 record in ACC conference play. With this bad loss, the Buckeyes looked out of contention for the playoff when the selection committee started revealing their rankings in late October. However, two games changed this.
First, they traveled to East Lansing and won a huge game against Michigan State. Barrett and the offense gained 8.5 yards per play against the usually tough Michigan State defense. Then after a season ending injury to Barrett, Ohio State crushed Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game behind third string QB Cardale Jones. They jumped ahead of TCU, who got screwed, to get the fourth and final playoff spot.
Ohio State answered many questions about their defense in that last game against Wisconsin. They held Heisman hopeful Melvin Gordon to 2.9 yards per carry (76 yards on 26 carries). Their defense jumped from 30th to 16th in my rankings. Ohio State also gets pressure on the quarterback. Led by the 13.5 sacks of Joey Bosa, they have generated sacks on 8.7% of pass plays (6% college football average).
Ohio State's offense has been elite all season, and they maintained their 3rd ranking after Jones played against Wisconsin. However, you should question whether they can maintain this level without J.T. Barrett. Jones has attempted 35 passes all season, far too few for any confidence that he can lead an elite offense.
Both the markets and my calculations adjust for Barrett's injury in coming up with Ohio State's 11.3% win probability.
12-1, Preseason AP #4, The Power Rank #1, 39.3% playoff win probability.
Oregon had high hopes for their second year with Mark Helfrich as coach. They had elite QB Marcus Mariota returning and got off to a great start with a win over Michigan State at home.
However, Oregon stumbled at the beginning of Pac-12 play. They escaped Washington State with a narrow 7 point win before losing to Arizona at home. Offensive tackle Jake Fisher missed both those games, and Mariota got sacked 12 times for an unreal 17.1% sack rate (6% college football average).
Fisher returned against UCLA, and Oregon pulled out a 12 point win on the road. They won the remainder of their games and never won by fewer than 18 points against these Pac-12 opponents. This included games against Stanford and Utah as well as a rematch against Arizona in the conference championship game. With Fisher back on the field in conference play, Oregon allowed sacks on 5.6% of pass plays.
Oregon has the top ranked offense by a wide margin in my rankings. Mariota was brilliant this season and won the Heisman trophy. The only knock on this offense? Mariota only threw 2 interceptions all year, an unreal 0.5% interception rate. Even a quarterback that good will not continue to avoid turnovers at that rate.
Oregon does have issues on defense. Last season, they had the 5th best defense by adjusted yards per play. However, coordinator Nick Aliotti retired after last season. Oregon slipped to 30th season. Moreover, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, their best cornerback, is injured and won't play in the playoff.
Oregon's 39.3% playoff win probability trails Alabama by less than 1%.
12-1, Preseason AP #2, The Power Rank #2, 39.7% playoff win probability.
This could have been the year Alabama slipped from the top. Underrated QB AJ McCarron graduated and left Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to battle for the starting job. Nick Saban hired former USC head coach Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, a seemingly volatile situation given their personalities.
But Bama stayed right there on its perch at the top of the pile.
Blake Sims won the starting QB job and had a fantastic season. Alabama stumbled at Ole Miss early in the season but bounced back to win the SEC, the best conference in the nation. They never won their games by huge margins this season. However, the SEC West had all seven teams in the top 25 of my ensemble rankings.
Alabama is the most balanced team in the playoff. On the 4th ranked offense, Sims has completed 65% of his passes, and Amari Cooper has caught an amazing 115 passes (14 for touchdowns). If this team has any weakness at all, it's the running game. Usually a top 10 rush offense, Alabama is only 21st in yards per carry adjusted for strength of schedule.
The defense is a standard issue unit from Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. They gave up some points to Auburn, but they finished 4th in my rankings.
Moreover, I think Nick Saban knows how good this team is. In the first half against Auburn, Alabama trailed 26-21, and Sims had thrown 2 interceptions. Saban is usually grumpy at sideline reporters in this type of situation. But this time, he shrugged his shoulders and said they had to play better. Saban knew his team had the skills to come back and win, and they did.