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Final Top 25 of 2018 Season

In College Football, Rankings, Rankings Commentary on January 11, 2019 at 6:29 PM

This week is always tough for me to get back on schedule, so having a game on a week night and then trying to write all of this with work the next day caused me to keep pushing this back. I don’t plan to wait until next season for the next blog, but I can’t be sure when I’ll write again.

As demonstrated by the chart I posted along with the last blog, college football is Alabama, Clemson, and everyone else.  I’m happy someone other than Alabama comes out number one about half the time. 

The only thing I ever had against Clemson (other than a fight song that sounds similar to LSU’s) was that when South Carolina lost to them years ago it made the SEC look bad.  But now I don’t think it hurts that Clemson caused 1/4 of the SEC’s inter-conference losses during the season.

I also want to let the Alabama fans who freaked out when I put Clemson #1 earlier in the year to know I’m laughing at them even though I won’t rub it in.

There is no significance to using a Cotton Bowl picture instead of a national championship picture, but this was the best picture I saw of Trevor Lawrence. He snuck by a lot of people who couldn’t stop talking about Tua and Kyler, so I thought he deserved a good picture.

Final SEC Comments

The Alabama loss drops the top six teams of the SEC to 5-2 in postseason.  All three of my computer rankings (weighted, unweighted, and statistical average) have Clemson #1 and Alabama #2 as is appropriate. 

As I talked about in the last blog, the middle of the conference narrowly lost a few games because they were slightly overmatched. I thought I would explain that a little bit more.

Normally the #7 team and 4th in their division doesn’t end up in the Outback Bowl, for instance (last year South Carolina made it with a winning record at fifth place overall and second in the SEC East). If Mississippi St. had played in the Music City Bowl instead (or an even lesser bowl like the St. Petersburg Bowl they played in two years ago), they probably would have won.

Vanderbilt probably would have won had they not been playing a team that tied for fifth in their conference while the Commodores finished sixth of the seven teams in their division. In other years, the last SEC bowl team ended up in the Birmingham Bowl against a non-major opponent (and not a conference champion like LSU played this year and Auburn played last season).

I would honestly say Missouri was ninth in SEC play although they had the same record as a couple of other teams. Mississippi St. only finished 4-4 because they lost to the two best SEC West teams and to two of the three best SEC East teams. Unlike Missouri, they didn’t play the worst team of the other division. South Carolina was in the SEC East along with Missouri, and the Gamecocks beat the Tigers. The Gamecocks lost to Clemson out of conference, but I don’t think anyone would seriously tell me Missouri would have had a meaningful hope of beating Clemson at the end of the year.

Maybe there wouldn’t have been a blowout (and there would have been another SEC win) had Auburn played Oklahoma St. and Missouri played Purdue, but one reason that didn’t happen was Missouri already beat Purdue. Similarly to Auburn, Oklahoma St. seemed to show up best for their major out-of-conference games while being inconsistent in conference. The Cowboys made Boise St. look like Kansas, even though the Cowboys lost six conference games (including an embarrassing home loss to Texas Tech) between that game and the bowl.

I didn’t see the South Carolina game, just the highlights (if you can call them that); but it seemed like they just didn’t show up. I guess when you qualify 11 teams for bowls, chances are that will happen with one of them. Maybe South Carolina vs. Purdue was the pillow fight the bowl season needed.

In sum, I don’t think the top six of any other conference would have won five games (or even four games) against Oklahoma, Texas, Central Florida, Michigan, Penn St., and North Carolina St. I don’t think anyone else’s #11 plays a close game with Baylor like Vandy did or anyone else’s #10 blows out Purdue like Auburn did. Maybe you can quibble with a couple of others; but mid- and low-ranked teams of other conferences aren’t expected to play close games against the same caliber of teams, and with one exception those SEC teams did play close games.

Also, the average SEC team still blows every other conference out of the water. In my conference ratings, 0.07 points separates the #2 conference (the ACC) and the #5 conference (the Pac-12), but 0.19 separates the ACC and the SEC.

Top 10 (Including LSU)

I also think it’s right to have Notre Dame #3.  The Irish’s loss to Clemson doesn’t look as bad now, and–although Michigan lost–two of the better teams the Irish beat, Northwestern and Syracuse, had good bowl results.  Stanford also won; but I don’t know if that really helps Notre Dame’s argument since they beat Pittsburgh, another opponent of theirs.  I don’t factor this in, but there was also some bad luck in their scheduling.  You would have thought at least one team among Navy, USC, and Florida St. would have qualified for a bowl game, but no such luck.

Oklahoma did beat Texas, which added to its value by winning the Sugar Bowl, but there isn’t much else to be excited about in the Big XII results.  Both of the teams who tied for #3 in the regular season, West Virginia and Iowa St., lost.  There were a couple of wins by lower teams over two middling SEC East teams and Cal, but it also hurt Oklahoma that the team who beat them lost in the national championship.  Also, since Alabama played Georgia and Missouri (the second-best team the Big XII beat in bowls), it didn’t help the Sooners as much to have Big XII teams beat them.

Urban Meyer went out a winner in the Rose Bowl. His team was pretty good too, although that Purdue game still defies explanation.

I think it’s right that Ohio St. finishes ahead of the Sooners.  The top of the Big Ten had some losses too, but I don’t think basically a .500 team of any other conference would have beaten Mississippi St. in the Outback Bowl.  I don’t know if (other than the SEC) another conference’s effective #4 team (Northwestern had as good a conference record as Ohio St. but played in a much weaker division and lost three games out of conference) would have beaten Utah.  Maybe Oklahoma would have beaten Washington, but maybe they would have come out flat like Georgia did against what I consider a worse team. More on Texas later.

I have LSU 7th, but with the objective way my ratings work I can’t give credit to my belief that LSU was the better team when they played Texas A&M.  I think most of the voters probably treated that like a tie at worst.  The polls also frown upon losing your last two games regardless of the opponents, so that also contributed to the Tigers passing up the Bulldogs… not to mention that LSU beat Georgia by 20 points.

Speaking of head-to-head, there is of course an argument Florida should be ahead of Michigan, but the Gators were hurt by being in the SEC East (which went only 2-4 in bowl games) and losing to Missouri.  Florida was the only team outside of my top four who beat Michigan though.

So Michigan finished ninth behind Central Florida, and Washington St. rounds out the top 10. Iowa St. wasn’t a spectacular opponent (although again the bowl selectors did their job in making it entertaining), but 11 wins is a job well-done anyway.

The Rest of the Top 25

Appalachian St. finished higher than I would have liked (simply because I think at least 25 teams would beat them at a neutral site), but I think keeping an 11-2 team outside of the top 15 based on strength of schedule is about the best to be expected, especially when one of the two losses was to a team in the top 20.  Cincinnati also finished 11-2 and barely made the top 25.

Texas finished fairly low considering the two big wins (Oklahoma earlier in the season and Georgia), but let’s not forget they lost to Maryland (who didn’t qualify for a bowl game).  Only one other Longhorn win (over 8-5 Iowa St.) came against a team who finished with fewer than 6 losses, so that hurts them in the weighted ratings.  Texas A&M, which had no bad losses, also had exactly three wins over teams who finished with fewer than 6 losses. 

I’d like to give the Aggies less credit, but I believe in being consistent.  The Aggies’ worst loss was to Auburn; but given that Auburn beat a 5-4 Big Ten team by about 50 points (and didn’t really even try to score in the second half), they probably could have done the same or worse to Maryland, who finished 3-6 in the Big Ten after beating Texas.  So I don’t consider Auburn a bad loss to the same extent.

I finished with three Mountain West teams in the top 25; but I think they were pretty similar, and despite the early losses to major-conference opponents it’s hard to say there were 20+ teams who were more deserving than all of them.  Fresno St. finished higher than I would have liked, but the Bulldogs did beat a fairly decent team in Arizona St. in the bowl game to finish 12-2.  Other than losing to Boise St., for which they redeemed themselves in the conference championship game, Fresno St. won the rest of the conference games.  Utah St. (which finished 11-2) may have been just as good, but they didn’t get the rematch against Boise St. and unfortunately didn’t have a chance at a better team than North Texas in the bowl.  They’ll get a crack at LSU next year though.

Fresno St.’s Ronnie Rivers ran for 212 yards (almost 9 yards per rush) against Arizona St. in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 15. The Bulldogs trailed, 20-17, before Rivers scored the last two touchdowns of the game.

Top 25 List

I did want to note that I’m using the statistical average of the weighted and unweighted ratings (I guess you could call it semi-weighted). I thought including Stanford and Iowa made more sense than the other versions. The top 10 was pretty consistent, so I didn’t worry about that as much as including the right lower teams. Here is the full 130-team list, but the top 25 list below has the recent changes.

RankTeamPrev.
1Clemson2
2Alabama1
3Notre Dame3
4Ohio St.5
5Oklahoma4
6Georgia6
7LSU9
8C. Florida7
9Michigan8
10Wash St.13
11Florida11
12Kentucky12
13Fresno St.15
14Army17
15Syracuse19
16App. St.16
17Texas A&M18
18Washington10
19Texas
20Penn St.14
21Boise St.22
22Utah St.21
23Cincinnati23
24Stanford
25Iowa

Out of Top 25: (20) Missouri, (24) Miss. St., (25) Utah

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The Truth about the SEC and Coach O

In Bowls, College Football, College Football Playoff, General LSU, History, Post-game on January 6, 2019 at 6:33 PM

I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays and the first round of the NFL playoffs.

Unlike what a lot of professional journalists seem to be able to do, I appreciated the opportunity to see what other people are saying without any kind of agenda of my own.  Whenever I do that, I am reminded of certain things that I feel need explaining.  Both professional commentators and common fans put a lot of false narratives out there. I’m not going to mention anyone in particular because I was so relaxed in my consumption of other media I didn’t even make note of who they were.

SEC Teams and Bowl Games

One thing is that bowls are the end-all and be-all of team or conference comparisons.  SEC teams don’t tend to lose Sugar Bowls, for instance, because the Big XII participants are superior.  I covered some of this last year when people apparently thought Alabama had a good chance of losing because they were playing in New Orleans.  A common circumstance is a team goes into the SEC Championship Game hoping to compete for a national championship.  Said team loses that game and gets the Sugar Bowl as a consolation.  Are they really going to play their best game when it’s the first game they know for a fact that the goal of a national championship is off the table? 

Of course almost every team faces that reality at some point, but they’re not necessarily playing a top 15 team away from home the first time they do so, so they can get away with having less motivation.  Also, I think it’s different trying to get back on track the week after a loss than it is losing a game and then waiting a month when you know it’s just one final game.  If Georgia had lost their second game in Week Five, for instance, there would be a desire to finish strong and maybe win the SEC East, so they would still be very motivated in Week Six.  That’s not the case in a bowl game.

SEC detractors will pretend we don’t have another Big XII-SEC game as a reference point.  Of course that was when Alabama played Oklahoma, winners of close games against Sugar Bowl participants Texas and Georgia.  Even though Alabama played a closer game and looked likely to lose well into the fourth quarter, Alabama’s win over Oklahoma was never really in doubt.  So even if Clemson wins on Monday, Alabama was still tested against one of the top four teams (I would argue one of the top three teams) and came out on top.  They’re not just in the top two because of some inflated perception of the SEC, especially not the SEC relative to the Big XII.


Tua Tagovailoa fights off a tackle from Oklahoma’s Robert Barnes in the Orange Bowl. Although he lost out on the Heisman to Kyler Murray (also of Oklahoma), he led the Tide to a 45-34 victory with 4 touchdowns, only 3 incompletions in 27 attempts, and 318 passing yards.

Anyway, the other participant in the Sugar Bowl, Texas, also lost their conference title game; but what the Longhorns were playing for in that game was a berth in the Sugar Bowl, so they didn’t have the goal from their most-recent game taken from them like Georgia did. 

Imagine an NFL team is eliminated in the second round of the playoffs and a month later they play a team that didn’t even make the playoffs.  The former team isn’t going to be anywhere close to as intense as they were in the playoffs.  The latter team would be disappointed they didn’t make the playoffs and have something to prove.  Not only that, the latter team would display the intensity that it would have had in the playoffs if given the opportunity.  One of the top NFL teams is the Saints.  A couple of weeks ago, they needed a comeback at home to beat the Steelers, a team that narrowly missed the playoffs.  If they Saints were to lose their first playoff game and have a rematch with the Steelers at a neutral site, I know which team I’d bet on.  It’s not the one everyone knows had a better regular season.

Anyway, Georgia is the only SEC team in the top three of either division that lost its bowl game.  I don’t have to use tiebreakers or anything, so I’m not manipulating the rankings to make that point.  There are exactly three teams in each division who won 5 SEC games or more. I didn’t even mention Florida’s Peach Bowl win over Michigan.

If you know how bowls work, it’s not surprising that the other teams lost.  The SEC had four teams in the “New Years Six” Bowls, so that meant that the top available SEC team Kentucky was fifth (and that’s generous since they lost to Texas A&M).  They played the top available Big Ten team, Penn St., even though Penn St. was third in the Big Ten (fourth in conference record; but Northwestern lost three games out of conference, and Penn St. lost none apart from the bowl).  So when you have a lot of good teams at the top, that means teams in the middle end up playing teams at the top of other conferences.  Kentucky won anyway; but a similar calculus went into matching Mississippi St. against Iowa, and Iowa narrowly came out on top.

Kentucky RB Benny Snell led the Wildcats to the 27-24 Citrus Bowl win over Penn St. and in the process because the program’s all-time season leader in rushing yards. Kentucky also won 10 games for the first time since 1977.

Outside of Georgia’s Sugar Bowl loss, the only loss by the SEC top six the whole season to a team of another conference was Texas A&M’s controversial two-point loss to Clemson.  There were only six interconference losses by the whole conference before the bowls: three of those were to teams in the four-team Playoff, and two of the rest were by Arkansas.  (The sixth was Tennessee’s loss to West Virginia.)

Auburn, one of the SEC teams who beat Texas A&M, absolutely dominated Purdue (the fourth major Big Ten/SEC bowl) for the other SEC bowl win.  They’re a good example of a team who lost the first game after their main goals for the season were eliminated.  There was a reasonably strong shot at advancing to the SEC Championship with one loss (their first loss came by one point to LSU) and possibly winning the national championship but very little chance of either with two losses (the second loss was by 14 to Mississippi St.), so the week after their second loss, they picked up their third loss against Tennessee. 

Auburn WR Darius Slayton scores one of many early touchdowns for Auburn against Purdue. The Tigers led 56-7 at halftime and went on to win 63-14 in Gus Malzahn’s second bowl win as head coach.

Teams like Auburn are cited by SEC detractors every year as proof that the SEC isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, but only one team can make the title game out of the SEC West in a given year.  No other conference has as many aspiring national-title contenders. I don’t think any other conference has five teams who would have beaten Auburn. There might have been three in the Big Ten, maybe two in the Big XII. The eventual Pac-12 champion couldn’t even beat Auburn at a neutral site. Clemson probably would have, but I don’t know if anyone else in the ACC would have.

Tennessee’s other conference win came under similar circumstances when the Vols beat Kentucky the week after the Wildcats were eliminated from contention in the SEC East.  So if Tennessee (which didn’t even qualify for a bowl game) can get a win against one of the top six SEC teams, it’s not a surprise that Texas was able to get such a win.

I didn’t even mention how many players skipped their bowl game for the purpose of improving their NFL chances.  The top SEC teams tend to put the most players in the NFL, so I suspect this phenomenon affected the SEC more than other conferences.

Coach O and LSU

The other narrative I wanted to talk about is Ed Orgeron.  I also talked a little bit about this narrative last year. He’s far from perfect, but I’m still skeptical of the notion that LSU would have been better off with someone like Tom Herman or Jimbo Fisher.

Refer to the chart for the details, but the easiest shorthand way of comparing coach’s records is to say how many losses they have.  Other than a couple of Sun Belt coaches (who left for other conferences anyway), the only coaches with fewer losses than Orgeron in a comparable number of games since Orgeron was hired at LSU were Nick Saban of Alabama, Dabo Sweeney of Clemson, James Franklin of Penn St., and Urban Meyer of Ohio St.  Meyer won’t be coaching anymore, and I just mentioned what happened to Penn St. against Kentucky – and Franklin only had two fewer losses anyway.  So there are really only two continuing coaches who are clearly doing better at their current schools in the same time frame.

This list is limited to head coaches who have been in their positions from October 1, 2016, to present.

LSU had to cancel the 2017 game against South Alabama and unlike most of these schools has not competed in a conference championship game since Orgeron was hired before the game against Missouri on October 1, 2016.  So that partly accounts for fewer games played.

As I’m sure most readers are aware, Les Miles hasn’t coached a game since Orgeron was hired at LSU (although he will coach one in August), but I also looked at his last 34 games.  He was 23-11. In his last 38 games, he was only 25-13.  So even if Orgeron goes 0-4 to start next season (Georgia Southern, @Texas, his alma mater Northwestern St., and @Vanderbilt), he’d only fall into a tie over 38 games.  If he goes 4-0, he would be at 76.3% compared to Miles’ 65.8%.  If he goes 3-1, he would be at 73.7%, just a couple of decimal places above where he is now. 

The chart of course doesn’t account for strength of schedule.  To focus in on this year, LSU went 10-3 against a schedule that included five teams who were in the top 10 when the Tigers played them and three other teams who were ranked.  U. Miami and Auburn shouldn’t have been in the top 10 in hindsight; but if you want to use that standard, we should reduce Notre Dame’s opponents in the top 10 from two to one (since Stanford shouldn’t have been in the top 10) and Washington from three to two (since Auburn shouldn’t have been in the top 10), for instance.

Some might say I shouldn’t be that happy with Coach O being that LSU narrowly escaped the Fiesta Bowl with a victory, but actually it was a small miracle Central Florida was able to keep it that close.  The Tigers out-gained the Knights 555 to 250, had almost twice as many first downs (32 to 17), and had the ball about three times as long (44:31 to 15:29). 

It may not have been his intention, but this interception may have reminded some of the LSU coaches why they wanted JaCoby Stevens to play wide receiver going into the year.

LSU dominated a very good Louisville team two years ago in Coach O’s first bowl game as a head coach, and apart from some controversial calls and non-calls would have beaten Notre Dame last year.  I would argue these are increasingly challenging bowl games, which reflects positively on LSU in the first place, and winning two of the three is impressive regardless of the final scores.  LSU was also playing backup wide receivers in the defensive secondary for most of the Fiesta Bowl. 

This was LSU’s first win in what is now called a New Years Six Bowl (at the end of the BCS system 10 teams went to such bowls instead of the current 12) since the Tigers won the BCS National Championship following the 2007 season. The only appearance since then had been the BCS National Championship loss following the 2011 season.

I’m still not happy we didn’t give Alabama more of a game and we were certainly good enough for a couple more wins, but in what many (including me) thought would be a rebuilding year where we would be an average SEC team (or worse), 10 wins including the Fiesta Bowl is what I’d call a success.