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College football expectations vs. reality: What did I get right and wrong in 2016?

Here’s one way of looking at how teams achieved relative to what was expected.

Colorado v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

In today’s media landscape (sports and non-sports), self-reflection is unnecessary. You don’t really need to step back and look at what you got wrong or why; you just need to push forward with even more confidence than before.

But does Nick Saban self-reflect? Hell yes, he does! Verne Lundquist? Absolutely! Lamar Jackson? Yep!

Process is important, and now is as good a time as any to look back at what we got right and wrong in 2016.

So here are my preseason projections — by both my S&P+ analytics system and my own opinions after writing a few thousand words about each team during the offseason — compared to current rankings. That’s followed by a look at the teams S&P+ was either very high or very low on.

S&P+ performed about as expected on a week-to-week basis. After an early run of bad luck (a terrible record in games decided within three points of the spread), it rebounded to hit 51 percent against the spread for the season. Meanwhile, win probability projections were as strong as ever. You can find S&P+ performance data for 2016 here.

This table presents 2016 S&P+ preseason projections, my preseason power rankings, the end-of-regular-season S&P+ rankings, and the differences between preseason and present tense.

2016 S&P+: Projections vs. reality

Team Conf Preseason S&P+ Bill C. power rankings Present Rk Preseason vs. present Bill vs. present
Team Conf Preseason S&P+ Bill C. power rankings Present Rk Preseason vs. present Bill vs. present
Alabama SEC 1 1 1 0 0
Michigan Big Ten 6 5 2 4 3
Ohio St. Big Ten 11 11 3 8 8
Clemson ACC 2 2 4 -2 -2
LSU SEC 3 4 5 -2 -1
Wash. Pac-12 10 15 6 4 9
Louisville ACC 18 19 7 11 12
USC Pac-12 9 17 8 1 9
Florida St. ACC 5 3 9 -4 -6
Oklahoma Big 12 4 7 10 -6 -3
Auburn SEC 25 36 11 14 25
Penn St. Big Ten 28 27 12 16 15
Miami ACC 31 32 13 18 19
WKU CUSA 43 51 14 29 37
Boise St. MWC 37 38 15 22 23
Wisconsin Big Ten 36 31 16 20 15
Colorado Pac-12 86 76 17 69 59
Temple AAC 59 61 18 41 43
Tex. A&M SEC 23 25 19 4 6
Iowa Big Ten 40 34 20 20 14
Stanford Pac-12 16 6 21 -5 -15
UNC ACC 30 29 22 8 7
Colorado St. MWC 96 87 23 73 64
Va. Tech ACC 33 35 24 9 11
ND Ind 13 8 25 -12 -17
Pitt ACC 29 28 26 3 2
Houston AAC 48 21 27 21 -6
NC St. ACC 41 50 28 13 22
Okla. St. Big 12 24 22 29 -5 -7
Ole Miss SEC 7 9 30 -23 -21
BYU Ind 34 39 31 3 8
App. St. Sun Belt 57 59 32 25 27
Wash. St. Pac-12 46 44 33 13 11
Nebraska Big Ten 27 30 34 -7 -4
Toledo MAC 45 60 35 10 25
WMU MAC 63 57 36 27 21
Minnesota Big Ten 38 33 37 1 -4
Kansas St. Big 12 65 63 38 27 25
USF AAC 42 48 39 3 9
Utah Pac-12 39 37 40 -1 -3
Memphis AAC 78 67 41 37 26
Florida SEC 20 26 42 -22 -16
Tennessee SEC 8 12 43 -35 -31
TCU Big 12 26 13 44 -18 -31
Texas Big 12 32 40 45 -13 -5
SDSU MWC 50 43 46 4 -3
Tulsa AAC 92 89 47 45 42
Indiana Big Ten 58 53 48 10 5
NW'ern Big Ten 49 41 49 0 -8
Ga. Tech ACC 52 42 50 2 -8
La. Tech CUSA 82 82 51 31 31
WVU Big 12 35 45 52 -17 -7
Arkansas SEC 17 20 53 -36 -33
Mich. St. Big Ten 21 10 54 -33 -44
Miss. St. SEC 22 23 55 -33 -32
California Pac-12 53 54 56 -3 -2
UCLA Pac-12 15 18 57 -42 -39
Air Force MWC 79 75 58 21 17
Kentucky SEC 87 65 59 28 6
Navy AAC 61 73 60 1 13
Tex. Tech Big 12 44 49 61 -17 -12
Oregon St. Pac-12 89 105 62 27 43
ODU CUSA 103 112 63 40 49
Missouri SEC 56 47 64 -8 -17
Troy Sun Belt 102 97 65 37 32
Georgia SEC 12 16 66 -54 -50
Iowa St. Big 12 75 66 67 8 -1
Wyoming MWC 110 119 68 42 51
Oregon Pac-12 14 14 69 -55 -55
UCF AAC 99 92 70 29 22
Utah St. MWC 70 85 71 -1 14
Wake For. ACC 74 90 72 2 18
Baylor Big 12 19 24 73 -54 -49
New Mex. MWC 105 93 74 31 19
Vandy SEC 67 56 75 -8 -19
NIU MAC 77 77 76 1 1
MTSU CUSA 93 96 77 16 19
Miami (OH) MAC 111 114 78 33 36
Duke ACC 71 58 79 -8 -21
So. Miss CUSA 69 70 80 -11 -10
CMU MAC 80 84 81 -1 3
Army Ind 124 116 82 42 34
Ohio MAC 95 88 83 12 5
EMU MAC 122 128 84 38 44
Ball St. MAC 101 110 85 16 25
Ga. S'ern Sun Belt 54 64 86 -32 -22
Maryland Big Ten 62 62 87 -25 -25
BC ACC 55 69 88 -33 -19
Arizona St. Pac-12 51 46 89 -38 -43
Syracuse ACC 47 55 90 -43 -35
Cincinnati AAC 66 74 91 -25 -17
Arkansas St. Sun Belt 88 79 92 -4 -13
S. Caro. SEC 76 83 93 -17 -10
UVA ACC 68 68 94 -26 -26
S. Alabama Sun Belt 114 115 95 19 20
Idaho Sun Belt 109 111 96 13 15
SMU AAC 97 100 97 0 3
Illinois Big Ten 72 80 98 -26 -18
Hawaii MWC 117 127 99 18 28
Arizona Pac-12 64 52 100 -36 -48
ECU AAC 84 86 101 -17 -15
Tulane AAC 126 113 102 24 11
Akron MAC 94 91 103 -9 -12
UTSA CUSA 116 118 104 12 14
SJSU MWC 91 95 105 -14 -10
Ga. St. Sun Belt 104 98 106 -2 -8
UL-Laf. Sun Belt 108 107 107 1 0
Purdue Big Ten 85 101 108 -23 -7
UNLV MWC 112 104 109 3 -5
UMass Ind 123 122 110 13 12
N. Texas CUSA 128 123 111 17 12
Fresno St. MWC 98 102 112 -14 -10
Kent St. MAC 106 103 113 -7 -10
FIU CUSA 113 106 114 -1 -8
Kansas Big 12 115 121 115 0 6
BGSU MAC 60 78 116 -56 -38
UConn AAC 81 81 117 -36 -36
FAU CUSA 100 99 118 -18 -19
Marshall CUSA 73 71 119 -46 -48
Rutgers Big Ten 83 72 120 -37 -48
Nevada MWC 90 94 121 -31 -27
UTEP CUSA 125 117 122 3 -5
Rice CUSA 118 109 123 -5 -14
Charlotte CUSA 121 125 124 -3 1
NMSU Sun Belt 119 120 125 -6 -5
UL-Mon. Sun Belt 127 126 126 1 0
Buffalo MAC 107 108 127 -20 -19
Texas St. Sun Belt 120 124 128 -8 -4

First things first: My rankings were closer than S&P+’s projections for 61 teams, by an average of six spots. S&P+ topped me on only 58 teams, but by an average of 6.7 spots. I came within five spots on 25 teams, within 10 on 48. S&P+ was within five on 35 teams, within 10 on 50.

That’s a slight win for S&P+ overall, but since I’m the one keeping score, I’ll call it a draw.

Who did the numbers most severely underestimate?

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Thirteen teams overachieved their projections by at least 30 spots in the rankings:

  1. Colorado State (projected 96th, currently 23rd)
  2. Colorado (projected 86th, currently 17th)
  3. Tulsa (projected 92nd, currently 47th)
  4. Wyoming (projected 110th, currently 68th)
  5. Army (projected 124th, currently 82nd)
  6. Temple (projected 59th, currently 18th)
  7. Old Dominion (projected 103rd, currently 63rd)
  8. Eastern Michigan (projected 122nd, currently 84th)
  9. Troy (projected 102nd, currently 65th)
  10. Memphis (projected 78th, currently 41st)
  11. Miami (Ohio) (projected 111th, currently 78th)
  12. Louisiana Tech (projected 82nd, currently 51st)
  13. New Mexico (projected 105th, currently 74th)

What do these teams have in common? First of all, 12-of-13 are from Group of 5 conferences. Colorado is the only exception.

Second, seven of the 13 are led by coaches in either their second or third seasons in charge. Three others are in their fourth. Only Memphis (under Mike Norvell) was led by a first-year guy, and only ODU was led by a guy who’s been around at least six years.

If you’re going to take a leap, your second or third season is probably when you’re going to do it. We’ll revisit this topic soon.

Who did the numbers most drastically overestimate?

Southern v Georgia Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Eighteen teams underachieved by at least 30 spots in S&P+.

  1. Bowling Green (projected 60th, currently 116th)
  2. Oregon (projected 14th, currently 69th)
  3. Baylor (projected 19th, currently 73rd)
  4. Georgia (projected 12th, currently 66th)
  5. Marshall (projected 73rd, currently 119th)
  6. Syracuse (projected 47th, currently 90th)
  7. UCLA (projected 15th, currently 57th)
  8. Arizona State (projected 51st, currently 89th)
  9. Rutgers (projected 83rd, currently 120th)
  10. Arkansas (projected 17th, currently 53rd)
  11. UConn (projected 81st, currently 117th)
  12. Arizona (projected 64th, currently 100th)
  13. Tennessee (projected eighth, currently 43rd)
  14. Boston College (projected 55th, currently 88th)
  15. Mississippi State (projected 22nd, currently 55th)
  16. Michigan State (projected 21st, currently 54th)
  17. Georgia Southern (projected 54th, currently 86th)
  18. Nevada (projected 90th, currently 121st)

You can find some themes here, too. Six of these teams (BGSU, Baylor, Georgia, Syracuse, Rutgers, Georgia Southern) were led by first-year coaches, as were Illinois (off by 26 spots), Virginia (26), and Maryland (25). Sometimes even good coaches just don’t get all the pieces in the right places in the first 12 or so games.

Another commonality: Most of these teams have had great seasons recently. Bowling Green won 28 games from 2013-15 before losing Dino Babers to Syracuse. Oregon was in the national title game in 2014. Georgia won 50 games from 2011-15 but decided that wasn’t good enough and made a change. Baylor won 50 from 2011-15 but headed into 2016 with an interim coach after Art Briles’ swift downfall. Marshall won 33 from 2013-15. Sometimes your slope for regression to the mean is pretty stark, especially if you also have a first-year coach.

One more correlation worth mentioning: Eight of these 18 teams were among the top 25 in 2016 recruiting, and nine were among the top 28 in two-year recruiting. There is a strong correlation between good recruiting and good play, but it’s scattershot. It doesn’t affect each team the same in the short-term, and for all the predictive value recruiting can have (the top six teams in two-year recruiting are among the top 11 in S&P+, as are seven of the top nine in five-year recruiting), there will be misses.

That goes for all projection factors. Recent history wasn’t helpful in projecting Oregon’s or Georgia’s S&P+ rating, and returning a boatload of experience didn’t save Syracuse from being mostly anonymous in Babers’ first season.

You can make pretty good projections with college football, but there will always be things you don’t see coming. It would be pretty boring if that weren’t the case.

Still, there weren’t that many surprises up top.

S&P+ top 10
S&P+ top 10

Of the current S&P+ top 10, nine were projected in the top 11 at the start of the season, and the only outsider (Louisville) was projected 18th. The current six best have spent exactly one week outside of the top 11. There was, and will always be, chaos and turmoil in the middle, but the top of college football fell into place mostly according to plan.