Last week, we took a look at seven teams humans held in much higher regard than numbers, and the god of regression-to-the-mean struck quickly: of the five overrated teams that played in week 8, three lost (Oregon, Cincinnati, Michigan State), and one (USF) seriously considered losing to UConn.
As we approach the final month of the regular season, then, let’s cast our gaze in the other direction. Which teams are the most under-appreciated in college football? Which haven’t gotten nearly enough respect from pollsters and fans, either for their on-paper quality or their underrated résumé?
Fresno State (6-1) and Appalachian State (5-1)
- AP rank: receiving votes (RV) and 25th, respectively
- S&P+ rank: ninth and 12th
- Résumé S&P+ rank: 10th and ninth
It takes forever for a team from the Group of 5 to move up the polls. Despite playing consistently dominant football throughout 2017, UCF was only up to 18th, per the AP, after eight weeks, and the Knights would only get to 10th at the end of the regular season. Still unbeaten midway through 2018, they are currently ... still 10th.
For mid-major teams with a loss, even if it’s a respectable one, upward mobility is wishful at best. Appalachian State finally cracked the AP top 25 this past week despite owning an almost impenetrable (for a Sun Belt team) résumé. The Mountaineers are 5-1, having lost only in overtime at Penn State, and their five wins have come by an average of 46-10. Despite heavier opponent adjustments in the newly tweaked S&P+ ratings, they are still up to 12th overall.
App State is coming off of its least impressive outing of the season, a 27-17 win over UL Lafayette. (It was 27-10 until the final minute.) We’ll see if that’s a sign of a team that is coming back down to Earth or if it was a random blip. But for what Scott Satterfield’s team has done to date, it more respect.
Fresno State has been even more dominant but has only itself to blame for its failure to enter the top 25. Well, itself and some nasty randomness. The Bulldogs have lost only to Minnesota, but Minnesota’s blowout loss to previously winless Nebraska has made that a less forgivable sin.
Mind you, the Bulldogs mostly outplayed the Gophers in Week 2 in Minnesota — 5.2 yards per play to 4.4, 38 percent success rate to 37 percent, plus-11.2 yards per possession in field position advantages — but the 21-14 loss took away a decent statement opportunity.
They’ve tried to make up for it, beating their six other opponents (including a UCLA beginning to show signs of life) by an average of 42-11. In three conference wins, they’ve allowed a total of 13 points. They’re up to eighth in Def. S&P+, but they’re getting fewer poll votes than division mate San Diego State, which nearly lost to an abysmal San Jose State last week. That makes no sense.
- AP rank: RV
- S&P+ rank: 26th
- Résumé S&P+ rank: 14th
Typically, doing what Purdue just did to a top-five team would result in an automatic place in the AP top 25. But the Boilermakers received only 17 votes, placing them between Houston (19) and Cincinnati (seven), a virtual 33rd.
Why the lack of respect? Blame early-season misfortune. Purdue began playing relative tossup games against Northwestern, EMU, and Missouri. In each game, the Boilermakers finished with a post-game win expectancy — which takes the key predictive stats (the stats that most directly decide wins and losses), tosses them into the air, and says “You could have expected to win this game X percent of the time — between 60 and 64 percent.
With these stats, their most likely record after these three games was 2-1, and there was a 24 percent chance they’d end up 3-0. They went 0-3.
They were a respectable 54th in S&P+ even then, and since the last-second loss to Mizzou, they’ve been mostly dominant. They beat BC, Nebraska, and Illinois by an average of 23 points even before beating the Buckeyes by 29.
Granted, the thrills could be short-lived. The Boilers play at Michigan State this weekend, and East Lansing is where things like “joy” and “fun” go to die. But their 14th-ranked résumé screams for far more respect than the AP has given.
- AP rank: 23rd
- S&P+ rank: 19th
- Résumé S&P+ rank: 15th
Just three weeks ago, Utah was 2-2, 43rd in S&P+, and coming off of back-to-back losses to Washington teams (21-7 to UW, 28-24 to Wazzu). They boasted one of the best defenses but ranked a ghastly 115th in Off. S&P+.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Quarterback Tyler Huntley started involving more players (namely, receiver Demari Simpkins and freshman tight end Brant Kuithe). The Utes have scored 40-plus points and averaged at least 6.6 yards per play in each of the last three games — wins over Stanford, Arizona, and USC by a combined 123-59 — and after producing a passer rating of just 120.3 through four games, Huntley’s been at 197.6 since.
Utah’s gone from one of many hilariously flawed Pac-12 South contenders to by far the surest thing. The Utes’ two early conference losses mean they’ve still got a lot of work to do, but from a fundamentals standpoint, everything about their improvement seems sustainable.
- AP rank: no votes
- S&P+ rank: 25th
- Résumé S&P+ rank: 25th
Missouri is perpetually difficult to read. The Tigers got definitively better over the second half of 2017 but couldn’t prove it because all the good opponents had been on the first half of the schedule. This time, they’re 4-0 in non-conference play and 0-3 in the SEC. Even what suddenly looks like a pretty impressive road win over Purdue has not done much to polish the reputation.
Computers don’t care about reputations, though, and against a rugged schedule — the Tigers are currently fourth in S&P+ strength of schedule, which goes a long way toward explaining the No. 25 overall ranking — Mizzou has either met or exceeded the mark in every game. In three losses (Georgia, at South Carolina, at Alabama), the Tigers were Vegas underdogs by a combined 44.5 points and lost by a combined 45. In three FBS wins, they were favored by a combined 35 and won by a combined 62.
This trend will be put to the test on Saturday. Vegas has Mizzou favored by a touchdown at home against No. 12 Kentucky, which feels aggressive — despite holding them in top-25 regard, S&P+ only favors the Tigers by 3.4 points — but if they can go 1-1 against UK and Florida, they will have a shot at going 8-4 against a top-25 schedule. Seems deserving of a few votes, at least.
Auburn (5-3) and Mississippi State (4-3)
- AP rank: RV and RV, respectively
- S&P+ rank: 17th and 20th
- Résumé S&P+ rank: 20th and 27th
There is one everlasting tenet in any college sports poll: if you win, you move up, and if you lose, you move down. There are but rare exceptions. We know this is wrong, but we make the same adjustments in our own heads, too.
The fact that Auburn and MSU have played lots of good teams is dragging them down. The Tigers and Bulldogs are each 1-2 against teams currently in the S&P+ top-20, but they’re a combined 7-2 against everyone else. Both are laboring offensively, to put it kindly, but if they had played lesser schedules — both are in the top 25 in S&P+ strength of schedule — we might not have noticed.
Thanks to life in the SEC West, this isn’t going to change. Auburn still has a home game against Texas A&M (No. 18 in S&P+) and trips to two top-five teams (Georgia and Alabama), while MSU (A&M, at Bama) has nearly the same trek. Neither is likely to sniff the AP top 25 again this year, even though both might continue to play at a top-25 level.
- AP rank: eighth
- S&P+ rank: third
- Résumé S&P+ rank: fourth
Let’s talk about Oklahoma’s two shaky results for a minute — the reasons why the Sooners are only eighth in the AP poll — using post-game win expectancy as a guide.
- Oklahoma 28, Army 21. Post-game win expectancy: OU 99 percent. The Sooners more than doubled the Black Knights’ yardage on a per-play basis, posted better efficiency and explosiveness numbers, and did better at turning scoring opportunities into points. Army was able to manage the clock perfectly. It was amazing to watch, but using predictive stats, what OU did would’ve won that game almost every time.
- Texas 48, Oklahoma 45. Post-game win expectancy: OU 91 percent. OU out-gained Texas by 2.5 yards per play and posted better efficiency, explosiveness, and drive-finishing numbers. But thanks in part to turnovers — OU had a minus-3 TO margin, minus-2 before the final play of the game, and total fumbles and passes defensed suggested that was about 1.5 turnovers above what should have happened — Texas barely prevailed. In all the ways that typically decide games (the ones you can control, at least), the Sooners dominated.
If there’s an OU-Texas rematch in the Big 12 title game, I think even Texas fans would admit the Sooners would be favored by a comfortable margin. And that’s usually a dead giveaway.
There are no take-backs — no one’s saying UT should give its win away — but OU has shown by far the highest upside in the conference, and predictive stats suggest they’re in very good shape. They’re projected to win by at least 8.6 points in every remaining regular season game, and they’re easily the Big 12’s best hope at a CFP bid.