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130-team S&P+ rankings: The gap between Bama and Clemson is now tiny

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With one FBS game left, here’s the S&P+ update following bowl season.

CFP National Championship Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Below are the new S&P+ rankings with just one game remaining in the 2018 college football season

A reminder: S&P+ is intended to be predictive and forward looking.

Good predictive ratings are not résumé ratings, and they don’t give you bonus points for wins and losses. They simply compare expected output to actual output and adjust accordingly. That’s how a given team can win but plummet or lose and move up.

The S&P+ rankings have performed pretty well this year, hitting 53 percent against the spread and 52 percent on the over/under point totals for the year.

(You can find full unit rankings, plus a yearly archive, at Football Outsiders. The offense and defense pages are updated by Monday at the latest.)

2018 S&P+ rankings after bowls

Team Rec. S&P+ Rating S&P+ Rank Change in ranking Change in rating
Team Rec. S&P+ Rating S&P+ Rank Change in ranking Change in rating
Alabama 14-0 29.6 1 0 -0.1
Clemson 14-0 28.6 2 0 0.7
Georgia 11-3 25.2 3 0 -0.7
Oklahoma 12-2 22.0 4 0 -0.2
Ohio State 13-1 20.3 5 2 0.5
Michigan 10-3 19.2 6 -1 -2.0
Notre Dame 12-1 19.1 7 -1 -1.5
Central Florida 12-1 17.6 8 0 -2.0
Fresno State 12-2 16.9 9 1 0.6
Washington 10-4 16.8 10 -1 -0.3
Appalachian State 11-2 16.6 11 2 1.1
LSU 10-3 16.4 12 3 1.6
Florida 10-3 16.1 13 1 1.0
Penn State 9-4 15.8 14 -3 -0.3
Mississippi State 8-5 15.7 15 -3 0.1
Utah 9-5 14.9 16 1 0.5
Auburn 8-5 14.7 17 1 1.9
Texas A&M 9-4 14.3 18 1 1.6
Utah State 11-2 14.1 19 2 1.6
Missouri 8-5 13.8 20 -4 -0.6
Wisconsin 8-5 12.5 21 3 1.1
Iowa 9-4 11.3 22 4 0.5
West Virginia 8-4 11.0 23 -3 -1.6
Memphis 8-6 10.5 24 -1 -1.5
Miami-FL 7-6 10.4 25 -3 -1.7
Oklahoma State 7-6 10.4 26 2 0.1
Boise State 10-3 10.4 27 2 0.4
Stanford 9-4 10.3 28 -1 -0.3
Washington State 11-2 9.9 29 -4 -1.0
Texas 10-4 8.2 30 6 0.6
NC State 9-4 8.1 31 -1 -1.8
Cincinnati 11-2 8.1 32 0 -0.9
Michigan State 7-6 7.8 33 2 0.1
North Texas 9-4 7.7 34 -3 -2.1
Ohio 9-4 7.6 35 10 2.0
Syracuse 10-3 7.2 36 7 1.1
Virginia 8-5 7.0 37 5 0.8
South Carolina 7-6 6.8 38 -5 -2.0
USC 5-7 6.6 39 0 0.0
Troy 10-3 6.5 40 6 1.1
Kentucky 10-3 6.2 41 -1 -0.4
Texas Tech 5-7 6.0 42 2 0.0
Marshall 9-4 5.9 43 6 1.5
UAB 11-3 5.8 44 9 2.0
Iowa State 8-5 5.2 45 7 1.2
BYU 7-6 5.2 46 10 2.1
Temple 8-5 5.1 47 -13 -3.0
Arkansas State 8-5 4.9 48 2 0.7
Minnesota 7-6 4.7 49 9 1.8
Toledo 7-6 4.5 50 -2 -0.1
Oregon 9-4 4.4 51 -4 -0.8
Purdue 6-7 4.3 52 -15 -2.4
San Diego State 7-6 4.0 53 -15 -2.6
Houston 8-5 3.7 54 -13 -2.5
Duke 8-5 3.6 55 11 2.2
Nebraska 4-8 3.4 56 -1 0.2
TCU 7-6 3.2 57 0 0.2
Buffalo 10-4 3.2 58 -7 -1.0
Florida Atlantic 5-7 2.9 59 1 0.1
Arizona State 7-6 2.8 60 -6 -0.6
Miami-OH 6-6 2.6 61 1 0.2
Eastern Michigan 7-6 2.3 62 1 0.3
Georgia Southern 10-3 2.2 63 -4 -0.7
Wake Forest 7-6 1.9 64 13 2.0
California 7-6 1.8 65 -1 0.3
Virginia Tech 6-7 1.8 66 3 0.5
Ole Miss 5-7 1.5 67 3 0.2
Middle Tennessee 8-6 1.4 68 -7 -1.4
Pittsburgh 7-7 1.3 69 -2 -0.1
Boston College 7-5 1.1 70 1 0.0
Maryland 5-7 0.8 71 2 0.1
Southern Miss 6-5 0.7 72 4 0.5
Vanderbilt 6-7 0.5 73 -5 -0.9
Arizona 5-7 0.5 74 1 0.1
Army 11-2 0.3 75 8 1.9
Northern Illinois 8-6 0.2 76 -11 -1.4
Wyoming 6-6 0.0 77 1 0.2
South Florida 7-6 -0.4 78 -6 -1.4
Northwestern 9-5 -1.1 79 1 0.0
Baylor 7-6 -1.1 80 5 0.7
Nevada 8-5 -1.1 81 -2 -0.5
Georgia Tech 7-6 -1.4 82 -8 -1.8
Indiana 5-7 -1.5 83 -1 0.0
Florida State 5-7 -1.5 84 -3 -0.1
Florida International 9-4 -1.7 85 1 0.3
Tulane 7-6 -1.8 86 4 1.5
UL-Lafayette 7-7 -2.2 87 -3 -0.5
Tennessee 5-7 -2.2 88 -1 0.0
Colorado 5-7 -2.4 89 -1 0.0
Louisiana Tech 8-5 -2.4 90 5 2.1
Air Force 5-7 -2.5 91 -2 0.2
UCLA 3-9 -3.6 92 -1 0.0
Kansas State 5-7 -3.9 93 -1 0.1
Arkansas 2-10 -4.2 94 -1 0.2
North Carolina 2-9 -4.5 95 1 0.2
SMU 5-7 -4.8 96 -2 -0.3
UL-Monroe 6-6 -6.8 97 1 0.3
Western Michigan 7-6 -7.8 98 -1 -1.5
Old Dominion 4-8 -9.2 99 0 -0.1
Tulsa 3-9 -9.7 100 1 -0.1
Navy 3-10 -9.8 101 1 0.0
Hawaii 8-6 -10.4 102 -2 -1.1
Illinois 4-8 -10.5 103 0 0.1
New Mexico 3-9 -11.7 104 0 0.1
Texas State 3-9 -11.8 105 0 0.2
Western Kentucky 3-9 -11.9 106 0 0.4
Louisville 2-10 -12.9 107 2 0.1
Colorado State 3-9 -12.9 108 3 0.3
Kansas 3-9 -13.0 109 -1 0.0
UNLV 4-8 -13.0 110 0 0.1
East Carolina 3-9 -13.0 111 -4 -0.3
Charlotte 5-7 -13.4 112 0 0.2
Massachusetts 4-8 -13.7 113 0 0.2
Coastal Carolina 5-7 -14.0 114 0 0.2
South Alabama 3-9 -14.9 115 0 0.2
Rutgers 1-11 -15.6 116 0 0.0
Ball State 4-8 -15.9 117 0 -0.1
Liberty 6-6 -16.0 118 0 0.3
Akron 4-8 -16.6 119 0 0.0
Kent State 2-10 -17.4 120 1 0.2
Central Michigan 1-11 -17.6 121 -1 -0.1
Georgia State 2-10 -17.7 122 0 0.1
New Mexico State 3-9 -17.9 123 1 0.3
Oregon State 2-10 -18.2 124 -1 -0.1
San Jose State 1-11 -18.5 125 0 0.0
UTSA 3-9 -18.9 126 0 0.1
Bowling Green 3-9 -19.7 127 0 0.0
UTEP 1-11 -21.4 128 0 0.1
Rice 2-11 -22.2 129 0 0.0
Connecticut 1-11 -26.0 130 0 -0.1

One point

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Five days before the national title game between Clemson and Alabama kicks off, the Crimson Tide are around a 6-point Vegas favorite. General sentiment I’m seeing on Twitter is that the Tigers will be lucky to stay that close, even though gamblers moved the early line a little bit in Clemson’s direction. It appears Alabama has beaten a lot of fans into assuming another blowout like we saw in the 2017 semifinals between these two schools (a 24-6 Bama rout).

The numbers agree with the people actually laying the money, however. ESPN’s FPI separates the two teams by merely 0.3 points and gives Alabama only a 52 percent chance of winning; S&P+ is nearly as bullish on Clemson’s chances, putting the Tigers only 1.0 adjusted points per game behind the defending champs, which also projects to about a 52 percent win probability.

Better yet, if you’re a Clemson fan: if we look only at Clemson’s last nine games — i.e., the games in which quarterback Trevor Lawrence was both the starter and healthy — the Tigers’ S&P+ rating rises to plus-30.2 adjusted points per game, 0.6 points ahead of the Tide. Granted, if we look only at the games in which Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa was most healthy, we see a similar bump.

But while our heads always assume Bama’s going to win any game easily, the spreadsheets suggest otherwise.

Bowl season’s top movers (good)

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Temple vs Duke Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Duke (up 2.2 adjusted points per game to 55th overall)
  2. BYU (up 2.1 points to 46th)
  3. Louisiana Tech (up 2.1 points to 90th)
  4. Ohio (up 2.0 points to 35th)
  5. UAB (up 2.0 points to 44th)
  6. Wake Forest (up 2.0 points to 64th)
  7. Auburn (up 1.9 points to 17th)
  8. Army (up 1.9 points to 75th)
  9. Minnesota (up 1.8 points to 49th)
  10. LSU (up 1.6 points to 12th)
  11. Texas A&M (up 1.6 points to 18th)
  12. Utah State (up 1.6 points to 19th)

Bowl season was incredibly all-or-nothing, with 16 games decided by a touchdown or less and 14 decided by 24 or more. There are typically a few extremes during this time of year, but that’s impressive.

And it offered a bunch of teams opportunities to move up by a decent amount. Twelve teams improved their adjusted points per game average by at least 1.6 PPG, including four teams now ranked in the teens.

Top movers (bad)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 22 Armed Forces Bowl - Houston v Army Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  1. Temple (down 3.0 points to 47th)
  2. San Diego State (down 2.6 points to 53rd)
  3. Houston (down 2.5 points to 54th)
  4. Purdue (down 2.4 points to 52nd)
  5. North Texas (down 2.1 points to 34th)
  6. Michigan (down 2.0 points to sixth)
  7. UCF (down 2.0 points to eighth)
  8. South Carolina (down 2.0 points to 38th)
  9. NC State (down 1.8 points to 31st)
  10. Georgia Tech (down 1.8 points to 82nd)
  11. Miami (down 1.7 points to 25th)
  12. West Virginia (down 1.6 points to 23rd)

On the flip side, 12 teams regressed by at least 1.6 adjusted points per game, including two top-10 teams in Michigan and UCF.

Both teams were far enough ahead of the rest of the field that their rankings remained pretty static — UCF remained eighth because the No. 9 team (Washington) also fell a bit, and Michigan fell only from fifth to sixth because the previous No. 6 team (Notre Dame) also regressed by a hair. Still, know that each of these team’s statuses fell a bit.

FBS conferences, ranked by average S&P+ rating

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl - Purdue v Auburn Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images
  1. SEC (plus-11.0 adjusted points per game, up 0.1 from before bowl season)
  2. Big Ten (plus-5.1, same)
  3. Big 12 (plus-4.8, up 0.1)
  4. Pac-12 (plus-3.6, down 0.2)
  5. ACC (plus-3.6, up 0.1)
  6. AAC (minus-1.7, down 0.9)
  7. Mountain West (minus-2.1, down 0.1)
  8. Sun Belt (minus-3.7, up 0.3)
  9. Conference USA (minus-5.5, up 0.2)
  10. MAC (minus-6.2, down 0.1)

The stats back up what the eyes saw: the AAC had a horrid bowl season — the league went just 2-5, earning wins over UL Lafayette (Tulane’s) and Virginia Tech (Cincinnati’s) and losing five other games by an average of 23 points (15 without Houston’s miserable performance). Most of the other leagues were pretty up-and-down.

By the way, I will be revealing a new layer of S&P+ adjustments later in January. It appears I’ve found a way to make projections more accurate by figuring out stronger conference-level adjustments. That’s good for me and bad for Fresno State and other members of mid-major conferences who will see their rankings slip a bit when that adjustment is made. So stay tuned for that.

One last note: the 2019 season preview series — which begins in February and goes in order from worst conference to first — will begin with the MAC for what I believe is the first time. Usually the Sun Belt finishes last in average S&P+, and when it doesn’t, it’s Conference USA instead. But the Rust Belt league takes the ignominious distinction this time, and with ease.

You’re on the clock, Bowling Green.


Another reminder: I have made a few philosophical changes in this year’s S&P+ rankings.

When I get the chance (so, maybe in the offseason), I will update previous years of S&P+ rankings to reflect these formula changes, too.

  1. I changed the garbage time definition. S&P+ stops counting the major stats once the game has entered garbage time. Previously, that was when a game ceased to be within 27 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third, and 16 in the fourth. Now I have expanded it: garbage time adjustments don’t begin until a game is outside of 43 points in the first quarter, 37 in the second, 27 in the third, and 21 in the fourth. That change came because of a piece I wrote about game states at Football Study Hall.
  2. Preseason projections will remain in the formulas all season. Fans hate this — it’s the biggest complaint I’ve heard regarding ESPN’s FPI formulas. Instinctively, I hate it, too. But here’s the thing: it makes projections more accurate. Our sample size for determining quality in a given season is tiny, and incorporating projection factors found in the preseason rankings decreases the overall error in projections. So I’m doing it.
  3. To counteract this conservative change, I’m also making S&P+ more reactive to results, especially early in the season. If I’m admitting that S&P+ needs previous-year performances to make it better, I’m also going to admit that S&P+ doesn’t know everything it needs to early in a season, and it’s going to react a bit more to actual results.

Basically, I’ve added a step to the the rankings process: after the rankings are determined, I go back and project previous games based on those ratings, and I adjust the ratings based on how much the ratings fit (or don’t fit) those results.

The adjustment isn’t enormous, and it diminishes dramatically as the season unfolds.

Testing this process for past seasons improved performance against the spread a little and, more importantly, decreased absolute error (the difference between projections and reality) quite a bit. I wouldn’t have made the move if it didn’t appear to improve performance.