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Sizing up top teams with advanced college football statistics

Photo: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

According to advanced stats, James Wilder Jr. (32) and Florida State are the No. 1 team after Week 12.

I'm not that advanced. Ask anyone. As a Neanderthal, I rely on simplistic things such as head-to-head results and intuition when ranking teams. That often puts me at odds with advanced statistics.

The advanced stats movement in football hasn't gained the mainstream traction of the ones in baseball or basketbal. That's probably because it's difficult to create meaningful statistical categories with football's small sample size: Major League Baseball teams play 162-game regular seasons; NBA teams play 82-game regular seasons; college basketball teams play 30-32 games before conference tournaments begin. NFL and college football teams, meanwhile, play 16- and 12-game regular seasons, respectively. That severely limits data points, and it makes it difficult for football sabermatricians to make sense of the numbers.

MANDEL: Baylor and Duke go from worst to first; more Overtime

Fortunately a few braves souls are still willing to try, giving us a different way to look at the game's national landscape. In terms of ranking teams, the best measure created so far is the S&P+ rating, developed by Bill Connelly for the Football Outsiders website, as well as for Connelly's own site, Football Study Hall. The S&P+ rating attempts to mathematically make sense of the the data from from every FBS game. It adjusts for varying offensive tempos by measuring the success (or lack thereof) of each play a team runs. It also adjusts for the quality of opponents in an attempt to account for teams' disparate schedules. It is the measure that, for example, told us last year that 8-5 Oklahoma State was much better than its record. The results this season -- the Cowboys are 9-1 -- suggest that was a correct assessment.

So what do the S&P+ ratings for 2013 look like? Here's the top 10.

1. Florida State
2. Baylor
3. Alabama
4. Wisconsin
5. Stanford
6. Oregon
7. Louisville
8. Ohio State
9. Clemson
10. Arizona State

And Ohio State fans thought poll voters disrespected the Buckeyes. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is ranked 12 spots higher in the S&P+ ratings than it is in the aggregate AP Poll. Stanford, despite two losses, also remains very high. As for the No. 1 ranking, the advanced numbers agree with SI.com's Stewart Mandel, who wrote last week that there isn't a better-constructed team in the nation than Florida State.

So which rankings are correct? Connelly's above or mine below? The correct answer is neither; large groups of 18- to 22-year-olds tend to be unpredictable. That is something no amount of primitive thinking or advanced number crunching will change.

On to the rankings ...

MANDEL: Bowl projections: USC's upset creates a chain reaction

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1Alabama Crimson Tide
Las week: 1
I toyed with the idea of flip-flopping Alabama and Florida State, but I still ultimately believe the Crimson Tide would beat the Seminoles on a neutral field. My conviction gets shakier with each passing week, though. Four turnovers by 'Bama's offense against Mississippi State do not inspire confidence, but the defense's ability to nullify three of those turnovers does. The question is, what would happen if the Tide turned the ball over four times against Florida State? Or against Auburn on Nov. 30?

Last game: Beat Mississippi State, 20-7
Next game: Saturday vs. Chattanooga
 
2Florida State Seminoles
Last week: 2
The Seminoles crushed yet another inferior ACC opponent last Saturday to finish league play 8-0. Now comes a NSFW game against Idaho that should feature only a brief cameo by Florida State's starters. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room continues to be the state attorney's investigation of a case involving quarterback Jameis Winston. The case involves an accusation of sexual battery, but few other details are known. Winston's lawyer has proclaimed his client did nothing wrong, and the Seminoles have not altered Winston's status. State attorney Willie Meggs and his staff must interview the alleged victim and the pertinent witnesses. Winston is not expected to answer questions. At this point, there isn't much to say about the potential impact of the investigation. First, it involves something far more serious than football. Second, we don't really know much. That could change in the next few weeks.

Last game: Beat Syracuse, 59-3
Next game: Saturday vs. Idaho
 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Last week: 3
The Buckeyes remain at No. 3 in the BCS standings, but they lost ground to fourth-ranked Baylor this week and could lose their spot next week if the Bears win decisively at Oklahoma State. As I've written before, Ohio State is in a no-win situation. The Big Ten is down. That isn't the Buckeyes' fault, but it hurts them anyway. For whatever reason, Wisconsin -- a very good team that Ohio State beat 31-24 on Sept. 28 -- is not getting the national respect it deserves. The Buckeyes' win over the Badgers is better than any victory on Baylor's ledger, but here's the problem: A Bears win over the Cowboys on Saturday -- especially a convincing one -- would be every bit as good. Ohio State has to hope that Michigan State survives against Northwestern and Minnesota, which would make the Spartans a worthy challenger in the Big Ten title game. Beating Michigan State would give the Buckeyes another quality victory to brag about. Or Ohio State could just pull for Oklahoma State on Saturday. A shift in public opinion probably won't end the Baylor threat, but a Cowboys victory will.

Last game: Beat Illinois, 60-35
Next game: Saturday vs. Indiana
 
4Baylor Bears
Last week: 4
Remember all that stuff I wrote a few sentences ago about the Bears potentially decisive victory? If that happens, it would be quite impressive, and Baylor would deserve the prestige bump it would provide. More than likely, Oklahoma State will prove a much tougher foe difficult than any of the Bears' previous opponents. The Cowboys probably have both the best offense and the best defense that Baylor will face in the regular season, and Boone Pickens Stadium is a claustrophobia-inducing pit of noise that unsettles visitors. If the Bears want a Big 12 championship and a shot at the national title, they're going to have to earn it on Saturday.

Last game: Beat Texas Tech, 63-34
Next game: Saturday at Oklahoma State
 
5 Auburn Tigers
Last week: 8
We can talk about the Iron Bowl next week. For now, watch this clip and be reminded why college football is superior to every other sport.



Last game: Beat Georgia, 43-38
Next game: Nov. 30 vs. Alabama
 
6Oregon Ducks
Last week: 6
Check the graph below to see a comparison of quarterback Marcus Mariota's rushing yards with the Ducks' team rushing yards throughout the season. When Mariota's rushing total (including sacks) dropped below zero because of his knee injury, Oregon's running backs did not make up the difference. There are two possible explanations for this. Either Mariota's limited mobility makes it easier for defenses to bottle up the Ducks' rushing attack, or Oregon happened to play the No. 1 (Stanford) and No. 4 (Utah) run defenses in the Pac-12 in consecutive weeks. (The Ducks don't play No. 2 Arizona State or No. 3 USC in the regular season.) The good news for Oregon? Even with a bum wheel, Mariota can still throw really, really well. (Click graph to enlarge.)



Last game: Beat Utah, 44-21
Next game: Saturday at Arizona
 
7 Clemson Tigers
Last week: 7
The Tigers get one more warm-up before they head to Columbia on Nov. 30 to attempt to break their four-year losing streak to in-state rival South Carolina. In anticipation of that game, allow me to make a modest proposal. A win over the Gamecocks would make Clemson 11-1. The Tigers opened this season by beating a full-strength Georgia team. If Missouri loses to either Ole Miss or Texas A&M in the next two weeks, SEC commissioner Mike Slive should thank ACC commissioner John Swofford for his support for Slive's failed 2008 bid to bring a playoff to college football by allowing Clemson -- which would be the de facto SEC East champion -- to go to Atlanta to face the SEC West champ on Dec. 7. Admit it. You'd watch that game.

Last game: Beat Georgia Tech, 55-31
Next game: Saturday vs. The Citadel
 
8Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 9
The pressure is squarely on the Tigers, who get starting quarterback James Franklin (shoulder) back after a four-game absence. South Carolina is in the barn with a 6-2 SEC record, and the Gamecocks have a head-to-head win over the Tigers. Georgia has three SEC losses, so a three-way tie is out of the question. Missouri has to beat Ole Miss, which has won four consecutive games since losing to Texas A&M on Oct. 12. Then the Tigers have to beat Johnny Football in what will likely be his final regular-season college game. Mizzou will have to earn its way to Atlanta.

Last game: Beat Kentucky, 48-17
Next game: Saturday at Ole Miss
 
9 Stanford Cardinal
Last week: 5
The Cardinal proved they had solved the Oregon riddle. Then they got outmuscled by a USC team that plays a style much closer to their own. It's tough to drop Stanford too far because its 26-20 win over the Ducks was so impressive, but a season that began with national title dreams will now likely end in the Alamo Bowl.

Last game: Lost to USC, 20-17
Next game: Saturday vs. Cal
 
10South Carolina Gamecocks
Last week: 10
The Gamecocks narrowly avoided a stunning home loss to a Florida team held together by bailing wire and coat hangers. That doesn't inspire much confidence for the Clemson game. It also doesn't inspire much confidence if Missouri loses either of its last two games and puts South Carolina in the SEC title game. But coach Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks bounced back from a stinker at Tennessee to win at Mizzou, so past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results.

This week, South Carolina will face the team with the richest coach in college football. You thought that was Nick Saban? Not even close. It's Coastal Carolina's Joe Moglia, who left college football after the 1983 season, worked on Wall Street, became the CEO of Ameritrade, made a mint and then returned to the game in 2008 as a volunteer at Nebraska.

Last game: Beat Florida, 19-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Coastal Carolina
 
11UCLA Bruins
Last week: 11
Two-way star Myles Jack is a genuine sensation. He's the best freshman linebacker in America, and he might be the best freshman tailback in America, too. Against Washington, the second game of the Jack-in-the-backfield experiment, he scored four rushing touchdowns. Still, anyone calling for him to become a permanent member of UCLA's injury-depleted running back corps must keep in mind that Jack, who didn't go through spring practice and a preseason camp as a member of the offense, doesn't know all the blocking assignments. That makes him a liability on passing downs. He's also too valuable as a linebacker. It will be interesting to see how Jack fares on offense this week in a showdown that will either put UCLA in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 South title or give the division crown to Arizona State. The Sun Devils rank No. 2 in the Pac-12, and No. 17 nationally, in rush defense (120.6 yards a game, 3.67 yards a carry), so we'll see just how dynamic Jack is as a runner. And because he isn't familiar with the blocking duties, Arizona State will probably assume that he's getting the ball if he's on the field and proceed to load the box.

Last game: Beat Washington, 41-31
Next game: Saturday vs. Arizona State
 
12Texas A&M Aggies
Last week: 12
OK, so the Aggies' showdown with LSU this week has no bearing on the national title picture. It has no bearing on the SEC West title chase. It will still feature Johnny Manziel playing at Tiger Stadium, and it's probably the only time it will ever happen.

Last game: Beat Mississippi State, 51-41
Next game: Saturday at LSU
 
13Arizona State Sun Devils
Last week: 19
UCLA's Jack is averaging an astounding one touchdown for every 3.8 carries, but that number will likely drop as his workload in the backfield increases. He'll be doing quite well if he can match the pace of Sun Devils tailback Marion Grice, who averages a touchdown every 12.4 carries and every 7.2 catches. Grice leads Arizona State in rushing and receiving touchdowns (14 and six), and he may have the best nose for the end zone of any player in a power conference.

Last game: Beat Oregon State, 30-17
Next game: Saturday at UCLA
 
14 Wisconsin Badgers
Last week: 14
If the officials hadn't mistakenly let the clock run out at the end of the Badgers' visit to Arizona State on Sept. 14, would perception of Wisconsin be different? While there is no guarantee that the Badgers would have beaten the Sun Devils with a game-winning field goal, it was a strong possibility. All Wisconsin has done since is lose a close one to Ohio State in Columbus and bludgeon pretty much everyone else. The Badgers may be a top-10 team hiding in plain sight. This week's trip to Minneapolis should be very informative. The Golden Gophers are playing their best football in years.

Last game: Beat Indiana, 51-3
Next game: Saturday at Minnesota
 
15Oklahoma State Cowboys
Last week: 16
The Cowboys can take command of the Big 12 race with a win over Baylor on Saturday, but that will require Oklahoma State's best performance of the season. For a league considered to be superior on offense, the Big 12 hasn't been very dynamic in 2013. The Cowboys haven't faced an attack anywhere near as good as the Bears'. But Oklahoma State's defense has been solid -- even in a 30-21 loss to West Virginia on Sept. 28, when the unit was placed in tough spot after tough spot by an offense that couldn't move the ball. Now that the Cowboys have settled on Clint Chelf at quarterback, the offense seems to have turned the corner. If Oklahoma State can get receiver/return man Josh Stewart (ankle) back in time for Saturday's game, that would give the Cowboys one more playmaker. But this matchup will likely come down to whether Oklahoma State's defense can force turnovers and shift momentum. The Cowboys lead the Big 12 in takeaways (26) and turnover margin (+1.3). Chelf and the offense will have to take care of the ball, too. Baylor is second in the league in turnover margin (+1.0).

Last game: Beat Texas, 38-13
Next game: Saturday vs. Baylor
 
16 Michigan State Spartans
Last week: 13
The Spartans are well aware they didn't play their best game at Nebraska. They also know they're set to face some psychologically wounded Northwestern players who have now lost consecutive games thanks to the following two plays.





Just as Michigan State has learned to make its own luck after a snake-bitten 2012, the Wildcats are going to earn a break eventually. It will be up to the Spartans to ensure that Northwestern's break doesn't come on Saturday.

Last game: Beat Nebraska, 41-28
Next game: Saturday at Northwestern
 
17UCF Knights
Last week: 17
The Knights needed an incredible catch from J.J. Worton to escape with a win over Temple last Saturday and maintain their game-in-hand lead over Louisville in the American Athletic Conference race. Now, UCF needs to only go 2-1 against Rutgers, South Florida and Cincinnati to wrap up a BCS bowl berth. Next up are the Scarlet Knights, who got destroyed at home by the Bearcats last Saturday.

Last game: Beat Temple, 39-36
Next game: Thursday vs. Rutgers
 
18Louisville Cardinals
Last week: 18
Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will not participate in Senior Day festivities on Saturday. "We're not going to even talk about him and saying this is going to be his last game," Louisville coach Charlie Strong told reporters on Monday. "He's still got a whole new year, and he's going to have to make that decision." Don't assume this means Bridgewater will lead the Cardinals into the ACC next year. He'll still probably be in the NFL.

Last game: Beat Houston, 20-13
Next game: Saturday vs. Memphis
 
19Ole Miss Rebels
Last week: 20
Freshman defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche notched his first career sack on Saturday against Troy. He'll probably need to spend some time in the Missouri backfield to slow Franklin and backup quarterback Maty Mauk, who Tigers coach Gary Pinkel has said will play after going 3-1 as the starter in Franklin's absence. Mizzou will be the first ranked opponent the Rebels have seen since they beat LSU 27-24 on Oct. 19, but Ole Miss will be much healthier for this game. Against those Tigers, both Nkemdiche brothers (Robert and linebacker Denzel) were out with injuries. They're healthy now.

Last game: Beat Troy, 51-21
Next game: Saturday vs. Missouri
 
20LSU Tigers
Last week: 15
The Tigers were one of the two teams to slow Manziel last season, holding him to 276 passing yards and zero touchdowns, and forcing him to throw three interceptions. The LSU defense isn't nearly as good in 2013, but the offense has improved dramatically. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is allowing 38.3 points a game in SEC play. I don't care how high the over is. Take it.

Last game: Lost to Alabama, 38-17
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas A&M
 
21USC Trojans
Last week: NR
The news that the USC interviewed Denver Broncos defensive coordinator (and former Trojans linebacker) Jack Del Rio came on the heels of a tremendous win over Stanford that only enlarged the group who thinks interim coach Ed Orgeron should get the job on a permanent basis. Because of the Trojans' improvement, USC athletic director Pat Haden will have to make a tough call regarding Orgeron. This feels similar to when Dabo Swinney took over after Tommy Bowden was fired at Clemson in 2008. Swinney was considered a stopgap, but by the end of the season, he was the Tigers' guy. Obviously, hiring Swinney has proven to be a great decision by Clemson. The difference with Orgeron is he already has a body of work as a head coach; he went 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss from 2005 to '07.

What makes this situation intriguing is that Orgeron has made it quite clear he is doing the exact opposite of what he did as the coach of the Rebels. Could he keep doing that over the long term and make this loose and fun attitude his new normal? That's a difficult question to answer. What makes this doubly intriguing is that Orgeron definitely knows how to recruit. Even though Orgeron coached poorly at Ole Miss, Houston Nutt won a ton of games with Coach O's players. So if Orgeron can somehow marry this new attitude with his natural ability to recruit, he could be a good head coach for some school. But I'm still not sure that school is USC.

Last game: Beat Stanford, 20-17
Next game: Saturday at Colorado
 
22 Northern Illinois Huskies
Last week: 21
The Huskies survived a stiff challenge from Ball State on national television last week, and they may face an even tougher one at the Glass Bowl on Wednesday. Toledo hammered Buffalo last week, and the Bulls' only previous losses were to Ohio State and Baylor. The Rockets fell to a healthy Florida team in their season opener and followed that up with a loss at Missouri. Toledo's only other defeat is a 31-24 loss at Ball State on Sept. 28.

Northern Illinois remains one spot behind Fresno State in the BCS standings, so the Huskies need to impress voters. Meanwhile, UCF remains at No. 18 in the BCS rankings. As long as the Knights don't creep up to No. 16, either the Bulldogs or Northern Illinois should be able to secure a BCS bowl slot provided they remain undefeated.

Last game: Beat Ball State, 48-27
Next game: Wednesday at Toledo
 
23 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last week: NR
The Golden Gophers have had an inspiring run under acting coach Tracy Claeys. Now comes their biggest challenge to date. Wisconsin could be the best team Minnesota faces this season. The Gophers should know by kickoff whether Michigan State has beaten Northwestern. If the Spartans defeat the Wildcats, this one is strictly for pride. If Northwestern upsets Michigan State, then Minnesota remains alive in the race for the Big Ten Legends Division title. All they'd have to do is beat the Badgers this week and the Spartans next week. OK, so it wouldn't be easy. But just imagine the Jerry Kill dance.



Last game: Beat Penn State, 24-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Wisconsin
 
24Oklahoma Sooners
Last week: 25
Quarterback Trevor Knight's rushing performance (10 carries, 123 yards, one touchdown) in place of an injured Blake Bell against Iowa State should make the Sooners grateful they have a capable backup. But it should also make them reexamine their 36-20 loss to Texas on Oct. 12. Knight's showing in his first extensive duty since the West Virginia game -- combined with the way Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf carved up the Longhorns on Saturday -- should lead anyone in crimson and cream to a logical conclusion. Knight should have been part of the game plan against Texas, which still can't stop the read option. The Longhorns didn't really get better during their six-game winning streak. They just didn't play anyone who could exploit their weakness the way BYU and Ole Miss did earlier in the season. Oklahoma could have, but Sooners' coaches opted against it. Hopefully, the staff will be a little smarter against red-hot Kansas State, which has won four in a row since losing to Baylor.

Last game: Beat Iowa State, 48-10
Next game: Saturday at Kansas State
 
25Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: NR
The Blue Devils checked in at No. 24 in the Coaches' Poll this week, meaning someone other than former Duke coach Steve Spurrier voted for them. Coach David Cutcliffe and his team have earned their ranking this time, and now they have a chance to earn even more. The Blue Devils can win the ACC Coastal by sweeping Wake Forest and North Carolina to finish the regular season.

Last game: Beat Miami, 48-30
Next game: Saturday at Wake Forest

Next five: Georgia, BYU, Fresno State, Cincinnati, Texas

Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

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