130-team S&P+ rankings still trust Ohio State, Alabama, and no one else

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S&P+ still loves Ohio State. Can the Buckeyes get the breaks they need to re-enter the CFP race?

How do teams shape up heading into college football’s biggest weekend? What can we expect as we prepare for a chaotic couple of weeks? Let’s see what S&P+ can tell us.

After a midseason slump, my S&P+ ratings have beaten the spread 54 percent of the time over the last three weeks of the season. 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 Ohio State can remain No. 1 despite a pair of losses. The Buckeyes need help getting back into the CFP conversation, but they could get plenty of it over the next two weekends.

If you’re interested in a decent résumé ranking of sorts, I encourage you to visit this post on strength of schedule: I created a Resume S&P+ ranking, and it is updated through Week 12. (Spoiler: Alabama’s No. 1. Go figure.)

Below, however, are the predictive ratings, the actual S&P+.

(You can find full unit rankings, plus a yearly archive, at Football Outsiders. Also, if the chart below isn’t loading friendly on your mobile device, that Football Outsiders link should work.)

A year ago after 12 weeks, a plus-17.8 S&P+ rating (which means you’re 17.8 points better than the average FBS team) would have been good enough for a No. 11 overall ranking. This year, it’s worth a No. 3 ranking. UCF is only about three points ahead of where last year’s top Group of Five team was at this point in the season, but in a year that has almost no truly elite teams, the Knights rank awfully high.

Granted, S&P+ is of no use to the College Football Playoff committee, which is revealing pretty clearly that it will never take a mid-major team seriously enough to give it a playoff spot (unless, perhaps, it has been great over multiple years). UCF ranked just 15th in the CFP rankings last week and almost certainly won’t move up that much after the Knights’ easy 45-19 romp over a Temple team that had been proving stronger in recent weeks.

S&P+ is also of no use to the committee as it pertains to treatment of Miami. The Hurricanes, third in the CFP, again dilly-dallied with an inferior (albeit solid) Virginia team on Saturday, trailing by two touchdowns into the third quarter before charging back for a 44-28 win. Their tendency to only do just enough is one they share with soon-to-be ACC title game foe Clemson, though Clemson tends to build the lead first and then fall into cruise control.

Still, it’s hard not to note something else as it pertains to Miami: Is Mark Richt’s timing finally right? SB Nation’s Bud Elliott noted on Wednesday’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody that, while Richt’s timing was always slightly off at Georgia — his one-loss 2002 Dawgs won the SEC in a year in which there were two unbeaten power conference champions (one of which was Miami), for instance — this is the perfect year to have a very good but flawed team.

The Canes are one of only three remaining power conference unbeatens, and while their plus-14.0 rating would have placed them just about even with Jim McElwain’s Florida Gators (plus-13.9 after 12 weeks) last year, it’s good enough for a playoff run this time around. Let’s see if they can keep on taking advantage.

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Florida (up 17 spots, from 100th to 83rd)
  2. Arizona State (up 15 spots, from 91st to 76th)
  3. Indiana (up 14 spots, from 65th to 51st)
  4. Duke (up 14 spots, from 88th to 74th)
  5. Northwestern (up 13 spots, from 62nd to 49th)
  6. Louisville (up 12 spots, from 36th to 24th)
  7. Colorado State (up 11 spots, from 50th to 39th)
  8. Utah State (up 11 spots, from 75th to 64th)
  9. Florida State (up 11 spots, from 79th to 68th)
  10. North Carolina (up 11 spots, from 103rd to 92nd)

On last week’s PAPN, I also noted that S&P+ seemed to be overestimating the group-of-five conferences a bit, and it was showing up in the results. When a P5 team played a G5 team, S&P+ had been underestimating the P5 team by about seven to eight points per game. Two years ago, the average was almost a perfect zero.

Whatever the issues this year — I have for a while feared a lack of connectivity as more power conferences move toward nine-game conference schedules and fewer non-conference games — they were rectified just slightly this week, most notably in Gainesville, where Florida romped over UAB as one would have expect ... and as S&P+ most certainly did not project. The result: Florida moved up 17 spots while UAB moved down 15.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
  1. South Alabama (down 21 spots, from 82nd to 103rd)
  2. Arizona (down 16 spots, from 31st to 47th)
  3. UAB (down 15 spots, from 56th to 71st)
  4. Minnesota (down 15 spots, from 70th to 85th)
  5. Syracuse (down 15 spots, from 71st to 86th)
  6. Kentucky (down 12 spots, from 76th to 88th)
  7. Georgia Tech (down 11 spots, from 45th to 56th)
  8. Rutgers (down 11 spots, from 96th to 107th)
  9. West Virginia (down 10 spots, from 33rd to 43rd)
  10. SMU (down 10 spots, from 48th to 58th)

Arizona has been all over the map this year. The Wildcats are clearly superior to last year’s team, but their up-and-down performances have resulted in up-and-down ratings. Six weeks ago, they were 47th in S&P+, just as they are now. But in between, they’ve leaped to 36th, then to 30th, then fallen to 42nd, then jumped back to 31st. And Saturday’s disappointing performance against Arizona dumped them back to where they were in early October.

There are still only 2.2 points separating the best and worst power conferences, an astounding level of parity compared to previous years. But as with previous years, the same league remains on top.

FBS conferences, ranked by average S&P+ rating:

  1. SEC (plus-5.1)
  2. Big Ten (plus-4.1)
  3. ACC (plus-3.7)
  4. Big 12 (plus-3.5)
  5. Pac-12 (plus-2.9)
  6. AAC (minus-0.1)
  7. MAC (minus-1.8)
  8. Mountain West (minus-1.9)
  9. Conference USA (minus-2.6)
  10. Sun Belt (minus-3.6)

The SEC now leads the Big Ten by about one point per team. This is not a “heavyweight vs. light heavyweights” situation, but king remains king for now.

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