by Chad Peltier
The long offseason cements our last impression of teams, whether that is their final record last season, an upset in a bowl game, an elite recruiting class in February, or a flashy and well-attended spring game. But these individual factors have significantly less predicative power than returning production based on last season's performance, accumulated recruiting talent, or multi-year statistical indicators.
Which teams' F/+ projections differ the most from the general fan and media preseason consensus? Here we take a look at three teams who are forecasted lower than the conventional wisdom would suggest, and two teams that might outperform expectations.
F/+ projections lower than conventional wisdom
West Virginia Mountaineers (F/+ No. 45)
The Mountaineers have received a significant amount of offseason hype, coming in at 12th on Sports Illustrated's post-spring Top 25 and second in the polls at the Big 12's media days. Most of the West Virginia optimism hinges on what should be a prolific offense thanks to the return of quarterback Will Grier and receivers Gary Jennings Jr. and David Sills V.
But with only four defensive starters returning, returning just 57 percent (89th) of defensive production, and questionable depth behind the first string, there are reasons to pump the brakes on the Mountaineers. Last season's defense was only 96th in defensive S&P+. For the team as whole, recent history, average recruiting, and the aforementioned low returning production hurt the Mountaineers' 2018 forecast. F/+ projects the Mountaineers as just the 45th-best team entering the 2018 season.
Sure, the Mountaineers are in the offense-first Big 12 and catch the rest of the league in a transition year (Oklahoma and TCU fielding new quarterbacks; Tom Herman's Texas still in the rebuilding process), but it seems like much of the conventional wisdom has focused on the star-studded offense rather than a more holistic look at the Mountaineers.
Over the last two seasons, the Mountaineers have brought in the 35th- and 57th-ranked recruiting classes with just two total blue chip recruits according to the 247 Sports Composite. They were just 43rd in overall team recruiting talent according to the 247 Composite. Dana Holgorsen has supplemented this mediocre recruiting haul with elite transfers, including defensive ends Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson from USC and Clemson, respectively; UCLA transfer defensive back Denzel Fisher; JUCO defensive back Keith Washington; and receivers Jovani Haskins (Miami) and T.J. Simmons (Alabama). But while the Mountaineers may strike gold with some of these transfers, that is far from a sure thing.
Finally, while not indicative of the team's actual quality, the Mountaineers have one of the country's more difficult schedules, with a full nine competitive games that project West Virginia within a touchdown (plus or minus) of their opponents. And that doesn't include Oklahoma, whom S&P+ projects as a 12-point favorite over the Mountaineers. There are simply very few sure-fire wins on West Virginia's schedule -- F/+ doesn't give West Virginia better than a 27 percent chance of victory in any of their final four regular season games.
South Carolina Gamecocks (F/+ No. 33)
The SEC East is in transition. Kirby Smart's Georgia team has seemingly solidified itself at the top of the heap for the foreseeable future, but new head coaches at Tennessee and Florida ensure some degree of unpredictability throughout the rest of the division. Dan Mullen's Gators and Jeremy Pruitt's Volunteers likely need a year or two to rebuild before seriously challenging the Bulldogs, so that leaves Will Muschamp's South Carolina Gamecocks as the most likely challenger in the East.
On the surface, it's easy to see why. The Gamecocks somewhat overachieved last season, winning nine games. They return quarterback Jake Bentley, nearly every meaningful ballcarrier, and receiver Deebo Samuel, who missed almost all season due to injuries. Just imagining a healthy Bentley-to-Samuel combo is seemingly enough to slot the Gamecocks right behind the Bulldogs in the East. But the South Carolina offense should also return a healthy Rico Dowdle to join A.J. Turner and Ty'Son Williams in the running back rotation. South Carolina returns more offensive production than just about everyone in the country -- 84 percent (15th overall).
But while the Gamecocks went 9-4 last season, they only had 7.1 second-order wins. That essentially means that given how the Gamecocks actually performed in their games last year -- based on stats like success rates, explosive plays, field position, turnovers, etc. -- the Gamecocks could have expected to lose the North Carolina State game 79 percent of the time and the Vanderbilt game 57 percent of the time. Significantly fewer second-order wins than a team's actual record generally gives some indication that a team could be due for some regression to the mean. That's reflected in South Carolina's 2017 F/+ ranking of 57th -- near Missouri, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, who all went either 7-6 or 6-6. The Gamecocks were the second-worst nine-win team in the country last year (behind just 9-5 North Texas).
The Gamecocks return an insane amount of offensive production from last season, but they return just 47 percent of their defensive production from 2017 (119th). They lose four of their top five defensive playmakers in end Dante Sawyer, linebacker Skai Moore, safety Chris Lammons, and corner JaMarcus King. Together those four accounted for 17 tackles for loss and 30 pass breakups. Moore led the team in tackles, run stuffs, and interceptions, and was second in tackles for loss. The pass defense is a particular concern with Lammons and King gone from a unit that ranked 55th in passing S&P+, 86th in passing success rate, and 89th in adjusted sack rate last season. Moore's importance can't be overstated, either -- he led the team in tackles every season that he was healthy.
There is undoubtedly both opportunity in the division and significant reasons for optimism given the offensive skill talent that the Gamecocks return. Further, while the defense does lose a number of stalwarts, young talent like D.J. Wonnum, Daniel Fennell, and Jamyest Williams, along with a number of transfers in the secondary, should form a nice core of talent with which Muschamp can work. South Carolina should be solid in 2018, and they rank 33rd in the F/+ projections, but their odds in the East should be viewed as roughly equivalent to Florida's (30th in F/+).
Wisconsin Badgers (F/+ No. 12)
Wisconsin's F/+ projection -- 12th overall -- isn't too far off from the national perception, but it is notable that the Badgers are outside the preseason top ten in our advanced stats despite being widely seen as a playoff contender.
The Badgers went 13-1 last year, losing only to Ohio State (who finished third overall in the F/+), and beat Michigan and Miami soundly to finish the season seventh in the final F/+ rankings. So you would be justified in projecting an elite 2018 Badgers team based on those facts alone. When you consider that stud true sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor (nearly 2,000 rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 44.8 percent opportunity rate), Alex Hornibrook (who led the seventh-ranked passing S&P+ offense, 7.5 yards per attempt including sacks), and almost every receiving target except tight end Troy Fumagalli all return for 2018, Wisconsin looks like it could easily be one of the country's top teams. The Badgers also play in the decidedly weaker Big Ten West, only facing two top-30 S&P+ teams during their regular season. So it's easy to think that the Badgers could roll through their regular season, beat whichever Big Ten East team makes it through that gauntlet of a division, and then head to their first playoff appearance.
But the F/+ projections rate the Badgers just a little lower than you might otherwise think, putting Wisconsin right behind Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan at 12th overall and fifth in the Big Ten. Similar to the Gamecocks, who return essentially all of their primary offensive skill talent, the Badgers return 79 percent (25th) of their offensive production, but have one of the lowest percentages of returning defensive production in the country, with just 42 percent (124th).
Last season's defense was third-best in the S&P+ and included standouts like T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, and Andrew Van Ginkel. That linebacker corps loses a few notable players in Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley, but might be in the best shape of any defensive unit. The line loses top ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, while the secondary loses Nick Nelson, Derrick Tindal, Natrell Jamerson, and Joe Ferguson. These were all high-havoc, impactful players who leave a big burden for second-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, especially in the gutted secondary.
Finally, the numbers don't love Wisconsin's recruiting. The Badgers had the country's 37th-most talented team last season per the 247 Team Talent Composite, and pulled in the 44th-best class in 2018. The Badgers have always outperformed their recruiting rankings, but that ranking nevertheless dings their projected F/+.
Regardless of recruiting talent and returning defensive production, there are few teams that are more of a sure thing year-to-year than the Badgers. Trips to Penn State and Michigan will be undoubtedly tough, but those two games are likely the Badgers' only real tests of the regular season.
F/+ projections higher than conventional wisdom
Auburn Tigers (F/+ No. 5)
Auburn is generally considered the third-best SEC team behind Alabama and Georgia heading in to 2018, with a decent drop-off behind the Tigers. But the F/+ ratings have Auburn fifth in the country, which is a little higher than most rank the Tigers.
What puts the national perception of the Tigers a slight step behind the F/+ rankings? It's possible that the country's top-ranked strength of schedule might factor in here. Auburn has to face top-4 F/+ rivals Alabama and Georgia, as they do every season, but they also have division opponents LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, all of whom are 31st or better in the F/+ projections. But even before conference play starts, the Tigers have a season opener against Pac-12 favorite Washington, which projects as basically a push matchup for the Tigers. That's an absolutely insane schedule, with few breaks. Basically every other week during the season could have a ranked-against-ranked matchup featuring the Tigers. So maybe don't pencil Auburn in to the College Football Playoff just yet, considering the Tigers have three top playoff contenders on their schedule.
But the F/+ loves what Auburn returns on offense, which is basically the entire passing game, and their potential on defense, especially up front. Jarrett Stidham returns along with his top four targets, including sure-handed Ryan Davis (84.5 percent catch rate) and playmakers Darius Slayton and Will Hastings (both of whom averaged over 20 yards per catch). There are some concerns that maybe Kam Martin isn't an every-down kind of running back like Kerryon Johnson or Kamryn Pettway, but he was both more explosive and had a higher opportunity rate than either. The offensive line does lose four starters, which is never ideal, but there are plenty of stockpiled former blue-chip players ready for their time.
The Tigers bring back a lower share of their 2017 defensive production -- just 61 percent, or 80th in the country -- but last season's fifth-ranked defense still projects as a top-ten unit. Despite losing leading edge rusher Jeff Holland, Auburn has a ridiculous accumulation of talent on the defensive line, including Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, and Dontavius Russell. The biggest question is in the secondary, where three starters have moved on. But despite that looming question mark for a unit that projects to be tops in passing S&P+ and second in passing downs S&P+, the F/+ loves Auburn's relative consistency throughout the Malzhan era and Auburn's accumulated recruiting talent.
The Tigers have real question marks on the offensive line, at running back, and in the secondary, but they also have the talent and consistency to ensure a top-of-the-line team will face that brutal schedule.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (F/+ No. 6)
F/+ might be higher on the Fighting Irish than just about anyone else. That may be because the Irish fell off the radar a little last season following losses to Miami and Stanford, and more importantly, because it's unclear whether Brandon Wimbush can lead an effective passing offense, especially with top two running backs Josh Adams and Deon McIntosh, and two of the top three receivers, all gone.
Recognizing that Notre Dame's ceiling is dependent on Wimbush's development (and finding replacements for two All-American and first-round draft pick offensive linemen), the Fighting Irish have a solid foundation to build on for 2018. They rank 20th in overall returning production and brought in another top-ten recruiting class after ranking tenth and 15th the previous two seasons.
The defense that should carry the team this year. No team returns a higher share of their 2017 defensive production than the Fighting Irish -- 96 percent from last season's defense, which ranked 27th in S&P+, including tenth in opponent-adjusted success rate. The top players return at essentially every position on defense, including the top four members of their secondary. Losing defensive coordinator Mike Elko to Texas A&M is mitigated by promoting Clark Lea, the former linebackers coach who came from Wake Forest to South Bend. Navy transfer Alohi Gilman could start at free safety, while freshman Houston Griffith could take a starting spot from a veteran too. Essentially all the Irish need is to add a little more havoc, since they were just 66th in that category last season.