Varsity Numbers: Surprise!
by Bill Connelly
Through four weeks, the Football Outsiders rankings are a nice mix of preseason projections (quickly fading out of the equation), raw data, and opponent-adjusted data. After four weeks of interesting action, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the F/+ surprises, good and bad.
They Are Who We Thought They Were
Comparing the current F/+ rankings to the final preseason projections, we see that 16 of the preseason top 25 currently reside within eight slots of their projected ranking. This isn't entirely surprising, considering that preseason projections still have a shrinking presence in the current rankings. But it does suggest that we had a decent read on a number of top teams.
Alabama. The Tide were projected No. 1 and are an easy No. 1 overall thus far. Florida State has crept ahead in FEI, but the Tide own the S&P+ rankings. Most of the time, when you have the best recent history and the best recruiting rankings, you are going to be near the top of the list even when you have to replace quite a few starters. But as high as both the numbers and I were on 'Bama, they have somehow managed to look much, much better than expected through four weeks.
LSU and Oregon. The Tigers and Ducks were projected second and fourth, respectively, and they currently reside in fourth and second. LSU's offense is still a bit on the shaky side (at least, it was last week), but the defense is still incredible, and while not immune to upsets, these two teams have given us no reason to think of them as anything but elite.
Florida State and Texas. It was very frustrating having to call these teams underrated in the preseason -- nothing feels underrated about FSU and UT, and it's a lot more fun going with an up-and-comer -- but so far it appears they were. FSU was projected seventh and has risen to third, and with David Ash leading a suddenly explosive offense, the Horns have exceeded their projected ranking (ninth) by four slots.
Notre Dame. The Irish were another name-brand team given too little respect in the offseason. But while I feared our projections of the Irish (14th) were a bit on the optimistic side, the defense has been even better than anticipated, pacing Notre Dame to a 4-0 start and a No. 8 ranking.
Florida. Like Texas, Florida may have just discovered what happens when you give an embattled, once highly-regarded sophomore quarterback a little faith and room to grow. Jeff Driskel exploded against Tennessee, and with a strong defense, the Gators have lived up to their preseason No. 10 ranking thus far (current ranking: 12th).
Texas A&M. I tried to warn you. While still a little on the volatile side, A&M has been explosive and exciting thus far behind redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and athletic linebacker/defensive end Damontre Moore. Kevin Sumlin has a lot of toys to play with, and the young Aggies have thus far lived up to their top 25 projection.
Boise State. The Broncos were impossible to project in the offseason, having lost a rather absurd number of starters from last year's squad. But thus far, the projections (26th) have matched reality (23rd). Boise State has far more offensive issues than we are used to seeing, but the defense has barely missed a beat in 2012.
We Weren't Pessimistic Enough
USC. The preseason AP No. 1 came in just sixth in the preseason F/+ rankings, but a strangely mistake-prone offense led to a lackluster loss to Stanford, and the Trojans currently rank just 16th.
Michigan. Denard Robinson has torched two bad defenses (324 rushing yards, 499 passing yards, eight combined touchdowns versus Air Force and UMass) and been torched by two great defenses (48 percent passing, one touchdown, six interceptions versus Notre Dame and Alabama), and with a defense that has been only decent, the Wolverines have failed to live up to even our conservative projections. They started out 16th in the F/+ projections and currently rank 27th.
Arkansas. In the preseason, I told anybody who would listen that I didn't see how the Hogs were supposed to be a top 10 team after losing their top two receivers and not doing much to replenish an iffy defense other than bringing in some new assistants. I was right to question them, but I evidently didn't question them nearly enough. Projected 15th, Arkansas currently ranks 43rd.
Recent History Doesn't Mean Much
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Auburn. Gene Chizik's Tigers squeezed into the preseason top 25 because of their 2010 national title; as we've written many times, recent history is typically more predictive than just last year's performance. But Auburn's 2010 season was such an incredible outlier, and there has been so much turnover (on both the roster and the coaching staff) that it was pretty easy to predict that Auburn would struggle to live up to the No. 22 preseason projection. They are now 56th.
Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles, last year's Conference USA champion, had to replace not only head coach Larry Fedora, but also their starting quarterback, some receivers, and last year's best defensive lineman. Plus, they made an awkward hire, replacing the spread-friendly Fedora with a relatively conservative defensive coach, Ellis Johnson. There is nothing saying Southern Miss won't bounce back after an off-year, but this year has been miserable. USM was destroyed by Western Kentucky last week and has fallen in the F/+ rankings from 49th to 109th.
Houston. Hey speaking of miserable former Conference USA powers ... Houston, everybody! Projected 42nd, the 0-3 Cougars are now 90th.
Arizona State. Projected 58th after yet another collapse under Dennis Erickson last year, Arizona State has immediately surged under new coach Todd Graham. The Sun Devils have speed to burn and have soared from their preseason projection of 58th to their current No. 21 perch. A tight, turnover-based loss to Missouri is sandwiched outright pastings of Illinois and Utah.
Arizona. Rich Rodriguez's performance has been overshadowed by that of his in-state rival, but despite a 49-0 loss to Oregon, Arizona appears headed in an intriguing direction. They began the year at 62nd and currently sit at 36th, having knocked off Oklahoma State along the way.
UCLA. Despite the upset loss at home to Oregon State, the Bruins have shown athleticism and intensity in Jim Mora, Jr.'s first year at Westwood. Projected 56th, UCLA has quickly risen to 37th.
Is This For Real?
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Texas Tech. I have long believed that you can glean something from every performance, even games against terrible teams. Tommy Tuberville's Red Raiders lost five in a row to finish last season 5-7, but while they have played three nobodies so far (Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico), the magnitude with which they have throttled these three opponents has been staggering. (And apparently they looked good in defeating Bye Week this past week as well, rising from 10th to sixth in their off-week.) We don't have to wait long to figure out if this is a mirage: Tech travels to Iowa State this weekend to face an Iowa State team that crushed Tech, 41-7, in Lubbock last year and has looked surprisingly strong as well.
Last year, Florida ranked ninth in F/+ after four weeks before collapsing, so it is conceivable that Tech's performance is destined to regress a bit. But these numbers are reasonably predictive, and at the very least Tech should finish the season with a much better record than many anticipated.
BYU. At this point in the year, the raw data is predictably volatile. The highest- (and lowest-) ranked offenses and defenses are quite a few standard deviations from the norm. That is basically why you see BYU currently holding the No. 10 ranking in S&P+ despite a 2-2 record. The offense has infinite question marks, but the defense is outstanding, grading out high enough to place the Cougars in the top 10 despite an offense that ranks 108th. It won't last. Either the offense will drastically right the ship, or BYU's ratings will quickly begin to slide.
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This Week At SB Nation
Thanks to the silliest of road trips, I haven't had the most high-volume week of writing at SB Nation, at least in terms of the number of pieces. But that 8,000-word trip diary made sure my word count remained obscene.