2017 preseason rankings and ratings, featuring The Citadel (and the rest of the SoCon)

Previous posts on The Citadel’s upcoming football campaign:

Inside the numbers: run/pass tendencies, 4th-down decision-making, and more (including coin-toss data!)

A look at “advanced stats” from The Citadel’s most recent SoCon season

The Citadel’s fans aren’t afraid to travel

I think it’s time to take a gander at some preseason rankings and ratings. After all, what’s the purpose of even having a month of July otherwise?

First up, some rankings…

This year, the Street & Smith’s college football annual returns, after several years of being usurped by the byline of The Sporting News (which had been acquired by the same company that owned Street & Smith’s about a decade ago). Now, the magazine is going by the Street & Smith’s name again, a return to a tradition that began in 1940.

On a personal level, I was pleased to see this. For years, it was a somewhat of a tradition for my father to buy the Street & Smith’s annual in July (usually after we made a trip to the barber shop). I would voraciously read the magazine cover-to-cover, even the section on the “Little Three” (yes, back in the day S&S would routinely have a page dedicated to the preseason prospects for Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan).

Anyway, the SoCon preview for this year’s annual was written by S&S assistant editor Will Long (who also wrote the FCS preview article in the magazine). Long is a resident of Charlotte who graduated from Clemson, so presumably he has some familiarity with the conference.

Long wrote that the SoCon “is as wide-open as it has been in recent memory.” His preseason predictions:

1 – Wofford (#9 in the S&S preseason Top 25 of the FCS)
2 – The Citadel (#12)
3 – Chattanooga (#18)
4 – Samford (#20)
5 – Mercer
6 – Furman
7 – Western Carolina
8 – East Tennessee State
9 – VMI

Sam Houston State is the magazine’s #1 team in its preseason top 25, followed by North Dakota State and defending FCS champion James Madison. Big South favorite Charleston Southern is #13, while MEAC standard-bearer North Carolina Central is #22.

The preseason FCS All-America team for Street & Smith’s includes Wofford defensive lineman Tyler Vaughn, South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard, and Western Carolina running back Detrez Newsome (on the team as a return specialist).

Other preseason magazines tend not to have specific previews for FCS conferences, but stick to national previews and Top 25 rankings.

Athlon ranks The Citadel #25 in its preseason list. North Dakota State is #1 in its rankings, ahead of James Madison, South Dakota State, and Sam Houston State. Wofford is ranked #10, Chattanooga #15, and Samford #18.

Wofford is projected to win the SoCon, with Chattanooga and Samford receiving at-large bids to the FCS playoffs. Based on the rankings, The Citadel is one of the “last two teams out” for making the playoffs, according to Athlon. 

Incidentally, the magazine’s online site posted an article that mentions Wofford as a “dark horse” candidate to win the national title.

The annual’s preseason FCS All-America team includes Charleston Southern defensive lineman Anthony Ellis, South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard, Western Carolina punter Ian Berryman, and two North Carolina A&T players — offensive lineman Brandon Parker and punt returner Khris Gardin.

Lindy’s ranks James Madison #1 in its FCS preseason poll. The rest of its top 5: North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, and Eastern Washington. Wofford is ranked #10, Chattanooga #11, The Citadel #18, and Samford #22. Other teams of note include Richmond (#9 here, and in the top 10 of all three rankings for the magazines mentioned in this post), Charleston Southern (#12), and Kennesaw State (#25).

The Lindy’s preseason first team All-America squad for the FCS includes Charleston Southern defensive lineman Anthony Ellis and teammate Solomon Brown (a linebacker), South Carolina State’s Darius Leonard (who may have the most preseason accolades of any FCS player in the Palmetto State), and Western Carolina’s Ian Berryman at punter.

Lindy’s also has a preseason second team, and that features Chattanooga offensive lineman Jacob Revis, Western Carolina return specialist Detrez Newsome, and The Citadel’s Kailik Williams (listed as a safety).

For a couple of years now, I’ve been incorporating the Massey Ratings into my weekly game previews. For those not entirely familiar with this ratings system, a quick explanation:

Kenneth Massey (complete with bow tie) is an assistant professor of Mathematics at Carson-Newman University. His college football ratings system was used (with several others) for fifteen years by the BCS, the predecessor to the CFP. Massey has ratings for a wide variety of sports, but the lion’s share of the attention surrounding his work has been focused on college football.

Massey’s bio on the school website notes that he is “likely the most famous of C-N’s faculty” as a result of his ratings systems.

From the ratings website:

The Massey Ratings are designed to measure past performance, not necessarily to predict future outcomes…overall team rating is a merit based quantity, and is the result of applying a Bayesian win-loss correction to the power rating.

…In contrast to the overall rating, the Power is a better measure of potential and is less concerned with actual wins-losses.

…A team’s Offense power rating essentially measures the ability to score points. This does not distinguish how points are scored, so good defensive play that leads to scoring will be reflected in the Offense rating. In general, the offensive rating can be interpreted as the number of points a team would be expected to score against an average defense.

Similarly, a team’s Defense power rating reflects the ability to prevent its opponent from scoring. An average defense will be rated at zero. Positive or negative defensive ratings would respectively lower or raise the opponent’s expected score accordingly.

…the Massey model will in some sense minimize the unexplained error (noise). Upsets will occur and it is impossible (and also counter-productive) to get an exact fit to the actual game outcomes. Hence, I publish an estimated standard deviation. About 68% of observed game results will fall within one standard deviation of the expected (“average”) result.

Preseason ratings are typically derived as a weighted average of previous years’ final ratings. As the current season progresses, their effect gets damped out completely. The only purpose preseason ratings serve is to provide a reasonable starting point for the computer. Mathematically, they guarantee a unique solution to the equations early in the season when not enough data is available yet.

That lack of data won’t stop us from discussing the rankings, though!

Massey rates every single college football team — not just FBS and FCS squads, but D-2, D-3, NAIA, junior colleges, even Canadian and Mexican schools. This season, there are preseason ratings for 959 colleges and universities (Zorros ITQ, the football team at the Technological Institute at Querétaro, is the preseason #959 squad).

This year, The Citadel is #130 overall in the preseason ratings. As a comparison, the Bulldogs were the preseason #113 team last year and were #174 in the 2015 preseason.

The teams on The Citadel’s 2017 schedule are rated as follows (with the chances of a Bulldogs victory in parenthesis):

  • Newberry – #341 (98%)
  • Presbyterian – #296 (96%)
  • East Tennessee State – #279 (92%)
  • Samford – #143 (50%)
  • Mercer – #178 (74%)
  • Wofford – #110 (43%)
  • Chattanooga – #117 (36%)
  • VMI – #228 (87%)
  • Western Carolina – #208 (83%)
  • Furman – #169 (62%)
  • Clemson – #2 (0%)

The Citadel is favored in 7 of 11 matchups, with one tossup.

Don’t worry about that 0% number for the Clemson game, though. When I began simulating the game, on just my fourth try The Citadel beat the Tigers 31-20. Never bet against the Bulldogs.

There are matchup simulations for each game. Feel free to waste a few minutes of your time toying around with them.

Based on the ratings, here are the projected overall season records for The Citadel’s Division I opponents (there aren’t simulations for teams below D-1, so Newberry is not listed):

  • Presbyterian (2-9)
  • East Tennessee State (2-9)
  • Samford (7-3, not including a tossup game versus The Citadel)
  • Mercer (4-7)
  • Wofford (10-1)
  • Chattanooga (8-3)
  • VMI (3-7, not including a tossup game against Western Carolina)
  • Western Carolina (2-9, not including a tossup game versus VMI)
  • Furman (5-6)
  • Clemson (12-0)

Note: Western Carolina plays 12 regular-season games this season, because it opens at Hawai’i.

Let’s look at the FCS-only ratings for a list of select schools:

  • North Dakota State – 1
  • James Madison – 2
  • Eastern Washington – 3
  • Youngstown State – 4
  • South Dakota State – 5
  • Northern Iowa – 6
  • Jacksonville State – 7
  • Wofford – 8
  • Chattanooga – 9
  • Sam Houston State – 10
  • Charleston Southern – 11
  • Villanova – 12
  • Illinois State – 13
  • Central Arkansas – 14
  • Richmond – 15
  • The Citadel – 16
  • South Dakota – 17
  • Western Illinois – 18
  • New Hampshire – 19
  • Samford – 20
  • Lehigh – 26
  • Cal Poly – 28
  • Princeton – 30
  • Furman – 32
  • William and Mary – 33
  • San Diego – 34
  • Liberty – 35 (ranked here despite it being a “transition” year for LU)
  • Colgate – 36
  • Mercer – 38
  • Stony Brook – 41
  • Delaware – 45
  • Fordham – 47
  • Kennesaw State – 50
  • Gardner-Webb – 52
  • Towson – 54
  • Grambling State – 58
  • Western Carolina – 59
  • Harvard – 61
  • VMI – 64
  • Dartmouth – 67
  • North Carolina A&T – 70
  • Monmouth – 71
  • Yale – 77
  • Holy Cross – 78
  • Elon – 79
  • North Carolina Central – 80
  • East Tennessee State – 90
  • Presbyterian – 94
  • South Carolina State – 96
  • Campbell – 110
  • Delaware State – 121
  • Davidson – 122
  • Mississippi Valley State – 123
  • Arkansas-Pine Bluff – 124 (of 124 FCS teams)

North Dakota State is the preseason #1-rated FCS school, as it was last year. NDSU checks in at #58 overall. Other schools on the “overall list” that may be of interest:

  • Alabama – 1
  • Clemson – 2
  • LSU – 3
  • Florida State – 4
  • Oklahoma – 5
  • Michigan – 6
  • Washington – 7
  • Ohio State – 8
  • Miami (FL) – 9
  • Southern California – 10
  • Florida – 14
  • Virginia Tech – 15
  • North Carolina – 16
  • Louisville – 19
  • Tennessee – 20
  • North Carolina State – 23
  • Georgia Tech – 24
  • Notre Dame – 30
  • Georgia – 34
  • Appalachian State – 40
  • Northwest Missouri State – 46 (highest-rated Division II team, and I can’t believe it either)
  • Texas – 49
  • Wake Forest – 53
  • Vanderbilt – 59
  • Duke – 61
  • James Madison – 62
  • UCLA – 64
  • Kentucky – 65
  • Navy – 66
  • Air Force – 73
  • South Carolina – 74
  • Maryland – 78
  • Missouri – 81
  • Virginia – 83
  • New Mexico – 92
  • Georgia Southern – 93
  • Army – 99
  • Kansas – 104
  • Wofford – 110
  • Rutgers – 113
  • East Carolina – 115
  • Chattanooga – 117
  • Charleston Southern – 120
  • Coastal Carolina – 125
  • Massachusetts – 131
  • Ferris State – 136 (rated second-highest in Division II)
  • Marshall – 148
  • Charlotte – 152
  • Laval – 156 (highest-rated Canadian team)
  • Buffalo – 164
  • Texas State – 190
  • Butte College – 197 (highest-rated junior college team)
  • Trinity (CT) – 270 (highest-rated Division III team)
  • St. Francis (IN) – 280 (highest-rated NAIA team)
  • UAB – 285
  • North Greenville – 305
  • UDLA Puebla – 465 (highest-rated Mexican team)

Less than two months until actual official pigskin activity…

Watching a Watch List (from the CFPA), and some early FCS preseason polls

It’s mid-June, and we’re getting closer to actual gridiron activity. There have already been a few national preseason polls released, and a series of watch lists. I decided to take a quick look at a few of them, starting with the CFPA watch lists.

Two or three years ago, the College Football Performance Awards started to get cited by athletic media relations departments on a regular basis. This is when I first began to wonder if anybody with a pulse could come up with preseason and postseason awards and have them publicized by desperate sports information directors. Of course, the folks behind the CFPA would argue they aren’t just anybody:

The goal of College Football Performance Awards is to provide the most scientifically rigorous conferments in college football. Recipients are selected exclusively based upon objective scientific rankings of the extent to which individual players increase the overall effectiveness of their teams.

As prominent scholars from a wide variety of disciplines note, CFPA eliminates the politics and biases that vitiate balloting-based awards. Furthermore, CFPA has received praise from both Republican and Democratic White House officials for promoting objectivity and fairness in college football.

Well then.

Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports wrote about the CFPA three years ago:

Just what the world needs, more college football awards, right? It has gotten a bit silly. Every position and coach is honored to the point that, well, didn’t some group or another just announce the Petrino Award, for the coach most likely to rent?

Anyway, I clicked on the site just for giggles. Something caught my eye…

…The consultants on this project include noted economist Andrew Zimbalist…

…Former Davidson and USC kicker Brad Smith put the CFPA together.

That’s right. An ex-Davidson placekicker is responsible for the CFPA, which has an “academic review” panel that includes, well, academics. The undergraduate degrees received by members of this group include Davidson, Carleton, Kansas, Columbia, and St. Mary’s College. Very few pigskins have been bruised in recent years at any of those schools.

To be honest, at times when I was wandering through the CFPA website (which needs updating in a major way), the thought occurred to me that the whole enterprise was a giant put-on. I don’t think it is (Andrew Zimbalist isn’t going to lend his name to a joke), but it does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

I noticed that a lot of releases from various schools trumpeting one of their players being selected to a watch list included this phrase (or something very similar):

All CFPA recipients are selected exclusively based upon objective scientific rankings of the extent to which individual players increase the overall effectiveness of their teams.

That’s nice, but what exactly is the process that leads to “objective scientific rankings”? Where is the statistical summary? I couldn’t find any nuts-and-bolts description of the CFPA “methodology”, which I found disappointing (no, the overview on page 2 of its Methodology page doesn’t cut it; besides, the page itself hasn’t been updated since 2008).

Last season, CFPA named Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple its QB of the year and its National Performer of the Year. Chapple led a Crimson squad that set multiple offensive records in the Ivy League. He certainly had an outstanding season, but was it really good enough for a player of the year honor at the FCS level? It’s not like the Ivy is considered to be among the better FCS conferences, and Harvard didn’t even win the league — Penn did.

The CFPA claims to control for strength of schedule. Without more information, it’s hard to know it that is actually true.

Also, someone needs to inform the CFPA that the commissioner of the Southern Conference is John Iamarino.

At any rate, let’s take a quick look at the CFPA watch lists, at least from the perspective of The Citadel. A watch list isn’t really scientific — it’s strictly a promotional vehicle — but that’s okay. It gives people something to read during the summer, after all.

FCS Offensive Awards Watch List

– Ben Dupree is on the list of quarterbacks. Also on the list of note: Jamal Londry-Jackson (Appalachian State), Jacob Huesman (Chattanooga), Jerick McKinnon (Georgia Southern), Andy Summerlin (Samford), and Taylor Heinicke (Old Dominion). The Citadel will face a number of quality QBs this season (including Clemson’s Tajh Boyd).

– Darien Robinson is one of three SoCon players on the running backs list, joining Dominique Swope (Georgia Southern) and Fabian Truss (Samford). Tyree Lee (Old Dominion) is also on the list.

– There are no Bulldogs among the “watch list” wide receivers and tight ends, but plenty of The Citadel’s opponents are represented, including Sean Price and Andrew Peacock (Appalachian State), Kierre Brown (Elon), Larry Pinkard (Old Dominion), Kelsey Pope and Zeke Walters (Samford), and Mario Thompson (VMI).

FCS Defensive Line/Linebackers Watch List

– Derek Douglas and Carl Robinson of The Citadel are both on the watch list at their respective positions. Also on the list from the defensive side of the ball: Derrick Lott, Davis Tull, Wes Dothard, D.J. Key, and Kadeem Wise (Chattanooga), Javon Mention (Georgia Southern), Caleb Taylor (Old Dominion), Jaquiski Tartt (Samford), and Alvin Scioneaux (Wofford).

Chattanooga will undoubtedly be championing the CFPA watch list until at least the start of the season.

Several preseason magazines are already out with their predictions and polls. Here are three of them.

Sporting News Top 25

1. North Dakota State
2. Georgia Southern
3. Montana State
4. Eastern Washington
5. Appalachian State
6. Sam Houston State
7. Villanova
8. South Dakota State
9. Illinois State
10. Old Dominion
11. Central Arkansas
12. Northern Iowa
13. Towson
14. Montana
15. Richmond
16. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
17. Northern Arizona
18. Stony Brook
19. Eastern Illinois
20. Chattanooga
21. Cal Poly
22. New Hampshire
23. Colgate
24. Sacramento State
25. Bethune-Cookman

Its preseason All-American list includes Taylor Heinicke of Old Dominion at QB, Georgia Southern’s Garrett Frye and Furman’s Dakota Dozier along the offensive line, and wide receiver Sean Price of Appalachian State. Davis Tull of Chattanooga (DL) and Jaquiski Tartt of Samford (DB) are on the first-team defense.

Predicted SoCon standings:

1. Georgia Southern
2. Appalachian State
3. Chattanooga
4. Wofford
5. The Citadel
6. Samford
7. Furman
8. Elon
9. Western Carolina

Athlon Sports Top 25

Athlon has five SoCon schools in the Top 25, including The Citadel at #25. About the Bulldogs, the magazine says:

A rare sweep of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern last season could be a prelude for an even better 2013. The Bulldogs’ triple option returns quarterbacks Ben Dupree and Aaron Miller, 1,000-yard fullback Darien Robinson and a veteran offensive line.

Athlon’s first-team All-Americans include App’s Price, Chattanooga’s Tull, and Samford’s Tartt, who was one of two Samford players named (Fabian Truss made the squad as a kick returner).

The magazine projects Chattanooga and Wofford will make the playoffs out of the SoCon.

Lindy’s Top 25

1. North Dakota State
2. Georgia Southern
3. Montana State
4. South Dakota State
5. Wofford
6. Eastern Washington
7. Central Arkansas
8. Towson
9. Villanova
10. Sam Houston State
11. New Hampshire
12. Appalachian State
13. Northern Iowa
14. Stony Brook
15. Coastal Carolina
16. Northern Arizona
17. Bethune-Cookman
18. Eastern Illinois
19. Youngstown State
20. Chattanooga
21. Richmond
22. Illinois State
23. Montana
24. Wagner
25. Tennessee State

Lindy’s first-team All-Americans include Tull, Dozier, Dothard, Tartt, and Truss (again as a kick returner). It also has a preseason second-team AA roster; Price and Frye are on that team.

The magazine also makes an excellent point about the expanded 24-team FCS playoff. There will be no Ivy League or SWAC teams participating in the playoffs, and Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Old Dominion are all ineligible for postseason competition.

If you assume that the Pioneer League champion will be the only team from that league to receive a bid (which is likely), then essentially there are 91 schools competing for 23 spots in the playoff. Those aren’t bad odds.

Something to think about as the season draws closer…