Creating more big plays with an aggressive 4th down philosophy

Two aging raconteurs are seated at a table in a local restaurant. One is sipping a Westbrook IPA while checking his smartphone. The other looks up from a copy of Street & Smith’s college football annual, drains his bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and speaks:

“What are you reading now, Beemo? I swear you’re glued to that thing, gotta look up and smell the roses once in a while.”

“There are no roses around here. Besides, I was just checking to see if anything was happening. That Sports Arsenal dude just posted again.”

His companion snorts. “That dork? What, more statistics? Somebody needs to tell him football is about HITTING people and makin’ them stay hit.”

Beemo takes another sip from his glass. “I know, J.B., I know. He’s gotta get his head outta these numbers. They don’t mean nothing. Still, sometimes it’s kind of interesting. Did you know-“

J.B. is having none of it. “Forget that nonsense. You can do anything with stats. Bobby Knight once said that these goofs use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than elimination.”

“You mean illumination,” Beemo corrects mildly.

“I meant what I said, whatever that was. Anyways, has anybody called in with a practice report? I heard through the grapevine that the backup QB looks good.”

“Haven’t heard anything from practice other than the official reports and Hartsell’s stories. Kinda quiet. Nobody ever seems to have any juicy info this time of year.”

“It’s frustrating,” grumbles J.B. “I like those videos they put out on the Twitter, but that’s not telling me who’s gonna be on the two-deep for the opener.”

Beemo glances up from a menu and sighs. “Nobody in our crew ever seems to be at practice.”

After looking at his empty bottle, J.B. scowls, and then signals the waiter. “You’d think Fast Willie would let us know what’s up once in a while. Guess he’s too busy with his kids. Don’t know why, they’ll always be around.”

“That’s why I’m reading this Sports Arsenal stuff. It’s not much, though.”

J.B. nods his head, a sad look on his face. “Yeah. So what’s he going on about now?”

In August of 2017, SBNation college football statistics guru Bill Connelly wrote about how he had changed his mind about big plays, at least in terms of their essential genesis within a football game (my phrasing, not his). It was a very instructive dissection of something that is more random than has often been assumed.

Now, big plays are obviously very important. Connelly opined that “big plays are probably the single most important factor to winning football games”, and it is hard to argue with that notion. I happen to agree with it myself.

Connelly also noted that while long drives could be demoralizing, a defense that prevented big plays while allowing smaller gains could succeed because of the difficulty in maintaining a long drive without making a mistake.

However, he now has a slightly different perspective, one which may or may not seem intuitive:

…[S]uccess rate changes pretty dramatically based on down and distance. Aside from third-and-1, though, big play rates barely change at all…

…The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one.

…Efficiency is everything in [college football]. Explosiveness is too random to rely on without efficiency.

I’ve bolded and italicized the key sentence.

Let’s think about this from The Citadel’s point of view.

Staying on the field hasn’t been a problem for the Bulldogs’ offense over the last couple of seasons. In 2016, The Citadel finished second nationally in FCS in time of possession; last season, the Bulldogs were the national leader in the category.

Offensive efficiency, though, was generally lacking in 2017. A quick glance at The Citadel’s third-down conversion rate in SoCon play (38.7%, after being at or above 50% the previous two seasons) tells a less-than-excellent story.

The advanced stats do so as well. After a Success Rate of 45.4% in 2016 league action, The Citadel slipped to a 39.0% rate last year. While FCS numbers are not readily available for Success Rate, 39.0% would be slightly below average in FBS (South Carolina, the median FBS team in the category, had an offensive Success Rate of 41.8% last year).

Holding the ball has its advantages, of course. It tends to tire out the opposing defense, and keeps the Bulldogs’ D relatively fresh. Also, if the defense isn’t on the field, it can’t give up points.

That said, The Citadel has to do more on offense than simply maintain possession. It has to score points. Most of the Bulldogs’ problems in that area last season can be traced to abysmal Red Zone offense, but that in itself is a product of inefficiency.

The Citadel simply must produce more successful plays. If it does so, the chances of creating more “big plays” will increase.

They won’t increase with a predictable progression. As noted, big plays appear to be largely random. There will inevitably be more of them, however — and the more big plays The Citadel has on offense, the more likely the Bulldogs will have a successful 2018 campaign.

How can The Citadel increase its percentage of successful offensive plays? First, let’s define what constitutes a successful play (besides a touchdown):

  • A play that results in a first down
  • A play that increases the chances of picking up a first down on the next play

That’s basically it.

Essentially, the Bulldogs want to move the chains. Keeping the chains moving means more plays, which means more chances for successful plays, which means more chances that one of those successful plays will turn into a big play.

First downs are successful plays, so the more of them, the better. Earlier, I referenced third down conversion rate. Success on third down matters.

However, it’s also possible to pick up the necessary yardage to keep a drive alive on first down, and on second down…and on fourth down.

I believe fourth down is underutilized in college football. Too many times, a team punts when going for it is the proper call.

It goes deeper than that, though. The best way to approach most offensive possessions, especially those that begin less than 70 yards from the end zone, is to assume that the offense is already in “four-down territory”.

Doing so means a team can be more creative with offensive playcalling. For a team like The Citadel, that can really open up the playbook.

Last year, 44.4% of The Citadel’s pass plays came on “passing downs” — in other words, in down-and-distance situations in which the opponent could anticipate a potential throw. The Bulldogs only had a Success Rate of 18.2% when throwing on passing downs (as I noted in my “advanced stats” post from last month).

I don’t think The Citadel necessarily needs to throw more often in its triple option offense; 8 to 12 pass plays per game strikes me as a fairly reasonable range. However, the Bulldogs have to make those pass plays count.

One way to do that is to have a higher percentage of The Citadel’s pass plays occur on “standard downs”, i.e. when the opponent is less likely to be thinking about a potential throw.

By incorporating a more aggressive “go for it” plan of attack, The Citadel could throw more often on those standard downs — on first down, for example, or on 2nd-and-medium plays between the 40s, or even on 3rd-and-short inside the 50-yard line.

It is easier to risk a throw on 2nd-and-5 from your own 47-yard line if you know that, even if it is incomplete, you still have two potential plays to pick up the first down, rather than just one.

Also, surprising a defense with a pass is a great way to create a big play.

If you’re a fan, I bet you’ve watched a lot of games where this scenario happens: the team you’re rooting for is on defense, and the opponent comes up short on third down. It’s 4th-and-1 around midfield, and they line up to punt — and you think to yourself, “Phew. Let them punt. Glad they didn’t go for it.”

I know I have.

Well, I would like The Citadel to be on the other side of that situation, and then flip it. My preference would be for the opposing team’s players (and fans) to think they’ve made a stop on third down, only to see the Bulldogs’ offense stay on the field. As a collective, the response from the opponents may often be “Uh-oh”.

Now, this might take some preseason psychological preparation, not just for the offense, but for the Bulldogs’ D. Every now and then, The Citadel won’t pick up the first down, and the defense will have to go out and defend a shorter field. It has to be ready for that, and accept it as a challenge.

Clearly, going for it on more 4th down tries is not a new concept. It is just one that has not been employed too often, or effectively. However, some coaches seem to be catching up. Advanced statistical analysis in college football has already made an impact.

Tulane head coach Willie Fritz is a solid example of this. Fritz is a very good coach, but he wants to be an even better one, as this AP article from last year suggests:

Fritz was head coach at Georgia Southern when the Eagles took a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter of their 2014 opener against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack rallied to win 24-23 after Fritz made a fourth-down decision — a gut call he is still kicking himself about.

Fritz is no longer interested in following his gut.

“That may be the hot dog I had before the game,” Fritz said. “I want facts and numbers.”

He is now getting those facts and numbers from a firm specializing in statistical analysis for college football, one that has over 50 Division I clients (including several FCS schools, with about half of the Ivy and Patriot League programs on board). Fourth down situations are just a small part of the analytical services on offer, but that part of the game is certainly a major focus (as this 2016 company newsletter attests).

At least two “pure” triple option teams, Georgia Southern and Army, are or have been clients.

Before I get into 4th-down go-for-it specifics, one thing should be noted.

Generally speaking, in the first three quarters of a football game, a coach should make decisions that maximize his team’s total points scored. In the fourth quarter, however, a coach should instead maximize his team’s win probability, which is a distinct difference.

In other words, a team’s standard 4th-down chart changes as the end of the game draws closer, and the number of possessions shrink. The coach has to take into consideration the time and score of game, the number of potential drives remaining, and sometimes even whether or not his team is an underdog.

For a program like The Citadel, which generally has lower-possession games, it is possible that the win probability cutoff point shouldn’t be the beginning of the fourth quarter, but rather the 5:00 mark of the third quarter. Even that is arbitrary, of course.

When faced with a fourth down, in what down-and-distance situations should The Citadel go for a first down?

If you are a college football fan, you’ve probably seen a 4th-down “when to go” chart somewhere on the internet. Maybe more than one.

However, every program is different. What is the right call for one may not be for another.

That’s why I decided to create a 4th-down chart specifically for The Citadel. The chart is based on certain statistics compiled by the Bulldogs over the last two seasons in SoCon play.

Some of the components included are:

  • 3rd down and 4th down conversion rates for each additional yard to gain (for example, in the last two years The Citadel has had a 78.7% success rate on 3rd/4th and 1; 62.5% on 3rd/4th and 2; 53.3% on 3rd/4th and 3, etc.)
  • Net punting for the Bulldogs in 2016/17 (in order to determine where the other team would likely get the ball if The Citadel punted)
  • Expected points for each yard line on the field (based on a chart from Bill Connelly’s book, Study Hall)

Here it is, in all its glory:

4th down decision chart

A few explanations:

– There are six colors represented on the chart. Three of them are self-explanatory — green (go for it), yellow (field goal attempt), and red (punt).

– Another color, light green, indicates an area where the coach has to decide whether to go for it or attempt a field goal. This is dependent on game conditions, ability of the kicker, etc.

One of the more difficult aspects of creating this chart was determining the field goal parameters. Ultimately, I decided to base them on a field goal kicker (or unit, to be precise) with average accuracy and a realistic distance capability limit of 52 yards. I realize that may not strike everyone as perfect; feel free to adjust accordingly.

– You may notice that, when faced with a 4th down and either 1 or 2 yards to go, the coach should always go for it when within 58 yards of the goal line (i.e. the team’s own 42-yard line). That includes 4th-and-short situations inside the 5-yard line.

Remember, the goal is to score as many points as possible on each drive. Touchdowns are valuable enough that going for it near the goal line is almost always the percentage play, rather than kicking a field goal, because even if the team doesn’t convert, the opponent is usually stuck with terrible field position.

One exception to this: near the end of the first half, the field goal try becomes a more viable option inside the red zone, as bad field position for the opponent is no longer a factor (because the half is about to end anyway).

– Per this chart, in most circumstances the Bulldogs should either go for it or attempt a field goal when in opposing territory on any 4th down of 5 yards or less to go. That includes 4th-and-5 from the 50.

– There are two other color areas on the chart to discuss. One (light blue) is a section I am calling “General’s Choice”, after, naturally, General.

This is a section in which the Bulldogs’ two-year statistics tend to suggest that punting is probably the percentage play. However, the sample size is limited, and some of the available stats indicate that going for it may not be unreasonable.

Basically, if Brent Thompson decided to take a relatively aggressive approach, going for it in this area of the field on certain downs may be the right move.

– Then there is the gray section that I am calling “Boo Territory”, after the seemingly more hyper and aggressive of the school’s two mascots.

Most of the time, punting is the play in this section. Nonetheless, you can find a lot of analytical sources that would advocate going for it in this area.

The Citadel’s statistical profile doesn’t reflect that, which is why the section isn’t green (or even light blue). If Brent Thompson really wanted to make a statement during a game, though, he would go for it in Boo Territory (or maybe fake a punt).

Obviously, a chart like this would vary at least slightly for each game. Among the factors to consider in making adjustments to it: whether or not the team is playing at home, weather conditions, the opponent’s efficiency on offense and defense, its special teams units (both placekicking and punting), and its pace of play.

As you can probably tell, I’m ready for football season. It’s getting closer…

Other things I’ve written in the lead-up to the season:

– Part 1 of Inside the Numbers (The Citadel’s 2017 run/pass tendencies and yards per play numbers)

– Part 2 of Inside the Numbers (The Citadel’s 2017 fourth-down decision-making and plenty of other statistics)

– A look at advanced statistics, first down/third down information, and standard/passing down data

– Last year’s conference-only statistics for the SoCon (all teams), with some additional league observations

– Preseason rankings and ratings

– Attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium: the annual review

– Which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

– A glance at the SoCon non-conference slate

Last but probably not least on the list of links: an interactive chart showing the percentage of time every FBS team has gone for it on 4th down (2009-2017)

 

2018 preseason rankings and ratings, featuring The Citadel (and the rest of the SoCon)

Yes, it’s that time of year. The preview magazines are out, and the Massey Ratings have been updated for preseason 2018. Let’s get right to the nitty-gritty!

Lindy’s ranks North Dakota State #1 in its FCS preseason poll. The rest of its top 5: James Madison, Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, and South Dakota State. Incidentally, the top four teams were also the top four squads in Lindy’s 2017 preseason poll (with NDSU and JMU flip-flopped).

Wofford is ranked #10 (as was also the case in the magazine’s 2017 preseason poll), Samford #13, and Furman #17. Other teams of note include Kennesaw State (#7), North Carolina A&T (#19), and Elon (#21).

The Lindy’s preseason first team All-America squad for the FCS includes two players from Samford, quarterback Devlin Hodges and defensive lineman Ahmad Gooden. Not only that, but both are the magazine’s preseason national MVPs (on offense and defense, respectively).

Lindy’s first team also includes Wofford offensive lineman Ross Demmel. That is a bit problematic, as Demmel (who was an academic senior last season) is not on the Terriers’ 2018 roster.

The magazine’s preseason second team does feature a Wofford player who is expected to be on the field this year, however, in defensive lineman Miles Brown.

The preseason SoCon rankings, per Lindy’s:

1 – Wofford
2 – Samford
3 – Furman
4 – Western Carolina
5 – Chattanooga
6 – The Citadel
7 – Mercer
8 – East Tennessee State
9 – VMI

Charleston Southern is the preseason #2 team in the Big South, while Towson is projected to finish 11th in the 12-team CAA.

South Carolina State is picked 5th in the MEAC.

Street & Smith’s FCS top 25 is similar to Lindy’s at the top, with North Dakota State and James Madison 1-2 in the rankings. South Dakota State is 3rd, followed by Kennesaw State and Jacksonville State.

Samford is ranked #10, Furman #17, and Wofford #21. Others of interest: Elon (9th), North Carolina A&T (15th), and Richmond (24th).

The magazine’s preseason All-America squad includes Samford’s Hodges and Gooden. No other SoCon players are named (and Street & Smith’s does not have a preseason second team).

As was the case last year, the SoCon preview was written by S&S assistant editor Will Long, who is based in Charlotte (and is a graduate of Clemson). The rankings:

1 – Samford
2 – Furman
3 – Wofford
4 – Mercer
5 – Western Carolina
6 – The Citadel
7 – Chattanooga
8 – East Tennessee State
9 – VMI

Charleston Southern is projected to finish third in the Big South (behind Kennesaw State and Monmouth). Towson is picked 8th in the CAA.

S&S is not bullish on South Carolina State, with Buddy Pough’s charges ranked 9th in the 10-team MEAC.

Disappointingly, Athlon does not have an FCS conference preview section. The magazine does have a Top 25 preview written by Craig Haley of STATS FCS Football. The top 5, per Haley: North Dakota State, James Madison, New Hampshire, South Dakota State, and Kennesaw State.

Samford is 12th in this poll, with Wofford 16th. Those two teams are the only SoCon teams projected to make the FCS playoffs.

(It should be noted that the Terriers are not listed as a potential qualifier in the Athlon magazine currently on the shelf of your local bookstore. Wofford and Youngstown State were left off the page by mistake, but subsequently included in an online summary).

Also ranked: Elon (#10) and North Carolina A&T (#20). Monmouth, everyone’s favorite traditional Big South school, is included in an “others to watch” category.

Athlon‘s preseason All-America team includes Ahmad Gooden, but not his teammate Devlin Hodges; the squad’s quarterback is Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud.

Wofford’s Miles Brown is on the team, as is Western Carolina punter Ian Berryman. The magazine does not have a preseason All-America second team.

Okay, let’s talk about the Massey Ratings…

For the last few years, I’ve been incorporating the Massey Ratings into my game previews. For those not entirely familiar with this ratings system, here is an explanation:

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.

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 957 colleges and universities, from Alabama (#1) to Minnesota State Community & Technical College (#957).

This year, The Citadel is #218 overall in the preseason ratings. As a comparison, the Bulldogs were the preseason #130 team last year, #113 in the 2016 preseason, and #174 in the 2015 preseason.

The teams on The Citadel’s 2018 schedule are rated as follows (with the chances of a Bulldogs victory in parenthesis):

  • at Wofford – #162 (21%)
  • Chattanooga – #217 (56%)
  • Charleston Southern – #214 (56%)
  • at Mercer – #174 (29%)
  • at Towson – #178 (28%)
  • East Tennessee State – #264 (72%)
  • at VMI – #403 (92%)
  • Furman – #158 (28%)
  • at Western Carolina – #185 (35%)
  • Samford – #148 (27%)
  • Alabama – #1 (0%)

On the site, The Citadel’s matchups with ETSU and WCU are not listed for some reason. I used the Massey simulator to derive projected win percentages for those two games.

There are simulations for any possible matchup. Feel free to waste a few hours playing with them.

Going by the ratings, a Massey preseason poll for the SoCon would look like this:

1 – Samford
2 – Furman
3 – Wofford
4 – Mercer
5 – Western Carolina
6 – Chattanooga
7 – The Citadel
8 – East Tennessee State
9 – VMI

Massey’s FCS-only ratings for select schools:

  • North Dakota State – 1
  • James Madison – 2
  • South Dakota State – 3
  • Weber State – 4
  • Western Illinois – 5
  • Northern Iowa – 6
  • Youngstown State – 7
  • Southern Utah – 8
  • South Dakota – 9
  • Eastern Washington – 10
  • Richmond – 13
  • Delaware – 15
  • Kennesaw State – 19
  • Samford – 25
  • Yale – 27
  • Furman – 30
  • Wofford – 32
  • Elon – 34
  • Mercer – 37
  • Colgate – 38
  • North Carolina A&T – 39
  • Towson – 41
  • Western Carolina – 44
  • William and Mary – 50
  • Charleston Southern – 57
  • Chattanooga – 60
  • The Citadel – 61
  • Harvard – 64
  • Lehigh – 65
  • East Tennessee State – 81
  • Gardner-Webb – 86
  • Presbyterian – 93
  • South Carolina State – 95
  • Campbell – 110
  • VMI – 113
  • Georgetown – 115
  • Davidson – 124
  • Mississippi Valley State – 125

Massey is clearly a big fan of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (six teams in the top 10). Mississippi Valley State is the lowest-rated FCS squad.

In the “overall” category, some schools of note:

  • Alabama – 1
  • Georgia – 2
  • Clemson – 3
  • Oklahoma – 4
  • Ohio State – 5
  • Penn State – 6
  • Wisconsin – 7
  • Auburn – 8
  • Notre Dame – 9
  • Oklahoma State – 10
  • TCU – 11
  • UCF – 12
  • North Carolina State – 16
  • Miami (FL) – 17
  • Michigan – 19
  • Mississippi State – 20
  • Virginia Tech – 21
  • Florida State – 25
  • Southern California – 27
  • Wake Forest – 28
  • Georgia Tech – 32
  • South Carolina – 33
  • North Dakota State – 34 (highest-rated FCS team)
  • Duke – 35
  • Texas A&M – 39
  • James Madison – 45
  • Missouri – 49
  • Florida – 50
  • Navy – 53
  • Florida Atlantic – 57
  • North Carolina – 59
  • Maryland – 60
  • Army – 67
  • Appalachian State – 68
  • UCLA – 69
  • Tennessee – 75
  • Weber State – 80
  • Western Illinois – 81
  • Rutgers – 87
  • Air Force – 96
  • BYU – 97
  • Western Ontario – 111 (highest-rated Canadian team)
  • Southern Mississippi – 112
  • Connecticut – 118
  • Northwest Missouri State – 131 (highest-rated D-2 team)
  • Fullerton College – 150 (highest-rated junior college team)
  • Coastal Carolina – 156
  • Georgia Southern – 159
  • San Jose State – 173
  • Texas State – 180
  • Mt. Union – 200 (highest-rated D-3 team)
  • St. Francis (IN) – 245 (highest-rated NAIA team)
  • North Greenville – 297
  • UDLA Puebla – 359 (highest-rated Mexican team)
  • Newberry – 360
  • Lenoir-Rhyne – 416
  • Limestone – 445

Football season is getting closer. Trust me, it is…

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…