We’re at an interesting inflection point of the college football season, when records start to look substantial, but still come with the universal qualifier of “they ain’t played nobody.”
I find a pretty good way of weeding out that argument is to look at records vs. teams that should count as “somebody,” and that starts with a firm definition. For now, we’re using this: The top 40 in S&P+ along with any other Power 5 programs that have 2 or fewer losses and Group of Five teams with 1 or fewer losses.
That list ends up including 51 teams, which is probably a little more than we’d like, but it’s a good starting point that ensures we’re not ignoring anyone. More importantly, it’s a precise definition. Fans tend to think anyone other than Alabama is nobody, which makes for an impossible standard. Teams don’t set their own schedules, and they don’t control how other teams perform against other opposition, so using a lofty strength of schedule bar essentially eliminates everyone. Instead, we’re setting a reasonable bar that, over the course of a 12-game season, tends to even out.
So, if that’s our list of “somebodies,” how do teams stack up?
By record, we’d start with Clemson. The Tigers are 4-0 against somebodies (A&M, Georgia Southern, Syracuse & NC State) with an average margin of victory of 18 points. Now, we know what you’re saying. Those aren’t “somebody.” And to be sure, we can have degrees of Somebody-ness. But by our definition we started with, yes, those are all somebodies.
The only other team with four wins over somebody is LSU. The Tigers are 4-1 with wins over Miami, Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia. It’s a strong resume, even if the underlying numbers — 15th in S&P+, 19th in offensive efficiency — aren’t exactly stellar. Being elite at one thing and decent at all the others is enough to be pretty darn good.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Arizona State. The Sun Devils have four losses this year, all by 7 points, and all against “somebodies.” Perhaps we’re underestimating the work Herm Edwards has done so far.
The same is (sort of) true for Nebraska and UCLA. No, Scott Frost and Chip Kelly have not righted the ship in Year 1, but they’ve also combined for nine losses to “somebodies.” Granted, those games haven’t been particularly close, but as we evaluate their performances during the debut season growing pains, it’s worth a reminder that they’ve not exactly had it easy.
But what perhaps stands out the most is this: Even casting a pretty wide net in defining our “somebodies,” there are only 17 teams that have multiple wins against that group. That’s it. Of 130 FBS teams, only 17 have two ore more wins vs. the 51 teams that can make a case for being kind-of, sort-of good, and it’s a list with plenty of surprising names. So maybe most teams really ain’t played nobody.
Anyway, here’s the list of multi-win teams:
Notre Dame, 3-0
Texas Tech, 2-1
Iowa State, 2-2
NC State, 2-1
Washington State, 2-0
Names you don’t see here: Texas, West Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Penn State, UCF, Texas A&M, Miami. All have one or zero wins over our Group of 51.
Again, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good teams. It’s critical to remember that strength of schedule is an independent variable that measures our level of confidence in a team’s quality, not the underlying level of quality. If Alabama played Kent State 12 straight times, it wouldn’t make the Tide any better or worse. It would just mean we didn’t have much data to tell us how good they were. Instead, what we can say from this exercise is that Clemson, despite protests about its weak schedule, actually HAS played somebody, and done quite well. So have LSU and Notre Dame. And while that doesn’t mean those teams won’t lose moving forward, it offers us some evidence that those losses won’t be due to a lack of ability to beat good teams.
This week’s tiered rankings, using the above data points:
Tier 1: Elite (2)
I wrote a little on the inevitability of Tide-Tigers Part IV last night (and yes, I’m now kicking myself that Fredo is actually the OLDER brother. I’ve killed too many brain cells with whiskey.)
Tier 2: Knocking on the door (12)
Notre Dame, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, Washington, Ohio State, UCF, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Texas
Tier 3: Pretty, pretty good (11)
App State, Fresno State, Penn State, Wisconsin, A&M, Utah, West Virginia, Washington State, Purdue, Houston, USF
Tier 4: Resume builders (22)
Miami, Auburn, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Utah State, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, North Texas, NC State, Duke, Temple, Iowa State, Oregon, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Michigan State, USC, San Diego State, Arizona State