It's now the middle of August, and while college football isn't quite here yet, we have just about two weeks to go until the first kickoff inside Kinnick Stadium takes place. It's now to the point where it doesn't feel like wishful thinking to say "college football is almost here." This feeling is made even more real by the fact that every beat writer and football prognosticator is throwing out their predictions for the upcoming season. So I thought to myself "Hey, why not me?"
What follows then, are not my predictions, but are projected THOR+ ratings and rankings for the first week of college football. These projections start with last year's team as the baseline and adjust upward or downward based on returning starters on each unit, a five year average of each team's ratings, and finally what I call a five year improve rating. I look at a five year average of each team's ratings because often times, teams have a certain characteristics that are reflected in these ratings. For instance, Iowa is traditionally a better defensive team under Kirk Ferentz, so the odds of the defense being pretty good, even when they lose three hell demons at linebacker, are... well, pretty good. The five year improve rating is basically just a measure of how likely a team has been to improve their THOR+ rating from year to year. This gives us an idea of which way a team is trending. For instance, Florida, a team that was on top of college football under Urban Meyer, has a five year improve rating of 85 or 15% below the national average. That means they have been trending downward, on average, every season for the past five years. Meanwhile, Kansas State has been 6% above the national average at showing improvement from season to season since the resurrection of Bill Snyder. These measures are weighted, however, so that a team that has been trending downward but has a lot of players returning and was pretty decent last year, will still be projected to have a pretty good season this year.
Like all preseason projections, these are far from perfect and come with a disclaimer. These do not reflect offseason injuries, transfers, suspensions, etc. For instance, Notre Dame's offense could be better than the projected 2% below average with the return of Everett Golson. Another limitation is that using a five year average for every team most likely underrates or overrates certain teams that have made coaching changes recently. For instance, USC has been trending downward over the past five seasons thanks to former coach Lane Kiffin. How accurately does that trend reflect what USC will do under Steve Sarkisian? A long term goal for me may be trying to quantify a "coaching effect" that can take the place of the five year trend, but that's for another time. In other words, I recognize the limitations of these, and these are far from gospel. But I do think they look like pretty decent projections -- and they are pretty fun to ponder.
So without further ado, I give you the projections in chart form:
2014 College Football THOR+ Projections
On the chart, you can change tabs to switch between THOR+ ratings, Offense+ ratings, and Defense+ ratings, so that you can get an idea of what teams are projected to have the best offenses and defenses in the nation. The fourth tab plots each team based on their projected Offense+ and Defense+ ratings in order to give an idea of which teams look to be good on both sides of the ball, on one side of the ball, and on no sides of the ball. And per usual, you can hover over a team's ring and get the projected information for that team for the 2014 season.
Now, I'm not going to discuss the top 25 or anything like that. The full preseason rankings in table format appear at the bottom of the post. Rather, I want to focus on Iowa and the Big Ten because, ultimately, those are the teams we care the most about here at BHGP. So let's look at the projected ratings for each Big Ten team this season:
|Conf. Rank||Overall Rank||Team||Coach||Proj. Offense+||Proj. Defense+||Proj. Special Teams+||Proj. PPG+ vs. Avg.||Proj. PPGA+ vs. Avg.||Proj. Wins vs. Avg.||Proj. THOR+|
|1||#11||Ohio State||Urban Meyer||130||114||119||35.28||22.51||8.25||122|
|4||#28||Michigan State||Mark Dantonio||100||118||173||27.45||21.65||7.44||113|
|12||#61||Penn State||James Franklin||97||118||57||26.82||21.67||6.48||103|
Unsurprisingly, Ohio State tops the list and starts the season ranked #11 in the country by THOR+. Also unsurprisingly, they are projected to have the best offense in the conference and they follow that with good defense and special teams projections. Of course, some may be surprised to see Ohio State projected to win only 8 games if they were to play an average schedule in 2014. That's understandable, but don't take the projected wins or points vs. an average schedule all that serious right now. Projections are conservative by nature, and if Ohio State really is the #11 team or better in the country this season, they will have a higher THOR+ rating than 122 and most likely win more than 8 games. They actually finished #11 in the country last year, according to THOR+, and had a rating of 137. They were also projected to win about 10 games vs. an average regular season (12 game) schedule. As the season goes on, we will see the standard deviation between each team's ratings grow larger.
Another surprise to some people may be the fact that Wisconsin and Michigan are next and come in at #12 and #17 in the country. Wisconsin is one of those teams that has been trending upward for the past five seasons, but is also only under year two of a new coach in Gary Andersen. Moreover, they also have a below average number of returning starters coming back from last year's team, especially on defense. This is reflected by the fact that their Defense+ rating isn't quite on the same level as their Offense+ rating. And it's not as if their offense doesn't have some holes. The Badgers still get the benefit of the doubt by THOR+ thanks to their recent success, but will a young defense be good enough to keep them rated this high all season? I guess that's why they play the games.
As for Michigan, THOR+ liked them fairly well last year, has them trending upward since the days when Greg Robinson was defensive coordinator, and sees that they are returning an above average amount of starters for 2014. This is why THOR+ likes them for the upcoming season. From what I gather, though, Brady Hoke seems to have a reputation for being a below average head coach. And the numbers may or may not support that. His first season in Ann Arbor saw him go 11-2 when THOR+ believed that team was closer to 9-4. That's good. However, if I was keeping track of a coaching effect, we would also need to consider that his last two Michigan teams have underperformed by 1 win per season. He's recruiting fine talent to Michigan, but I guess we still have to see what exactly he can do with that talent. Maybe a new offensive coordinator can help them take the next step.
Remaining in the state of Michigan, but moving over to East Lansing, Michigan State projects for #4 in the conference and falls just outside the top 25 in the country, at #28. THOR+ projects Michigan State to have a better defense than offense this season due to Mark Dantonio's track record. Over the past five seasons, Dantonio's Spartan offenses have only averaged an Offense+ rating of 102 or 2% better than the national average. The defenses have carried his team to their recent pinnacle, and because their five year average Defense+ rating is 130, THOR+ leans on that track record. However, things do change, and Michigan State returns an above average number of starters on offense and a below average number of starters on defense. Dantonio has also been recruiting well in recent years, so it may not be a shock to see this year's iteration of Michigan State be more balanced than in past years. If the offense is good, and they can rely on the defense to rebuild quickly, they could easily be a top 25 team. But if that defense is too young and the offense follows that five year trend, then this could be a very middling team.
At #5 in the conference and #33 in the country, we finally get to our beloved Hawkeyes. Similar to Michigan State, THOR+ sees a terrible offensive resume and a much better defensive resume over the past five seasons. An average Offense+ rating of 91 over the past five seasons, despite having the 2010 and 2011 units finish at 112 and 108, means that there have been some extremely ugly offensive performances sandwiched around the 2010 and 2011 seasons. That is essentially why, despite returning 8 starters on offense, Iowa is projected to have an Offense+ rating of 97.
Now, are there reasons to believe they should be better? Sure. The offensive line is experienced and anchored by an absolute manbeast in Brandon Scherff. Jake Rudock is a second year starter and Iowa actually looks like they may finally have some decent wide receiver options to add to their always solid tight end crop. Also, AIRBHG has yet to decimate the running back depth chart as of me typing this sentence (/knocks on every piece of wood he can find). So yeah, this offense should be better than last year. Of course, that's not exactly setting the bar all that high, seeing how last season's offense was 12% below average.
So THOR+ sees some progress, and I tend to agree with the slightly below average to around average offensive projection for this unit. I still don't fully trust Greg Davis; or rather, I don't think I fully trust any offensive coordinator working under Kirk Ferentz. I also think this unit may be a year away from really looking good. The wide receivers have promise, but are still young, while the running backs have been fairly average and will probably continue to be pretty average this season. In other words, I can definitely see how this could be an average offense in 2014.
As for the defense, even absent three star linebackers for this year, Iowa is projected for a Defense+ rating of 113. Returning a solid defensive line and half of the secondary but no starting linebackers should definitely worry us, but Iowa has shown that even in down defensive years they can limit points to an above average extent. So while there are quite a few question marks, the defensive consistency is a little more reassuring. Basically, if this team can be an average offense and continue to produce steady defensive output, they could look better than they probably are thanks to a pretty cushy schedule.
The projected sixth best team in the conference is Nebraska, who I have no idea how to project this season. They return a below average number of starters from last season, and they just took three pretty big blows to their defensive depth for this upcoming season. They do have Ameer Abdullah and Tommy Armstrong Jr. coming back on the other side of the ball, but how effective can this offense be with what's essentially a brand new offensive line? THOR+ saw Nebraska relying on their defense this season, and while they still have Randy Gregory, they could be in deep trouble if injuries continue to pile up. I'm not necessarily saying they are going to hit rock bottom, but I'm not totally sold on the Cornhuskers this season.
Number seven in the conference may or may not be surprising to you. While they aren't a traditional football powerhouse, I've heard some people say they really like Maryland this season because they return so many guys from last year's team. They return just about everyone from their entire defense last season that finished with a Defense+ rating of 110, which is definitely a cause for some optimism. They also bring back almost everybody from an offense that had an Offense+ rating of 81 last season. To be fair, though, the Terps had a lot of injuries last year, and they do have some pretty good talent on the offensive side of the ball. Anyway, THOR+ likes Maryland to be decent this season, thanks mostly to defense and special teams. But depending on how well the offense performs, the Terps could be a team to watch this season.
At the polar opposite Maryland, we find Indiana at #8 in the Big Ten and #48 overall. Kevin Wilson has carried on the fine Hoosier tradition of all offense and no defense since stepping foot in Bloomington, and THOR+ projects this season to be no different. Yes, Indiana has almost everyone on defense coming back this season, but they are starting with a pretty low baseline (a 2013 Defense+ rating of 71). Kevin Wilson has brought in a new defensive coordinator, but how quickly can Brian Knorr get his defense implemented? Maybe Kevin Wilson can eventually bring defense to Indiana, but it probably won't be this year. That offense should still be pretty damn good, though.
The second newest member of the conference this season makes a surprise appearance at #9, essentially riding their high projected special teams rating to the #49 THOR+ ranking in the country. Special teams makes up only a very tiny portion of my THOR+ ratings, but it can move teams up the board a little bit if they have really great special teams. That's not necessarily a bad thing during the regular season, but special teams are hard to project before the season because we don't really know who is going to be on the various units. But Rutgers rated out high in special teams last season and has done so over the past five years, including the first two seasons under Kyle Flood. So that's why they are getting the benefit of the doubt this preseason. Otherwise, the Scarlet Knights were bad at everything else last year. So much so that they replaced both their offensive and defensive coordinators after the 2013 season. All the changes are why I think it's hard to picture them being real great this season. That being said, though, they do have a lot of guys returning this year, so who knows? Maybe they will be better. But I still think this team is probably closer to the 60-70 range, rather than inside the top 50. But we shall see.
Moving outside the top 50, Illinois, Minnesota, and Penn State project to be the #10-12 teams in the conference this season. All three teams are projected to be just above average. All three teams also return an above average amount of starters from the 2013 season, so they all have reasons for optimism. But just like every other team, they all have reasons for doubt, as well. Tim Beckman has to show that he isn't the equivalent of Ron Zook minus the recruiting prowess. Jerry Kill has to show that he can actually put together a competent offense at Minnesota. And James Franklin needs to show that he can quickly implement his scheme in year one at Penn State. If there's any team out of these three that I think could jump higher than their preseason ranking, it would probably be the Nittany Lions. They were pretty good last season and they have a lot of guys coming back this season. Not to mention, they have a better recruiting base than Illinois and Minnesota, so the talent should already be in house. If James Franklin ends up being as good as advertised right from the get go, it wouldn't be shocking to see him push them up the THOR+ rankings into the 40s or 30s by the end of the year.
A team that I don't see rising that high this year is Northwestern. The Wildcats were projected to be an average team this season before losing running back Venric Mark to transfer and wide receiver Christian Jones to injury. Now, an offense that THOR+ projects to be 4% below average is looking like it could be much further below average. Some Northwestern fans believe the offense will still be fine, and maybe it will. But I'm not sure I buy it. However, even if the offense isn't particularly good, Pat Fitzgerald has worked his wizardry before, so it's not out of the question that he may do so again. Either way, this team is probably going to be relying heavily on their defense to keep them in games in 2014. Thus, any wins this team does get this year are probably going to come in low-scoring affairs.
Finally, we have lowly Purdue. Year two of the Darrell Hazell era projects to be better than the first, but this program still looks to be years away from competing in the Big Ten. They return about an average amount of guys from the 2013 squad, but that team finished with a THOR+ rating of 71. This year's group of Boilermakers looks to be better, as projections are calling for a THOR+ rating of 85. Unfortunately, that's still only good for #113 in the nation to start the year. And similar to what I said about Ohio State earlier, if Purdue is really the 113th ranked team in the nation this season, that THOR+ rating is probably going to be closer to last year's 71 than the preseason projection of 85. Purdue is a down program that has been terrible at football for a while now, and they don't exactly have top recruits lining up to come to West Lafayette. Not to kick Purdue when they are down, but it appears that Darrell Hazell has his work cut out for him. I would say a successful 2014 season is getting their THOR+ ranking to crack the top 100.
So that's that. Sorry for the long-windedness. But you can blame Jim Delaney for adding two more teams for me to consider this year. Above, I gave you the expected wins against an average schedule for each team. Next time, we'll take a look at how the Big Ten regular season might play out based on the actual schedules for the upcoming season. For now, though, here are the full preseason THOR+ rankings for all 128 FBS teams.
|Rank||Team||Conference||Coach||Proj. Offense+||Proj. Defense+||Proj. Special Teams+||Proj. PPG+ vs. Avg.||Proj. PPGA+ vs. Avg.||Proj. Wins vs. Avg.||Proj. THOR+|
|1||Florida State||ACC||Jimbo Fisher||141||124||217||38.16||20.25||9.84||140|
|5||Texas A&M||SEC||Kevin Sumlin||134||110||179||36.37||23.55||8.69||127|
|8||Oklahoma State||Big 12||Mike Gundy||123||118||187||33.47||21.74||8.57||126|
|9||South Carolina||SEC||Steve Spurrier||125||118||152||34.01||21.59||8.43||124|
|11||Ohio State||Big Ten||Urban Meyer||130||114||119||35.28||22.51||8.25||122|
|12||Wisconsin||Big Ten||Gary Andersen||122||109||188||33.19||23.65||8.19||122|
|13||Baylor||Big 12||Art Briles||130||99||179||35.39||26.08||8.09||120|
|14||North Carolina||ACC||Larry Fedora||107||114||220||29.42||22.52||7.98||119|
|15||Kansas State||Big 12||Bill Snyder||120||106||181||32.84||24.44||7.95||119|
|17||Michigan||Big Ten||Brady Hoke||115||114||166||31.39||22.56||7.91||118|
|18||TCU||Big 12||Gary Patterson||106||123||169||29.03||20.41||7.90||118|
|20||Oklahoma||Big 12||Bob Stoops||102||123||179||28.11||20.51||7.80||117|
|22||Arizona State||Pac-12||Todd Graham||122||97||178||33.30||26.51||7.65||116|
|26||Northern Illinois||MAC||Rod Carey||118||101||161||32.18||25.47||7.51||114|
|27||Oregon State||Pac-12||Mike Riley||115||98||183||31.59||26.15||7.46||114|
|28||Michigan State||Big Ten||Mark Dantonio||100||118||173||27.45||21.65||7.44||113|
|32||Miami (Florida)||ACC||Al Golden||111||110||117||30.49||23.41||7.25||111|
|33||Iowa||Big Ten||Kirk Ferentz||97||113||185||26.82||22.69||7.24||111|
|34||Boise State||Mountain West||Bryan Harsin||111||116||83||30.51||22.05||7.24||111|
|37||Nebraska||Big Ten||Bo Pelini||100||111||175||27.49||23.27||7.18||110|
|38||Mississippi State||SEC||Dan Mullen||110||117||80||30.14||21.94||7.18||110|
|39||Notre Dame||Independent||Brian Kelly||98||114||171||26.93||22.62||7.17||110|
|46||Maryland||Big Ten||Randy Edsall||94||111||178||25.89||23.28||6.93||108|
|48||Indiana||Big Ten||Kevin Wilson||119||93||107||32.53||27.29||6.87||107|
|49||Rutgers||Big Ten||Kyle Flood||95||100||216||26.34||25.77||6.86||107|
|50||Georgia Tech||ACC||Paul Johnson||116||97||100||31.78||26.38||6.84||107|
|51||Louisiana-Lafayette||Sun Belt||Mark Hudspeth||106||99||150||29.24||26.05||6.83||107|
|54||Illinois||Big Ten||Tim Beckman||99||99||189||27.35||26.00||6.80||106|
|55||West Virginia||Big 12||Dana Holgorsen||98||103||171||27.17||25.09||6.79||106|
|56||Texas||Big 12||Charlie Strong||99||116||81||27.44||22.03||6.71||105|
|57||Minnesota||Big Ten||Jerry Kill||92||105||185||25.57||24.64||6.70||105|
|58||Virginia Tech||ACC||Frank Beamer||92||112||141||25.51||23.07||6.64||104|
|59||Fresno State||Mountain West||Tim DeRuyter||104||92||155||28.69||27.56||6.51||103|
|60||Bowling Green||MAC||Dino Babers||98||104||128||27.12||24.89||6.50||103|
|61||Penn State||Big Ten||James Franklin||97||118||57||26.82||21.67||6.48||103|
|63||Utah State||Mountain West||Matt Wells||88||105||168||24.50||24.53||6.40||102|
|66||North Texas||C-USA||Dan McCarney||86||99||204||23.89||26.06||6.30||101|
|67||Ball State||MAC||Pete Lembo||100||90||161||27.45||28.00||6.27||100|
|68||Northwestern||Big Ten||Pat Fitzgerald||96||111||66||26.64||23.33||6.24||100|
|69||North Carolina State||ACC||Dave Doeren||87||100||172||24.29||25.66||6.21||100|
|71||Texas Tech||Big 12||Kliff Kingsbury||109||91||88||29.89||27.85||6.18||99|
|72||Iowa State||Big 12||Paul Rhoads||102||101||70||28.05||25.65||6.11||99|
|73||Arkansas State||Sun Belt||Blake Anderson||86||99||172||23.91||25.94||6.09||99|
|74||Washington State||Pac-12||Mike Leach||106||99||51||29.16||26.07||6.09||99|
|75||Wyoming||Mountain West||Craig Bohl||101||84||161||27.81||29.43||6.08||98|
|78||Kent State||MAC||Paul Haynes||84||100||171||23.50||25.80||6.04||98|
|79||Texas State||Sun Belt||Dennis Franchione||96||80||193||26.62||30.34||5.96||97|
|80||San Diego State||Mountain West||Rocky Long||99||88||134||27.38||28.61||5.96||97|
|81||Boston College||ACC||Steve Addazio||90||103||95||25.00||24.97||5.89||96|
|82||Hawai'i||Mountain West||Norm Chow||97||82||167||26.78||29.83||5.89||96|
|83||Colorado State||Mountain West||Jim McElwain||95||87||152||26.34||28.82||5.87||96|
|84||Central Michigan||MAC||Dan Enos||99||95||78||27.34||26.85||5.84||96|
|85||Nevada||Mountain West||Brian Polian||100||94||81||27.50||27.23||5.82||96|
|86||South Alabama||Sun Belt||Joey Jones||93||95||108||25.79||26.89||5.78||95|
|88||East Carolina||C-USA||Ruffin McNeill||101||89||85||27.85||28.35||5.73||95|
|89||UNLV||Mountain West||Bobby Hauck||101||83||119||27.76||29.72||5.72||94|
|90||Louisiana-Monroe||Sun Belt||Todd Berry||80||96||172||22.48||26.69||5.72||94|
|93||South Florida||AAC||Willie Taggart||75||96||184||21.06||26.66||5.57||93|
|96||San Jose State||Mountain West||Ron Caragher||91||92||96||25.14||27.54||5.47||92|
|97||Louisiana Tech||C-USA||Skip Holtz||77||96||162||21.49||26.74||5.47||92|
|99||Wake Forest||ACC||Dave Clawson||78||98||140||21.84||26.30||5.44||91|
|100||Kansas||Big 12||Charlie Weis||79||102||107||22.00||25.23||5.41||91|
|105||Middle Tennessee||C-USA||Rick Stockstill||81||96||102||22.72||26.75||5.24||89|
|106||Florida Atlantic||C-USA||Charlie Partridge||79||92||132||22.12||27.67||5.20||89|
|108||Air Force||Mountain West||Troy Calhoun||94||79||98||26.13||30.62||5.13||88|
|110||Western Kentucky||C-USA||Jeff Brohm||98||74||92||27.04||31.79||5.05||87|
|113||Purdue||Big Ten||Darrell Hazell||86||83||100||23.84||29.75||4.90||85|
|114||Southern Mississippi||C-USA||Todd Monken||83||72||167||23.26||32.17||4.88||85|
|115||Western Michigan||MAC||P.J. Fleck||83||77||125||23.12||31.01||4.74||84|
|117||Florida International||C-USA||Ron Turner||81||72||146||22.73||32.25||4.62||82|
|118||Troy||Sun Belt||Larry Blakeney||94||69||62||25.90||32.81||4.45||81|
|119||Old Dominion||C-USA||Bobby Wilder||73||77||122||20.58||30.94||4.30||79|
|120||Georgia Southern||Sun Belt||Willie Fritz||73||74||137||20.58||31.64||4.29||79|
|122||Appalachian State||Sun Belt||Scott Satterfield||73||74||122||20.58||31.64||4.18||78|
|123||Miami (Ohio)||MAC||Chuck Martin||71||83||84||19.95||29.67||4.14||77|
|124||New Mexico||Mountain West||Bob Davie||104||45||84||28.64||38.44||4.13||77|
|125||Georgia State||Sun Belt||Trent Miles||72||63||128||20.27||34.25||3.72||73|
|126||Eastern Michigan||MAC||Chris Creighton||87||48||101||24.26||37.74||3.61||71|
|128||New Mexico State||Independent||Doug Martin||85||46||9||23.70||38.15||2.78||62|