The 2021 College Football season looks to be a great one. Teams are more experienced than ever from a returning starter standpoint because of the rules and provisions that the NCAA passed last season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Players were able to maintain extra eligibility or not have years count against them.
The process of making power ratings is always a challenge because every season is unique, but it was especially difficult this season. Usually we see significant roster turnover and also a lot of personnel turnover as well. This past offseason, the transfer portal was pretty busy, leading to a bevy of players with FBS experience moving around the country, but most teams have a lot more upperclassmen than usual.
Returning starters and returning production are really popular methods of constructing power ratings, but they can sometimes lead you in the wrong direction. How much do returning starters matter on a team that was bad? How much does returning production help if the team’s production was low to begin with?
These are questions that cannot be fully answered by the construction of team ratings. They’re more likely to be answered once the games actually start and the teams begin to settle in.
To further complicate matters, there were some teams that played 12 or 13 games last season. Other teams played three or four games. Some teams didn’t play at all. How much does that lost development time hurt? Will we see that third-year leap from coaches like we usually do?
On the plus side, a lot of teams got their full spring practices in a few months back as COVID-19 cooled down a bit and players and teams were bubbled up by themselves at a lot of college campuses. That should help and create a much crisper environment on both offense and defense.
We’ll be back to full or mostly full stadiums across the country in most cases, so home field advantage will go back to where it was pre-pandemic. Could it even be worth more? Some movies are breaking box office records. The most recent Indians game I went to seemed to have louder cheers and more overall enthusiasm and excitement for each positive development. People seem to be taking fewer events for granted. Does pent-up demand for socialization and sporting events create an even louder, more engaged home field crowd, especially for students that missed out on the college experience last season?
There are so many questions coming into each and every season, but the 2021 season really, truly feels like a unique animal in so many ways.
The Power Ratings Process
Having a good set of College Football Power Ratings before the season is essential. One really popular way of setting up Power Ratings is to take a position-based approach.
The goal here is to determine a team’s strength at certain position groups and add those values together to get a number that represents the team’s talent level relative to other teams across the country.
You can also use this as a guide to determine the strengths of position groups within a conference. While a Toledo or a Boise State might not grade as a 10, because those are reserved for the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world, a score of 8 or 8.5 is going to be among the best in that conference.
The following is a possible breakdown that you could use, with 100 as the best team and 30 as the worst team:
Quarterbacks – Up to 15 Points
The QB is the most important player on the field. On this scale that goes up to 100, putting 15% of a team’s value on the quarterback could even be viewed as not enough to some people, but we also have to consider that it is just one player or one group of 3-4 players. The offensive line and the skill players also have a big impact on how a quarterback plays.
Year in and year out, Alabama’s quarterback will grade as a 14 or 15. That player will be one of the best in the country. On the flip side, UTEP’s QB or UMass’s QB may be 5 or 5.5 points. Generally you don’t want to go too much lower than a 5-15 range.
Running Backs – Up to 10 Points
Running games remain more important and more prominent in college football than in the NFL it would seem. Running backs do play a big part in the game. A lot of guys can put up numbers, but elite running back position groups are huge for a team. Not only do they produce offense, but they can salt a game away with a lead late and keep that clock running.
Running back groups can be graded on about a 4-10 scale, with the best running back groups, think Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc. at 9.5 or 10 and then the bad running back groups like New Mexico State or Akron at 4 or 4.5.
Wide Receivers – Up to 10 Points
Wide receivers around the country are plenty capable of putting up numbers, but you still want to make sure that you are grading these groups based on their depth and production levels. There can be a correlation with the QB position as well.
Similar to the other position groups, the best teams and the most dynamic offenses will have 9s and 10s and other teams might have 6s and 7s or lower.
Offensive Line – Up to 15 Points
The trenches collectively account for 30% of the team’s total rating in this format. The offensive line is worth up to 15 points. Those guys protect the quarterback. They open up holes for the running backs. Those guys are critically important. They can dictate a game and control the line of scrimmage.
The best teams will have 15s, while the worst teams will probably be in 6-7 range. You can go as low as 5 with some of the really awful teams.
Defensive Line – Up to 15 Points
Rushing the passer and stuffing the run are ways to really alter the opposition’s game plan. Watch any football game and it is clear that the trenches are such a huge element of the game play. That is why the defensive line gets a big chunk of the points for the overall rating.
In college football, specifically, teams that are terrible at the line just get run over with regularity. It is a really important part of the equation.
Linebackers – Up to 10 Points
This is one area that may be a little bit overvalued, but it does keep the 100-point scale in play. Furthermore, linebackers have had to be better and better in pass coverage as the game has evolved. Also, we get a lot of EDGE rushers that go after the quarterback from this position. It isn’t about guys with neck rolls stuffing the run anymore. The linebacker position is extremely nuanced and having depth at that level is important.
Defensive Backs – Up to 10 Points
Secondaries are very important as teams have adopted the spread offenses and so much tempo in college football. Getting beat over the top is a good way to lose games and lose a lot of them. The teams that stack up the best at DB are often the most talented and most athletic, which is true of all of the position groups.
The worst secondaries are going to be valued down in the 4 or 4.5 range.
Coaching & Special Teams – Up to 15 Points
Coaching matters so much in college football. Offensive and defensive coordinators change like socks, so teams are always learning new verbiage or new schemes. Head coaches tend to stick around until they get fired or get a better job. But, this is also a way to look at special teams rankings and special teams coordinators.
There are some intangible factors that go into play with this as well.
An Example of a Team’s Power Rating
Let’s take Alabama as an example, with a Power Rating of 99. This would be a breakdown for the Crimson Tide:
Bryce Petty is a new starting QB and the Crimson Tide bid adieu to Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, so they have to figure out some new weapons, but this is also a team that recruits at an insanely high level. They are going to be more talented than their opponents in just about every way.
How about Ohio State at 92.5?
CJ Stroud is taking over for Justin Fields and Ohio State has zero experienced depth at QB. While Stroud and the Buckeyes may have no issues offensively, the Buckeyes are not at the elite level that they were at the QB position. However, Stroud does have Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. The Buckeyes are stout in the trenches and have an outstanding.
As an example of how these teams end up getting ranked relative to the rest of the country, here is an example of some July 2021 Preseason College Football Power Ratings.
What Do You Do With Power Ratings?
In tandem with home field advantage numbers, you can create your own spreads for college football games. In the above example with Ohio State and Alabama in deeper detail, Alabama would be -6.5 on a neutral against Ohio State. If Alabama was at home, the Crimson Tide would be -10.5. If Ohio State was at home, Alabama would be -2.5.
You can use a set of power ratings to create your own spreads and then bet them accordingly when the opening lines come out.
If you had Alabama -10.5 against Ohio State and the line came out -7, you might want to consider betting on the Crimson Tide. A good set of power ratings will see line movement in the direction of your line.
Maybe a better example would be something like Wyoming at Boise State. Boise State is power-rated at 73.5 in this sample set with three points of home field advantage. That is 76.5. Wyoming is power-rated at 65. The line based on this set of power ratings would be Boise State -11.5. If the line comes out Boise State -16.5 or something, Wyoming appears to have some value.
You can do this with every game to get a number and then decide if you want to bet on it or not based on where your number is and your thoughts on the game.
Home Field Advantage
Home field advantage in college football probably isn’t worth what it used to be. Most people are somewhere between 2.5 and 3 points with their average HFA. If you use 2.5 or 3 as a baseline, you probably are not that far off.
The adjustments from that point are where you have to be cognizant of a lot of different factors. Does a team have a full stadium all of the time? Are there travel considerations? For example, Morgantown is not easy to get to for Big 12 teams, especially for early games. Pullman, Washington is a tough trip to Washington State. This is something you really want to factor in with schools that have smaller athletic budgets in the Group of 5.
Are there environmental concerns? Think Boone, NC, where Appalachian State plays in the highest elevation east of the Mississippi River for FBS football. Think Laramie, Wyoming, the highest elevation in CFB.
Typically, you don’t want to give more than 5 points for HFA and that would be a maximum, like a White Out in Happy Valley for Penn State or a huge non-conference game in Alabama or Michigan. Those are extreme cases. Most times, HFA will range from 2 points to 4.5 points.
Use your best judgment or maybe even past results to determine where the HFA should be.
July 2021 Power Ratings
Here is an example of preseason College Football Power Ratings for 2021:
|4||Ohio State||Big Ten||92.5||4|
|6||Iowa State||Big 12||88.5|
|13||Penn State||Big Ten||84||3.5|
|28||Oklahoma State||Big 12||77.5|
|29||West Virginia||Big 12||77.5|
|33||Coastal Carolina||Sun Belt||76.5|
|44||Boise State||Mountain West||73.5|
|52||Appalachian State||Sun Belt||72||3.5|
|58||Kansas State||Big 12||70|
|60||Texas Tech||Big 12||69.5|
|69||San Jose State||Mountain West||68|
|73||Michigan State||Big Ten||67|
|74||San Diego State||Mountain West||67|
|78||Fresno State||Mountain West||66|
|88||Georgia State||Sun Belt||62.5|
|90||Air Force||Mountain West||62|
|99||Georgia Southern||Sun Belt||59.5||3.5|
|100||Colorado State||Mountain West||59|
|105||Arkansas State||Sun Belt||57|
|108||Western Kentucky||Conference USA||56|
|109||Louisiana Tech||Conference USA||56|
|110||Texas State||Sun Belt||55||2.5|
|111||Middle Tenn||Conference USA||54.5|
|112||South Alabama||Sun Belt||54.5|
|113||Southern Miss||Conference USA||54.5|
|117||Utah State||Mountain West||51.5|
|119||New Mexico||Mountain West||51|
|120||North Texas||Conference USA||51|
|123||Old Dominion||Conference USA||45|
|126||Louisiana Monroe||Sun Belt||43||2|
|130||New Mexico State||Independent||37||2|
As you can see, Alabama is #1 at 99 and New Mexico State is #130 at 37. The two teams do play this season and that game would be lined at Alabama -66. It is the highest line between two FBS teams.
In order to create a betting line for a game, you compare the difference between the power ratings and add home field to the home team.
For example, here are the “Week 0” Lines for the games on August 28 using this set of power ratings:
|8/28||UTEP||New Mexico State||+5.5|
UTEP is power-rated at 44.5. New Mexico State is at 37. Add 2 for home field advantage and you get 5.5.
UConn is 42.5. Fresno State is 66. Add three points HFA and you get 23.5 + 3 = 26.5.
Using these numbers and this strategy, you can decide if you want to bet on the game based on your power rating or not.
Updating College Football Power Ratings
The true art in having a set of College Football Power Ratings is to update them as the season goes along. Once you get your initial preseason Power Ratings, the focus becomes adapting to the market conditions and the team performances as the season goes along.
A three-step process for updating Power Ratings is pretty popular.
Step 1: Compare your lines to the closing lines
What was your line and what did the line close in the betting markets?
Did the opening line move closer to your number? Did it move in the other direction?
If the line moved away from you, then it is a good time to re-evaluate your ratings of one or both of the teams. That being said, if the line moved away from you, but the game played out closer to your expectation, maybe other people are wrong.
This really is a tough process that requires feel, understanding, and perspective.
Step 2: Box score study
Why did a game end up the way it did? Did you have a game lined at -14 that the market had lined at -14 but the underdog won outright? Were turnovers a factor? Did a team get into the red zone multiple times and miss field goals or have turnovers?
Look for misleading box scores. Look for things that had a direct impact on the result, but may not happen again.
This also includes looking at injuries. Did a key player miss the second half? How long will he be out? This information can be hard to find, but Twitter can be your friend.
Step 3: Make lines for the next week BEFORE the betting markets open
Put together your numbers in advance of the release from the sportsbooks. Get an idea of where you think a line should be. If that line is way off from your number, then your number might be wrong. See if the initial line movement goes towards your number or not.
If it doesn’t, then you know that your line is wrong and you’ll need to adjust one or both teams. Doing so early keeps you from running into the same situation for next week.