Who Will Be the Out-of-Nowhere College Football Playoff Contender in 2016?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2016

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 26:  Taariq Allen #7 and Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers celebrate after the Cornhuskers scored a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins during the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi's Stadium on December 26, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There's one team every year.

No matter the season, one supposed bottom feeder emerges from the benthos and becomes a national title contender.

Consider Auburn's turnaround three years ago. Consider TCU in 2014. Consider the fact that Iowa just started 12-0!

From all those massive turnarounds, we can gather certain insights and attempt to predict the next out-of-nowhere College Football Playoff contender. My past two attempts included only teams with losing records, but Iowa and North Carolina, which both just played de facto playoff quarterfinals, forced me to reconsider and at least include 7-6 teams.

Sound off below and let us know which teams you would add! 

 

1. The Performance Factor

Arizona State fell off a cliff in 2015.
Arizona State fell off a cliff in 2015.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"The strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons."

The above quote is a "basic" at Football Outsiders. If you think it makes no sense, click away. It's OK to disagree (as long as you have your reasons), but this idea provides the basis of my theory.

If you haven't clicked away yet, let's explain the methodology of that quote. Here's how Football Outsiders elaborated: 

It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season.

Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.

Basically, instead of analyzing numbers from just last season, the idea is to analyze numbers from the past five seasons. Proceeding this way would have helped predict Auburn's breakout two years ago and TCU's breakout last season.

Because of that, I always start this process by computing Football Outsiders' average F/+ ratings over a five-year sample. I want a team that won seven or fewer games in 2015 but has still been a top-50 program since 2011.

Five Year F/+ Ratings - Identifying Candidates
TeamRecord5-Year F/+Rank
1. Nebraska6-714.7%<strong>24</strong>
2. Arizona State6-714.5%<strong>25</strong>
3. Kansas State6-713.5%<strong>27</strong>
4. Washington7-613.0%<strong>30</strong>
5. South Carolina3-912.7%<strong>31</strong>
6. Auburn7-611.9%<strong>32</strong>
7. Virginia Tech7-611.7%<strong>33</strong>
8. Missouri5-710.9%<strong>34</strong>
9. Georgia Tech3-910.6%<strong>36</strong>
10. Penn State7-68.8%<strong>39</strong>
11. Texas5-78.1%<strong>43</strong>
12. Arizona7-65.1%<strong>49</strong>
Source: Football Outsiders

From there, it's time to look at just this past year's performance.

For the sake of being faithful to the headline, I want a team that actually turns its season around. I don't want a team that was deceptively pretty good in 2015. That goes against the spirit of this concept.

Here's how those 12 teams fared in 2015:

2015 F/+ Ratings
TeamRecord2015 F/+Rank
1. Nebraska6-717.8%36
2. Arizona State6-712.7%50
3. Kansas State6-7-7.7%81
4. Washington7-636.0%13
5. South Carolina3-9-12.0%88
6. Auburn7-620.6%33
7. Virginia Tech7-67.0%59
8. Missouri5-7-4.8%75
9. Georgia Tech3-90.5%64
10. Penn State7-613.6%47
11. Texas5-7-2.2%68
12. Arizona7-6-6.4%77
Source: Football Outsiders

From that list, you'll notice one major outlier.

Despite its 7-6 record, Washington finished No. 13 in the country—nine spots ahead of a Utah team that beat it in Husky Stadium, 10 spots ahead of an Oregon team that beat it in Husky Stadium and 37 spots ahead of an Arizona State team that beat it in Tempe.

How is that possible? It's a matter of consistency and ceiling. Washington lost six games and deserved to lose all six, but when it won, it really won. In six of the Huskies' seven wins, they performed above the 90th percentile, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The one in which they didn't was a road win at USC.

How does this factor into our analysis? I suppose that's a matter of semantics.

It's hard to call the 13th-best team in the country—even if it's only by one metric—an out-of-nowhere candidate. If I had to pick one team from that list to compete for next year's playoff, I'd choose Washington without thinking twice. It's just wrong to say the Huskies are coming from nowhere.

Similarly, I refuse to cast Texas and its Powerball-jackpot bankroll as an underdog. According to USA Today's finance database, the Longhorns rank No. 2 in athletic department revenue. The only team with more is Oregon, which has Phil Knight pulling the strings as a benefactor.

Texas can't come from nowhere because it's coming from a throne made of money.

Eliminated Teams: Washington, Texas

 

2. The Luck Factor

Georgia Tech went 1-6 in one-score games.
Georgia Tech went 1-6 in one-score games.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Luck is what happens when a 50-50 factor skews away from that even center. Good luck is when it skews one way in your favor. Bad luck is when it skews one way in your disfavor.

Turnovers are not entirely luck, but elements of turnovers are. Fumble recoveries and interceptions per pass defensed are the two main stats to examine. Connelly explained this in his theory of adjusted turnover margin:

[Adjusted turnover margin is] what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games, and if the INTs-to-PDs for both teams was equal to the national average, which is generally around 21-22 percent.

If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other lucky/unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

Another big stat that regresses to the mean is close-game luck.

Over time, teams win roughly half of their one-score games. Because so few happen during a 12-game season, the sample allows for meaningful outliers. Had you looked at that after the 2012 season, when Michigan State lost five conference games by 13 combined points, you might have predicted, as some did, that the Spartans would make a run to the 2013 Rose Bowl.

On that note, let's examine how the remaining 10 teams fared in terms of close-game and turnover luck: 

2015 Luck Factors
TeamTurnover LuckBounceback?One-Score W-LBounceback?
1. Nebraska-4.81 PPG<font color="green">✓3-6<font color="green">✓
2. Arizona State+3.38 PPG<font color="red">✕0-3<font color="green">✓
3. Kansas State-1.76 PPG<font color="green">✓3-3<font color="red">✕
<font color="red">4. Washington
5. South Carolina+2.39 PPG<font color="red">✕1-5<font color="green">✓
6. Auburn-0.87 PPG3-4
7. Virginia Tech-2.00 PPG<font color="green">✓3-4
8. Missouri+0.04 PPG<font color="red">✕3-3<font color="red">✕
9. Georgia Tech+1.30 PPG<font color="red">✕1-6<font color="green">✓
10. Penn State-1.20 PPG<font color="green">✓2-2<font color="red">✕
<font color="red">11. Texas</strong>
12. Arizona-0.64 PPG<font color="red">✕3-2<font color="red">✕
Source: TeamRankings.com / Football Study Hall

Of that list, only Nebraska endured double bad luck.

Everybody knows about the close-game failings—the Hail Mary against BYU, overtime against Miami, buzzer-beater losses against Wisconsin and Illinois—but it also suffered horrible luck on turnovers.

Based on how it played, it should have finished with a plus-0.5 turnover margin, according to Connelly's numbers. Instead the Huskers finished with a minus-12 turnover margin. Tack on nearly five points per game, and they would have finished 9-3 or 10-2.

Other teams, however, have fewer reasons to expect progression. Missouri and Arizona can't use on-field luck as a scapegoat.

Missouri can blame unique off-field distractions, while Arizona can maybe blame injuries. But for the purposes of this article, they are not prime bounce-back candidates. 

Eliminated Teams: Missouri, Arizona

 

3. The Schedule Factor 

Former SEC East Champion Will Muschamp
Former SEC East Champion Will MuschampSean Rayford/Associated Press

If Iowa and North Carolina taught us anything, it's the importance of evaluating schedules.

We can only predict so much in the offseason—especially when it's three days old—but the Big Ten West and ACC Coastal were objectively bad divisions. It looked that way 12 months ago, it looked that way five months ago and it looked that way all year.

To wit, Iowa won 12 games despite ranking No. 38 in F/+. It started 12-0 because it failed to play a single top-30 team.

North Carolina, meanwhile, made Iowa's schedule look fierce. Of its 10 wins, two came against FCS teams and eight came against teams with five or more losses. It didn't beat a single four-loss team!

We can't anoint the next UNC or Iowa by looking at schedules, but we can eliminate teams from realistic playoff contention. Certain divisions will probably struggle as much as the Big Ten West and ACC Coastal, but other divisions will never be that bad.

Here is how next year's schedule breaks down, with "Top 25 opponents" referring to Ben Kercheval's super-early B/R poll:  

Projected Top 25 Opponents
TeamTop 25 Opp.Home-AwayBounceback?
1. Nebraska31H, 2A<font color="green">✓
2. Arizona State41H, 3A<font color="red">✕
3. Kansas State51H, 4A<font color="red">✕
<font color="red">4. Washington
5. South Carolina32H, 1A<font color="green">✓
6. Auburn52H, 3A<font color="red">✕
7. Virginia Tech41H, 2A, 1N
<font color="red">8. Missouri
9. Georgia Tech42H, 2A
10. Penn State43H, 1A
<font color="red">11. Texas</strong>
<font color="red">12. Arizona
Source: Bleacher Report / FBS Schedules

And here are the opponents that yield those three red X's:

  • Arizona Stateat USC, vs. WSU, at ORE, at UW
  • Kansas State: at STAN, at OU, vs. OKST, at BU, at TCU
  • Auburn: vs. CLEM, vs. LSU, at MISS, at UGA, at ALA

Nebraska (Big Ten West), South Carolina (SEC East) and Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech (ACC Coastal) move on thanks to traditionally soft divisions and favorable home schedules.

Penn State (Big Ten East) is in a loaded division but gets three of its four best opponents—Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State—in Happy Valley. It almost got the X, but for now, let's keep it alive.

Eliminated Teams: Arizona State, Kansas State, Auburn

 

4. Stopping the Fight

Sep 26, 2015; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp (1) gestures after scoring a touchdown against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Spo
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Other crucial factors such as scheme change, returning starters and quarterback situation play a role in contending from nowhere, but let's spare those and stop the fight.

One team has led this battle from wire-to-wire, meeting every single benchmark on the list.

  • It was better than its record last season.
  • It has been a top-25 team since 2011.
  • It suffered horrible turnover luck.
  • It suffered horrible close-game luck.
  • It plays an easy schedule.

It's Nebraska!

The Huskers snuck into a bowl game at 5-7 but made the most of their good fortune and beat UCLA, 37-29. 

They lose some important pieces, especially on defense, but return a four-year starting quarterback and basically every skill player.

One of those skill players, receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, could totally change the ceiling of this outlook.

He broke out as a freshman in 2014, ranking No. 1 in the nation in punt return average, but missed the start of last season with a foot injury and the end of the season after tearing up his knee against Purdue. He's expected to play next season, although his health will be a story all summer.

Oct 4, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El (15) runs back a punt for a touchdown against the Michigan State Spartans during the 2nd half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: MSU won 27-22. Mike C
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

"You want him out there, but I want him to be healthy so I don't want to rush him," receivers coach Keith Williams told Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star. "I don't want to push it. If he's not ready to go, you just have to adjust and deal with it."

If Pierson-El returns, he'll join a loaded group of receivers alongside Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan. If ever senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, whose best days look as good as his worst days look bad, were to post a consistent season, now would be the time.  

The schedule is navigable but tricky. Oregon visits Lincoln in September, and road trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa loom large. This team will have to start games faster, finish games stronger and play games cleaner than last year.

It's unlikely, but the numbers say it's possible.

 

Brian Leigh covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BLeigh35