The offseason is over! SP+ is here! With the 2023 recruiting class — both traditional signings and transfers — in the books for now, and with a reasonable feel for who’s returning and who isn’t, we can take our first step toward the 2023 college football season with the initial SP+ projections.
When last we saw college football, Georgia was finishing the season as an easy No. 1. What’s changed since then?
I base SP+ projections on three primary factors, weighted by their predictiveness:
1. Returning production. The returning production numbers are based on rosters I have updated as much as possible to account for transfers and attrition. The combination of last year’s SP+ ratings and adjustments based on returning production make up about half of the projections formula.
2. Recent recruiting. This piece informs us of the caliber of a team’s potential replacements (and/or new stars) in the lineup. It is determined by the past few years of recruiting rankings in diminishing order (meaning the most recent class carries the most weight). Beginning this season, I am also incorporating transfers — both the quality and the volume — in a different way. After last season’s transfer-heavy recruiting shift, I’ve got a bit more data for how to handle that. This piece makes up about one-third of the projections formula.
3. Recent history. Using a sliver of information from previous seasons (two to four years ago) gives us a good measure of overall program health. It stands to reason that a team that has played well for one year is less likely to duplicate that effort than a team that has been good for years on end (and vice versa), right? This is a minor piece of the puzzle — only about 15% — but the projections are better with it than without.
I will update these numbers in May and August, after further transfers and roster changes have come about (and after I’ve had a bit more time to tinker with handling transfers and other factors). But for now, let’s look at what SP+ has to say about the college football landscape.
A reminder on SP+: It’s a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. It is a predictive measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football, not a résumé ranking, and, along those same lines, these projections aren’t intended to be a guess at what the AP Top 25 will look like at the end of the year. These are simply early offseason power rankings based on the information we have been able to gather to date.
Here are the full rankings, now featuring 133 teams with the additions of Jacksonville State and Sam Houston. The No. 1 team should surprise absolutely no one.
Last season, the SEC graded out as the top conference on average despite some late fades from certain teams, while the Big 12, driven both by TCU’s national title push and a really high floor, ended up a good amount ahead of the Big Ten in the No. 2 spot. How does the hierarchy start out this season?
Average SP+ rating by conference
1. SEC (16.6)
2. Big Ten (10.1)
3. Big 12 (10.0)
4. Pac-12 (7.1)
5. ACC (6.1)
6. AAC (-7.4)
7. Sun Belt (-10.1)
8. Mountain West (-13.2)
9. Conference USA (-14.8)
10. MAC (-16.6)
The Big Ten leads the nation in average returning production at the moment, while the Big 12 has the lowest average of any power conference. That pushes the Big Ten ever-so-slightly ahead in the averages.
The most noteworthy thing about these averages, however, is the extreme dichotomy between the power conferences and the Group of Five. When we finished 2022, the ACC’s average (2.6) was barely higher than that of the AAC (1.3) and closer to the Sun Belt’s (-2.9) than the Big Ten’s (9.1). But the Big 12 raided the AAC, taking three of its more steadily strong members (Cincinnati, UCF and Houston).
The raid alone would have created some separation, but the remaining AAC also ranks eighth among the 10 conferences in returning production, and the Sun Belt’s rise could take a hit this season based on it having by far the lowest returning production average. (Only South Alabama, Coastal Carolina and JMU rank better than 50th in returning production, while six of 14 teams rank in the triple digits.)
These shifts have caused both the AAC’s and Sun Belt’s averages to drop significantly, and Conference USA both losing a number of teams to the AAC and adding a pair of FCS call-ups has made an impact on that conference’s averages as well.
Here are the three teams with the highest rankings in each conference:
SEC: No. 1 Georgia, No. 4 Alabama, No. 6 Tennessee
Big Ten: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 5 Penn State
Big 12: No. 9 Texas, No. 14 Oklahoma, No. 19 TCU
Pac-12: No. 8 Oregon, No. 10 USC, No. 13 Utah
ACC: No. 11 Florida State, No. 12 Clemson, No. 28 North Carolina
AAC: No. 37 Tulane, No. 55 SMU, No. 60 UTSA
Sun Belt: No. 54 Troy, No. 65 James Madison, No. 66 South Alabama
MWC: No. 67 Fresno State, No. 68 Boise State, No. 77 Air Force
C-USA: No. 82 WKU, No. 85 Liberty, No. 90 Louisiana Tech
MAC: No. 79 Toledo, No. 91 Miami (Ohio), No. 96 Buffalo
Three interesting notes about the conference races:
The ACC begins 2023 with a new favorite! Last season’s late surge, combined with the nation’s best returning production percentage, has eased Florida State ever-so-slightly ahead of Clemson in these rankings. But the Tigers remain awfully dangerous.
The gap between the top three and everyone else in the Big Ten is massive. While Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are separated by 5.6 points, Penn State and the fourth-best team, Wisconsin, are separated by 10.1.
The top four teams in the Pac-12 (the three above, plus No. 16 Washington) are separated by only 2.9 points! And UCLA and Oregon State aren’t immensely far behind either. Early win projections — which we will discuss in the coming months’ conference previews — have the conference’s top five teams all between 6.2 and 6.9 conference wins on average. All five have projected top-15 offenses as well. This is the last iteration of a Pac-12 that features USC and UCLA, but it could go out as the most entertaining conference on the planet.
SP+ vs. conventional wisdom
I’m always excited to see which programs are projected to rise and fall from year to year, but the most intriguing piece of these projections — at least based on my Twitter mentions — comes at the top. Stats and eyeballs tend to agree most of the time … but not always. Let’s compare the rankings above to Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early 2023 Top 25 to see where the biggest disagreements lie at this point in the offseason.
Buy, buy, buy!
No. 6 Tennessee (10th in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). Who’s ready to ride the Joe Milton roller coaster one last time?? After winning the starting job at both Michigan (in 2020) and Tennessee (in 2021) thanks to the rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder, Milton ended up backing up Hendon Hooker for most of the past two seasons in Knoxville. And if he is finally able to live up to hype, Tennessee could do more than that. The Vols are replacing Hooker and star receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman but return most of the defense and plenty of big-play weapons, and SP+ is giving Josh Heupel’s squad the benefit of the doubt.
No. 9 Texas (16th in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). Here we go again. Texas seemingly gamed the computers last season, finishing seventh in both SP+ and FPI. The Longhorns’ ceiling was extremely high, but they went 2-5 in one-score games to finish just 8-5. While teams do have control over how they perform in close games, they have only so much control, and teams that were particularly good or poor in this regard tend to regress (or progress) toward the mean the next season. Combine that progression with a top-20 returning production ranking, and you’ve got a UT team with massive potential. Maybe they live up to it this time? Possibly?
No. 14 Oklahoma (unranked in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). It would be a lot more fun if I could tell you why, say, Texas Tech and Cincinnati were surge candidates and Big 12 sleepers. Instead, it’s OU and Texas. The Sooners battled through a spectacular midseason collapse in Brent Venables’ first year in charge and one-upped Texas by going an unsustainably poor 0-5 in one-score finishes. Venables signed a great recruiting class and imported as many as six potential new defensive starters via the transfer portal. If the talent infusion and Venables’ culture installation stick, the Sooners could be awfully good.
No. 17 Texas A&M (unranked in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). We’re just rolling through the list of strong-recruiting underachievers now, aren’t we? Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies were the nation’s top underachievers in 2022, responding to hype from a top-ranked recruiting class by going 5-7 and losing quite a few star recruits to the portal. But most of the starters return — A&M is seventh in returning production — and while the perpetually underachieving offense bears the burden of proof in offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino’s first season, the defense should be absolutely dynamite. That should drive at least a minor rebound.
No. 20 Florida or No. 21 UCLA (unranked in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). Both the Gators and Bruins are (A) rebuilding both at quarterback and on the offensive line and (B) pretty loaded elsewhere. It’s probably a safe bet that QB and OL issues will result in one of these two teams underachieving projections, but either could surprise if former blue-chippers (Jack Miller III or Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz for Florida, incoming five-star Dante Moore for UCLA) shine quickly behind center.
Sell, sell, sell!
No. 19 TCU (12th in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). SP+ and Schlabach don’t disagree on much overall — all of Schlabach’s top 10 teams start off 11th or better in SP+. But ranking TCU 12th was perhaps a bit too respectful to the defending national runners-up, who rank 118th in returning production and are perhaps due some bad breaks after going 6-1 in one-score games this past season. The Big 12 is loaded with similar teams and close games, and after 2021’s conference title game contestants (Baylor and Oklahoma State) both fought regression in 2022, TCU and perhaps Kansas State could battle the same thing this fall.
No. 31 Oregon State (17th in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). Jonathan Smith’s Beavers were a delightful surprise in 2022, charging to 10-3 and finishing 19th in SP+. Asking them to improve even further, however, might be tricky. They do get a potentially massive upgrade at quarterback in bringing in Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei, but a defense that came out of nowhere to rank 16th in defensive SP+ now has to replace six of the 10 players who saw 500-plus snaps, including three of five from an excellent secondary. Perhaps offensive improvement can offset defensive regression, but either way it might be difficult to hit the same high notes in 2023.
No. 35 Texas Tech (23rd in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). I’m not going to lie: I expected the Red Raiders to rank a little higher here. They rode a late four-game winning streak to an 8-5 finish and No. 32 SP+ ranking, and they return a load of super seniors, including oft-injured quarterback Tyler Shough. But as with Oregon State, the defense has holes to fill. Tech must replace by far its two most disruptive players (edge rusher Tyree Wilson and slot corner Marquis Waters), and even with these two players the Red Raiders still only ranked 82nd in defensive SP+ last season. The offense should be good, especially with Joey McGuire’s progressive fourth-down philosophy, but the defense doesn’t yet get the benefit of the doubt.
Buy? Sell? Both? Neither?
No. 11 Florida State (fourth in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). I could have put FSU on the Sell! list because, like TCU, the Seminoles are projected seven spots worse in SP+ than on Schlabach’s list. It’s the only real disagreement in Schlabach’s top 10. But the schedule hands them a massive opportunity. They are projected favorites of at least nine points in nine of 12 games, with only three relative tossups (vs. LSU in Orlando, at Clemson, at Florida). They will only need a break or two to live up to top-five(ish) hype, even if SP+ still has trust issues because of the Noles’ iffy overall recent history.