Early takeaways from the SP+ Preseason Rankings Release

This week Bill Connelly released his 2021 returning production rankings & college football preseason SP+ rankings over at ESPN+. Bill’s rankings are always a good resource for any college football handicapper or fan and it gives us something fun to talk about during the off-season.

I heard Bill mention on the CBS Cover 3 College Football podcast that the production was harder than usual to put together because of the oddness of the 2020 season. For example, teams in the Pac 12 or MAC played fewer than five games, while teams in other conferences played close to a full season. As a result, he had to make adjustments to make it work. In any event, it gives us some good data to look at, so let’s dive in to some takeaways!

Returning Production Percentages are higher than usual

Overall production percentages are up across the board. You get all the way to the 50th highest returning production team and they are still returning close to 75% of their production. This is a result of the NCAA granting everyone a free year of eligibility in 2020 because of the Covid-19 season. Many seniors took the NCAA up on their offer and decided to come back for one more season where they can have a more traditional college football experience. Keep this is in mind when you are handicapping early in the season. You may see preseason publications touting how many “returning starters” a team has but make sure you dig a little deeper. It’s possible the team on the other side of the ball will have just as many starters returning. Returning starters and production will be higher than usual for most teams. Don’t fall for a lazy preview article.

Bill’s Model Likes the Pac-12

It’s no secret that the Pac-12 has been down in recent years. They haven’t had a team in the College Football playoff since Washington got crushed by Alabama in 2017 and haven’t had a team in the Championship game since Oregon in 2015. That being said, we may see some improved depth in the conference this year as Bill’s model has 5 Pac-12 teams in his preseason Top 20 and a sixth team, just outside the top 20.

  • #5 Oregon (#9 in returning production)
  • #11 Washington (#15 in returning production)
  • #17 USC (#67 in returning production)
  • #18 Arizona State (#11 in returning production)
  • #19 Utah (#8 in returning production)
  • #21 UCLA (#2 in returning production)

As you can see, it seems like teams in that conference are returning close to everyone (8 schools in the Top 15 in returning production). It remains to be seen if there is a legitimate playoff contender in the bunch, but the overall quality of the conference should be higher this year.

How Legit is Iowa State?

The Cylcones seem to be catching on as everyone’s darling (for the record: I was a Cyclone fan before it was cool). They are coming off a 9-3 season which included a Fiesta Bowl win over Oregon. They return just about everyone including QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall, and TE Charlie Kolar and just extended HC Matt Campbell through 2028. They come in at #7 in Connelly’s preseason rankings and #4 in his returning production rankings. They will most likely be a preseason Top 10 team and I hope they are able to live up to the hype. Sometimes it is hard for a perennial “under the radar” type team to adjust from being the hunter to the hunted.

Fun Fact about Iowa State: Look out for the season opener. Last year they opened the season with a 31-14 loss at home against Louisiana and in 2019 they needed OT to beat FCS Northern Iowa 29-26. Both years they had good teams but for whatever reason they’ve gotten out of the gates really slow in week one. They open up against Northern Iowa again in 2021. I’m sure they’ll be laying a big number and the underdog might be worth a look in that one.

Checking in our Missouri Lean

Missouri comes in at #58 in the SP+ preseason rankings. I’m okay with this as it could lead to us getting a better line on their season win total than we would have gotten if the model liked them more. As I mentioned in my earlier post, what we like about Missouri is the way the schedule breaks for them and the anticipated jump that 2nd year QB Connor Bazelak and HC Eli Drinkwitz will make. These things won’t really show up in Connelly’s model.

Let’s take a look at Missouri’s schedule, where each team lands in the SP+ rankings, and how I think Vegas will project that game for Missouri.

vs. Central Michigan #82: W
@ Kentucky #57: L
vs. SE Missouri State NR: W
@ Boston College #62: W/L
vs. Tennessee #49: W/L
vs. North Texas #106: W
vs. Texas A&M: #13: L
@ Vanderbilt #108: W
@ Georgia #6: L
vs. South Carolina #90: W
vs. Florida #12: L
@ Arkansas #41: L (Game played in Little Rock)

If I grade the 2 tossups (@ BC and vs Tennessee) as 1-1, that brings the record to 6-6 about exactly where I thought it might be. I would definitely like an over 6 bet (or even 6.5 at + money) as I took see them winning both the tossups and also flipping that Arkansas and/or Kentucky game.

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