As the NFL Draft took center stage last week, one prominent shop opened up future numbers on the 2021 college football season.
DraftKings has taken the first stab at releasing numbers for division and conference odds — a bold move in the wake of the COVID-19 plagued 2020, where the term “super senior” will become the biggest phrase this fall.
In order to properly handicap conference and division odds, it is imperative to start with power ratings, adjustments, mapping the 2021 schedule, creating win totals and using a bit of math to determine conference win probabilities.
TARP is the Action Network’s creation of returning production along with the transfer activity on the portal. The rosters are ever-changing between fifth-year seniors and immediate eligibility for graduate transfers.
Up until kickoff, there will be burning questions about the strength of each college football team in the wake of the pandemic. How does an investor look at an Old Dominion team that opted out of the 2020 season? Should returning production adopt stats from previous seasons, specifically in the case of McKenzie Milton last throwing a pass in November of 2018?
— FSU Football (@FSUFootball) April 10, 2021
Win totals are completely dependent on a team’s head-to-head win probability for their schedule. For instance, Kansas has a 77% chance to beat South Dakota. It’s all downhill from there for the Jayhawks to try and reach a projected 1.7 win total.
The next step revolves around looking at your win percentages with respect to your conference. Taking the win total for South Florida gives no indication of its ability to win the American with an out-of-conference slate that includes Florida, BYU and NC State. Spoiler alert, the Bulls have a minimal shot to win the conference with a projection of 1.22 in AAC play.
Once a win total is determined against the conference, it is important to calculate the probability of winning the division first. To do this, a cumulative Poisson distribution is needed to simulate the probability of a team finishing anywhere between no losses to no wins. Once we define the mean as the average rate of success in terms of the conference win total, use the number of conference games as a Poisson random variable.
These equations lead us to the conclusions we need, from Iowa State having a 32% chance to sweep the Big 12 to UTEP having just 2% chance to finish 6-2 in Conference USA. With all the math in mind, here is a look at DraftKings’ odds versus the Poisson distribution of projected wins converted to American odds.
Just as the sun rises in the East, Ohio State and Wisconsin have the best odds of meeting each other in the Big Ten Championship game. The difference is the odds are ripe for buying at the current numbers, as the division and conference odds should both be on the move this summer.
There are questions around the Buckeyes but none that are enough to back off a wager this early in the season. The new 4-2-5 defensive scheme is an attempt to create a linebacker/safety hybrid called a “Bullet.” In high-level terms, Kerry Coombs is trying to create his own version of Isaiah Simmons to float no matter if man or zone is the call.
Offensively, there will be plenty of content looking to fade the Buckeyes for the sake of having one of the lowest numbers in returning production. I would like to remind any reader that this is Ohio State and returning production does not matter.
Phil Steele’s 2016 preview had the Buckeyes at six returning starters and that squad went to the College Football Playoff. After watching the spring game, Ohio State will be just fine being led by CJ Stroud.
The Buckeyes have the benefit of the easiest schedule of all the teams in the East, avoiding Wisconsin and getting Penn State at home. The Nittany Lions have murderers’ row with games scheduled at Wisconsin, Iowa and in Columbus. Ohio State is heavily undervalued in the current division and conference odds.
As for the Badgers, having similar odds to winning the division as Iowa makes no sense. Both Action Network and SP+ make the Oct. 30 game of the year number between -3 to -5 in favor of Wisconsin. The cross-division schedule was unkind to the Hawkeyes. Both teams play Penn State, but Iowa gets Indiana and an improved Maryland from the East. The Badgers pulled Rutgers and host Michigan.
Our Poisson distribution probability gives the Badgers a 45% chance to finish 8-1 in conference, while the Hawkeyes are at 19% to lose just one Big Ten game. That is a massive difference and makes the Wisconsin division a buy, especially if Graham Mertz returns to form.
There is plenty of value from a mathematical perspective on taking teams not named Alabama in the SEC West. The issue is identifying two elements in a candidate that can actually defeat Alabama and finish the conference slate at 7-1 or better.
Ole Miss is going to get plenty of attention for having the highest returning production of the group while avoiding Georgia and Florida on the schedule.
The Rebels have an 8% chance to finish with just a single SEC loss on a schedule that draws Vanderbilt and Tennessee from the East. There are plenty of hurdles in backing a longshot number on Ole Miss.
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) April 27, 2021
One team that is in complete contrast to Ole Miss when it comes to defense is Georgia. The Bulldogs have the most advantageous schedule of anyone in the league as Alabama rolls off and road trips are limited just to Vanderbilt, Auburn and Tennessee.
The defense does lose contributors, but Georgia is a recruiting machine with plenty of talent in the pipeline. The bigger question is whether or not offensive coordinator Todd Monken is going to go more pass in standard downs.
JT Daniels slinging it ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/kyTeTD3G5J
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) April 17, 2021
Adonai Mitchell is just one of the targets in a loaded stable of receivers for JT Daniels this fall.
The Poisson distribution gives Georgia a 45% chance to finish SEC play with one loss, far more than Florida at 30%. Not only do the Gators play Alabama, but they are also looking to replace an entire offense.
Laying juice is no fun in April, but there’s plenty of value in the Bulldogs to win the East at -250 while taking the conference down to +210.
Without using a shred of mathematics, anyone can see the Clemson number is completely overpriced.
Assume the Tigers are -7000 on the moneyline in eight straight games. The rollover moneyline would fetch -900.
Our Action Network conference projection is for Clemson to win 7.55 games in ACC play. The Poisson distribution for the Tigers model provides a 48% chance this team sweeps the schedule. If Clemson played Duke for nine straight games, the price would be justified, making the Tigers’ ACC futures a pass.
The one area of interest in the Atlantic Division is Louisville.
Scott Satterfield penned a letter to season ticket holders. pic.twitter.com/EvWbTY1fNz
— Nick Coffey (@TheCardConnect) December 10, 2020
Head coach Scott Satterfield has Cardinals fans angry after interviewing for the South Carolina job. Despite the cover-up and apology, Louisville has yet another head coach who is great on the field but terrible at public relations.
Satterfield is locked in for 2021, and the transfer portal has been on fire. Louisville is projected to be a favorite in 7-of-8 ACC games, making this number worth review.
If Satterfield wishes to beat Clemson, it will take this large group of transfers and plenty of sugar huddling against a Clemson defense that returns 92% of production.
I will pass on a Louisville number that is inflated, but Miami is the team from the Coastal Division that deserves attention.
The Tar Heels and Hurricanes are projected to have the exact same number of wins in ACC play with the difference being the North Carolina home-field advantage on Oct. 16.
That is a prime spot for Miami, which comes off a bye week versus a North Carolina team fresh off Florida State. Manny Diaz is well aware of team focus with bye weeks and scored over 40 points in those situations against NC State and Duke last season.
With North Carolina and Miami separated by only home-field advantage, the Hurricanes are a buy for the division down to +130.
The chatter in preseason college football is going to be all Iowa State.
There is plenty to rave about from a top-25 rank in TARP, winning a New Year’s Six Bowl to posting the most wins in program history. There are still issues that linger when laying futures on the Cyclones like never beating Kirk Ferentz, losing to Louisiana, beating Drake football by a field goal or going to three overtimes with Northern Iowa.
The good news for Iowa State is that the beef of its schedule is in November.
Duggan returns with 92% of the offense intact and a much more experienced offensive line. After the Frogs’ spring scrimmage, Patterson was optimistic that his team could become much more explosive in 2021.
Advice to Big 12 Teams: you're losing this footrace every time. pic.twitter.com/tfHxIdAPMA
— parker (@statsowar) April 22, 2021
The TCU Poisson distribution has the Frogs winning six conference games 45% of the time.
A coin-toss win and a revenge victory over Iowa State could very well place Patterson in the Big 12 Championship, where DraftKings lists TCU generously at +900.
Welcome to the conference that returns the most experience on the offensive side of the ball. If there was not reason enough to bet #Pac12AfterDark overs, more than half of the teams in this conference are in the top 15 for returning offense and transfer portal experience.
One team that fails to meet that criteria is Oregon, spearheaded by the transfer of Tyler Shough to Texas Tech. Graduate transfer Anthony Brown returns to compete with three freshmen for the starting quarterback job. The bigger questions for the Ducks may be on the defensive side of the ball.
— Max Torres (@mtorressports) April 9, 2021
Former Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter takes over for Andy Avalos, who moved on to be the head coach of Boise State. Avalos will be missed with his shifting 3-3-5 defense that led to consistent high marks in Havoc rate.
The opposite may be true for DeRuyter, who relies on 3-4 defenses and is more concerned about red-zone defense than third-down stops. As the former head coach at Fresno State, DeRuyter posted Havoc rates outside the top 100 his final two years. Cal’s defense is known for being stingy with the points but moved from 10th to 93rd in Havoc rate from 2017 to 2019.
Our Poisson distribution favors Washington to win the North, giving the Huskies a 60% chance to finish with at least seven wins in conference this season. Head coach Jimmy Lake will get his toughest opponents at home when Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State all visit Husky Stadium.
The South division is all about value on Utah.
After offseason changes were made to the rankings, not much distinguishes the USC and Utah number with Arizona State and UCLA just behind. The Utes got a jolt of experience with the transfer of former Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, who shined at the spring game.
WE SEE YOU DEVAUGHN VELE. #GoUtes
— Utah Athletics (@utahathletics) April 17, 2021
Head coach Kyle Whittingham returns over 90% of a defense that was top-15 in defensive Havoc and second in the nation in defending the explosive pass.
Arizona State is in a similar boat with the number of returning players in the back seven, but the Sun Devils are properly priced.
Utah has a seven-win probability of 60% and a 45% chance of racking up just one loss. Backing Utah for the Pac-12 is good down to +700, while betting it to win the South Division has value through +250.