There is a whole sub-culture around the college football media dedicated to taking opinions, framing them as definitive statements, and then letting opposing fanbases fight it out in the comments.
“Alabama would beat every Big Ten team by 30 points!”
“Ohio State would be lucky to go 5-3 in the SEC West!”
“Oklahoma would score 50 on the Buckeyes this year!”
“Rutgers has a football team!”
Some of these statements could be true, but we’ll never know because no one will ever see them happen to know one way or another.
The conversation around not only “who’s No. 1?” but also the potential College Football Playoff field turns the DERP up to 11 all too frequently.
No, the SEC is not going to get four teams into the Playoff field.
No, it’s almost certainly not going to get three, either.
And there’s a decent chance it won’t even get two teams in.
The question of which team is the best in the nation is a little more nuanced, but also more easily answerable right now.
If you squint hard enough, more than a half-dozen teams can stake some kind of claim to that title at the moment.
Wisconsin just finished running off a 158-0 total point differential in non-conference play, and was up 35-0 on Michigan before garbage time.
LSU might have the most impressive true road win of the year, at No. 9 Texas.
Florida just beat Auburn by 11.
Georgia has a home win over Notre Dame.
Penn State is 5-0, with an average margin of victory just north of 40 points per game.
Alabama is Alabama.
Clemson is Clemson.
But it’s just as easy to poke holes in their cases. Florida barely beat lousy Miami and Kentucky teams. Clemson narrowly escaped against a middling North Carolina.
Wisconsin looked like crap against Northwestern.
Alabama’s best win so far is Duke, who just lost to Pitt.
Pitt might be Penn State’s best win to date.
Clemson looks like it’s sleepwalking, 2015 Buckeye-style.
Outside of Texas, LSU’s schedule has been terrible. Ditto for Georgia and their non-Notre Dame opponents.
Making or breaking the case for any of these teams is a mostly subjective exercise until they get into the meat of their conference schedules.
But there are more objective ways to look at things, and a lot of those point to the same thing: Ohio State has been the best football team in the nation so far. And it hasn’t really been all that close.
Warning: There will be some math-type substance below. We’ll keep it as simple as possible. But if you’re having trouble following anything, just read the paragraph above this one.
Let’s start with SP+, which is a tempo-free, opponent-adjusted measure of teams. The short version is that each team earns points for its offensive, defensive, and special teams performances. If you subtract the difference between any two teams, you’ll get the expected margin of victory in any given game.
This week, Alabama is No. 1 at 32.5 points. The Buckeyes are No. 2 at 32.4. No one else is within four points of the Buckeyes.
But right now, 40 percent of the SP+ ratings are based on preseason projections. That number starts at 100 percent before the season (duh) and then drops by 10 percent each week. After week 10, it’s solely on-field production.
Alabama had an overwhelming lead in the preseason rankings (35.3, compared to OSU’s 23.6). That means Ohio State has made up close to 12 points on the Tide overall during the course of the season, even with just 60 percent of its on-field performance counting toward the new numbers.
Just to put things in perspective, 12 points is a lot in this system. Right now, there’s a little less than 12 points of difference between Clemson and Indiana in the rankings. Just 60 percent of Ohio State’s on-field performance has been enough to close that gap on the Tide in just the first six weeks of the season.
An offshoot of SP+ is Resume Rankings. Those compare how you have fared against your schedule so far, compared to how the average top-5 team would have done.
The main point is to adjust for the quality of competition a team has faced. You can find a chart below with the current top-10.
Ohio State has been 11.5 points per game better than the average top-5 team against their schedule to date.
Alabama isn’t even half as good at 5.6 points. Only Oklahoma (1.8 points) is even within 10 points of the Buckeyes at this point.
Not posting it in full or anything yet, but here's the current top 10 in Résumé SP+ (in which I compare how you've done against your schedule to how the average top-5 team would do). pic.twitter.com/WMBP6nk1hs
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) October 6, 2019
When you think about it, it makes sense. The Buckeyes have played several good opponents and utterly destroyed them all.
Cincinnati absolutely crushed a decent Marshall team, 52-14, and just beat UCF, 27-24. Their 10-point home win over UCLA is one of their least-impressive games. You probably remember how their trip to Columbus went.
Michigan State has been decent so far, with a 31-10 road win at Northwestern, a win over Indiana, and a narrow loss to Arizona State. But they, too, got throttled by the Buckeyes.
Nebraska hasn’t been anything remarkable this year, but are 4-1 against everyone except OSU. Their only loss came in overtime against Colorado. But Ohio State completely demolished them in Lincoln.
There is a knee-jerk “y’all ain’t played nobody” responder lurking somewhere in the comments below, so let’s just get this out of the way. Ohio State’s schedule hasn’t just been the toughest of any FBS unbeaten so far this year, it’s been the toughest by a lot. The tweet below is from a Sports Information Director at Clemson.
Strength of schedules (Sagarin) for undefeated FBS schools:
Ohio St. – 19
Clemson – 35
Alabama – 49
Oklahoma – 61
Florida – 66
Wisconsin – 72
SMU – 76
LSU – 81
Minnesota – 84
Penn St. – 86
Georgia – 87
Wake Forest – 89
Boise St. – 111
Baylor – 120
Memphis – 123
App. St. – 143
— Brian Hennessy (@Brian_ClemsonAC) October 6, 2019
This type of analysis generally inspires a lot of responses that boil down to “tell your numbers to shut up.”
If you’re familiar with the state education rankings in the heart of SEC country, the explicit rejection of math likely isn’t a big surprise.
But the really remarkable part of the Buckeyes’ hot start this year is that they might actually be better than they’ve shown so far.
They have gone into halftime with three-score margins in all six of their games. The second halves of basically every game this season have consisted almost entirely of garbage time. And there’s pretty solid reason to think that Ryan Day and his staff have taken their feet off the gas pedal long before the final gun.
The tweet below is from R.J. Bell, a veteran of the sports gambling industry.
⤴️ Ohio St still UNDERRATED???
6-0 SU (by 40.5 ppg) beating spread by 104 pts
CFB teams winning by similar margins earn ~40% of final margin in 2nd Half. OSU only 29% in 2H. If OSU ran it up even an avg amount, +7 more margin each gm. +42 on season (ATSm of +104 becomes +146!)
— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) October 7, 2019
To translate: Ohio State is 6-0, winning those games by an average of 40.5 points per game. They have also beaten the point spread by 104 points in their first six games.
Normally, a team beating the spread by that much scores 40 percent of its points in the second half. OSU is only scoring 29 percent then. That means it’s quite possible that they’re calling off the dogs more than most teams in their position.
If the Buckeyes kept the hammer down even as much as the average team that’s this good, they would be winning by an average of 7 more points per game.
The standard caveat goes here: There’s still a lot of football left to play. The Buckeyes are still six wins away from earning a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, seven away from earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, and nine wins away from a perfect 15-0 national championship season.
But so far, so good for Ryan Day and his team.
Ohio State hasn’t just been the best team in the nation so far this year, they’ve been the best team in the nation by a LOT.
And there’s plenty of reason to think they could be even better than they’ve shown.