The Computers Are High on Penn State Football with 4 Games Played

By Andrew Rubin on October 1, 2019 at 9:30 am
Sep 27, 2019; College Park, MD, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrates with Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) after scoring a touchdown against the Maryland Terrapins in the first quarter at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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With a third of the regular season in the books for Penn State, the computers are awfully high on coach James Franklin’s squad.

Heading into Saturday’s homecoming tilt with Purdue, the Nittany Lions are ranked seventh in SP+ and eighth in ESPN's FPI. 

Both SP+ and FPI have the Nittany Lions favored in every remaining game except for the late November showdown in Columbus with Ryan Day’s Ohio State. Currently FPI’s simulations project the Nittany Lions finishing the season with 10.1 wins, while SP+ has 10 wins as the most likely result with that happening 33.8% of the time. 

Here is how both formulas see the rest of the season playing out with with percentages from FPI listed and then SP+

TEAM FPI SP+
Purdue 96.8% 93.6%
Iowa 65.7% 61.6%
Michigan 77.4% 69.1%
Michigan State 60.2% 61.%
Minnesota 84.1% 75.2%
Indiana 92.3% 81.3%
Ohio State 22.2% 28.8%
Rutgers 99% 98.3%

While many of the readers of this blog are probably familiar with SP+ and FPI, I’ll give a quick background for those that aren’t.

Bill Connelly of ESPN, who developed SP+, has a quick explainer of what the formula is.

“What is SP+? In a single sentence, it's a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. I created the system at Football Outsiders in 2008, and as my experience with both college football and its stats has grown, I have made quite a few tweaks to the system.

SP+ is intended to be predictive and forward-facing. That is important to remember. It is not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or particularly brave scheduling -- no good predictive system is. It is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football. If you're lucky or unimpressive in a win, your rating will probably fall. If you're strong and unlucky in a loss, it will probably rise.”

FPI is not exactly the same system, but it does come up with similar results most of the time, as you can see is the case right now for the Nittany Lions. But here is an explainer of the system:

“The Football Power Index (FPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. FPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Projected results are based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season using FPI, results to date, and the remaining schedule. Ratings and projections update daily.”

While some haven't bought into using computers for their own analysis, here is why I use it. Rightfully so, college football has a sample size problem.

Each year we only get 12 chances to evaluate each team in a regular season game, compared to 16 in the NFL, 82 in the NHL or NBA, and 162 in the MLB. Then most people throwaway give or take half of those 12 games from an evaluation standpoint due to the dramatic talent differences between programs. With 130 FBS programs many of the teams we’re trying to compare don’t even have a common opponent.

Computers attempt to give meaning to all 12 games and give someone a sense of how bad should Penn State really have beaten Rutgers or that Group of Five opponent on the schedule. 

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