The college football regular season wrapped up on a high note as playoff projections and bowl matchups begin to take shape. We are onto the most wonderful time of the year, with quality conference championship games coming this weekend as the committee looks to whittle the playoff picture down to four. Before we begin to unpack each bowl game matchup starting next week, let's take a close look at our current top 25 rankings as we head into conference championship week.
PFFELO is an iterative system that updates each team’s rating after each game based on two things: how well they played against their opponent and how well they were expected to play against their opponent. The PFFELO rating system measures the former using our unique offensive, defensive and special teams grades, while the latter is determined by the PFFELO ratings leading up to the game and where the game is played.
For example, a heavy favorite playing at home is expected to outplay the visitor, so a victory would result in only a small rise in their PFFELO rating and a similarly-small decrease in the defeated team’s, but if an upset were to happen, the visiting team would see their PFFELO rating rise substantially, and the home team’s see a similarly-sized drop.
Sometimes in football, the best team does not win, and PFFELO accounts for these oddities by using our grades. Hence, there will be teams rated higher or lower in this system than their win-loss record would suggest. While adjustments are made using preseason market data, along with recruiting rankings, the majority of these numbers are derived using our grades. Since PFF began charting college football in 2014, the difference in PFFELO values alone has been able to explain over three-fourths of the variance in the closing Vegas line. Check back to profootballfocus.com for weekly college spread picks using this model (as well as other information) and check out PFF College Greenline for a full slate of against the spread and total lines based on our rating metrics.
Top 25 Rankings:
Clemson needs no introduction at this point, as it has held its own during the regular season, never dropping from the top spot in our PFFELO rankings. The team's offensive unit has held strong to the third overall ranking throughout 2019, with its defense rising two spots from a preseason ranking of fourth up to second, currently. The safety play from Tanner Muse and Isaiah Simmons has led Clemson to the best EPA allowed per pass attempt in the country. Clemson has three offensive players mentioned in our All-American team, led by Travis Etienne — whose first-team inclusion is highlighted by Clemson’s number one ranking in EPA per rush attempt. Of the Big Three, Clemson has the easiest task of surviving their conference title matchup, with Greenline giving them a 97.1% win probability this Saturday.
2. Ohio State
Ohio State survived its toughest regular-season matchup with a quality team performance against Michigan. It is reflective of how deep this team truly is that it didn’t need star-level performances from its two best players to rout one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Six Buckeyes received recognition on our All-American teams. Ohio State sits as 16.5-point favorites over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Greenline gives an 85.7% win probability, with the expectation that Ohio State is the No. 1-overall seed with a quality win against the Badgers this weekend.
No team at the top has looked as impressive as LSU after running the table against the sixth toughest strength of schedule in 2019. Joe Burrow is the runaway favorite for the Heisman Trophy after beginning the season as an afterthought in the race. Despite the toughest matchup of the top three this weekend, bettors have not backed off LSU. After opening as 3.5-point favorites, LSU definitely caught a bid, gaining the hook after moving out past touchdown favorites in some spots. Greenline gives LSU a 64.5% win probability this weekend with the expectation that even a slip up won’t keep them out of the playoff race at this point.
It is shaping up as a quarterfinal play-in game for the Georgia Bulldogs, who have to pull off the upset over LSU if they want to compete for the National Championship this year. Their defense gets all of the praise, but we have them just ninth in opponent-adjusted defensive play. This is the lowest ranking of any team outside of Oklahoma who still have playoff aspirations on the mind. A reliance on defensive play will most likely not get Georgia an upset victory this weekend. Jake Fromm will need to make throws downfield to an ever-thinning receiving unit that could be missing two of its best playmakers at least to start the game.
Alabama fell just short in another wild finish to the Iron Bowl. This offense barely missed a beat, with Mac Jones posting a 77.2 passing grade, two big-time throws and only one turnover-worthy play. Their offensive production was impressive, but two defensive touchdowns, a missed field goal and 11 total penalties were too much to overcome at the end. Alabama will be watching the playoffs from the outside for the first time since moving to a four-team bracket.
Win and maybe in for the Sooners, who need some style points to hold off a charging Utah squad for the fourth and final playoff spot. Oklahoma also needs things to break correctly in the SEC title game, as a Georgia win almost assuredly locks two SEC teams into the playoff race. Offensively, few can keep pace with the Sooners, who have gone wire to wire with the top spot in our opponent-adjusted offensive ranking. The 2019 story on the Sooners can be told from an EPA standpoint, where they rank first in EPA per pass attempt and 115th in EPA allowed per pass attempt. Entertaining games are sure to follow the Sooners wherever they end up. Greenline gives Oklahoma almost a 70% chance at winning the Big-12 title game, with numerous scenarios playing out that see them obtain the coveted fourth spot in the playoffs.
7. Notre Dame
It was back to a below-average passing grade for Ian Book, who had previously strung together three quality performances in an otherwise up-and-down 2019 campaign. The Fighting Irish still covered on Saturday thanks to a defensive touchdown with under a minute to go. The Fighting Irish defense didn’t quite live up to lofty preseason expectations, though, as we had them ranked as the top overall defensive unit in the country in the preseason. They have dropped to third in our opponent-adjusted unit ranking and are only represented by one honorable mention on the PFF All-American team.
The Badgers did exactly what they needed to do in a convincing victory over their rival Gophers. For the Big Ten title game, they have received some early week backing in the betting markets, pushing their spread from +17 down to 15.5 in spots. This is still a higher spread, at a neutral site, than they saw in their road matchup against Ohio State in Week 9. Only time will tell if they picked up on a blueprint to slow the Buckeyes in that contest. Greenline leans slightly toward Wisconsin on the spread but gives Ohio State an 85.7% win probability on Saturday.
9. Penn State
It was a less-than-impressive performance for Penn State to close out its regular season, having to scratch and claw to separate from Rutgers in the second half last Saturday. The team decided to shut down Sean Clifford in this matchup with the hope that he returns healthy for a quality bowl matchup coming at the end of December. Despite a strength of schedule that ranked in the Top 20 for all FBS teams, Penn State still hit its over preseason win total and stayed relevant in playoff discussions throughout the season. Defensively, the squad improved dramatically, jumping 12 spots from a preseason ranking of 28th to finish with the 16th best opponent-adjusted ranking in the country.
Florida can unofficially claim the title as the best team in the state after routing its in-state rival Seminoles. This is officially Kyle Trask’s team for the foreseeable future with Feleipe Franks intent to transfer announced earlier this week. It was an impressive season for the Gators despite numerous injuries, as they have stayed relevant with a top-10 ranking throughout 2019. Is that enough to squeeze into a New Year's Six bowl game is a question the committee will have to answer this selection Sunday.
Michigan failed to pull off the signature upset at home after getting roasted in pass coverage on Saturday. As a unit, they posted a 41.5 coverage grade while allowing .65 EPA per pass attempt. Their defensive struggles were highlighted on the biggest of stages, as they dropped three spots to 15th in our current opponent-adjusted defensive rankings. Shea Patterson posted a below-average passing game grade but finally played well under pressure. He was under pressure on 38% of dropbacks but had only one turnover-worthy play and a 63.2 passing grade against one of the best defenses in the country. On the season, it was his fifth best passing grade game under pressure and over twice as good as his 31.4 passing grade under pressure for the season.
The Utes have now covered eight straight games and are tied for the best against the spread record in the FBS. No wonder bettors continue to love them, as they have moved significantly after opening as field-goal favorites out to almost a touchdown spread over Oregon for the Pac-12 title. It is, unfortunately, not as simple as a ‘win and get in to the playoffs' situation for Utah as they jockey for positioning with Oklahoma this weekend. A Georgia victory could also be devastating for Utah, which will be huge LSU and Baylor fans this Saturday if it handles its own business on Friday night.
Auburn secured its signature 2019 victory in a quality team performance that highlighted the playmaking ability of a talented Auburn coverage unit. Bo Nix posted a slightly above average passing grade, but his EPA per pass attempt was a lowly -.235. Like always, there was some good with the bad, as Nix had two big-time throws and took zero sacks while under pressure on 29% of dropbacks. His two turnover-worthy plays didn’t result in any interceptions, as the Tigers got some turnover luck that helped keep them in the game long enough to pull off the upset. Auburn appears destined for a big non-New Year's Six bowl game, with a matchup against Iowa in the Outback bowl providing quality entertainment for fans who love to see punts exchanged back and forth.
Oregon looks to play spoiler in the Pac-12 title game after its slip up two weeks ago cost the team any hope it still had at a playoff berth. Bettors are piling on against the Ducks, who do not even hold the edge at quarterback in their matchup against Tyler Huntley and the Utes this Friday. Huntley has posted an elite 90.3 passing grade in 2019, with Herbert inconsistent and slightly behind at 84.9 overall. The total has dropped significantly, with the spread drastically moving away from the Ducks. Greenline still leans toward Utah at the current 6.5-point spread, with more correction seemingly possible as we move closer to Friday.
The Hawkeyes capped off their regular season on a game-winning field goal as time expired over midwest rival Nebraska. Iowa secured the over on its preseason win total despite playing the 15th most difficult schedule in the FBS this year. The Hawkeyes were well represented on our PFF All-American team, with Tristan Wirfs on the second team tackle and A.J. Espenesa and Tyler Linderbaum receiving honorable mentions. Iowa appears destined for an SEC showdown — presumably in the Outback bowl with how well the team wrapped up its regular season.
Memphis didn’t exactly run away from Cincinnati last Saturday, but it did enough to secure the opportunity to try again this Saturday. Desmond Ridder should be a full go this time around for Cincinnati, which currently sits as 9.5-point road dogs. Greenline sees little value at this current price. The Bearcats' 13th-ranked defense had little success trying to stop Memphis' eighth-ranked offense. With the only key differentiator being Ridder for Cincinnati, this game should play close to what we saw one week prior.
Baylor did not waste the opportunity to gain some style points, hanging 61 on Kansas while cruising to a 55-point victory. The team's matchup against Oklahoma this weekend has loads of playoff intrigue despite the Bears most likely still finishing on the outside looking in even with a victory. Currently, Baylor is listed as eight-point dogs, with Greenline giving it a 53.8% cover probability but only a 30.4% win probability. The expectation is that we see an influx of points, with the over 64.5 one of the best bets on the weekend.
18. Boise State
Boise State continues to battle for the crown of best Group of Five team in 2019. It may have a tough time catching the AAC winner, but a dominant performance in the Mountain West title game wouldn’t hurt. Boise State is one of the most balanced teams in the nation, posting the 25th best offensive ranking with their defense not far behind at 28th overall. The Broncos have dropped below two-touchdown favorites and now offer a buying opportunity at the current 13.5-point spread. Over 64.5 seems like a stretch, but we give Boise State a 54.4% cover probability with the expectation that they win outright 84.9% of the time.
It was a coach’s loss for Minnesota, which simply looked overmatched at points at home against Wisconsin. P.J. Fleck took full responsibility for the defeat, with his decision to punt on fourth-and-2 at the Wisconsin 35-yard line in the first quarter the clear turning point in the game. Fortune favors the brave in what can now be described as a learning opportunity and something to grow from for the Gophers, who still far exceeded expectations in a banner year for the football program.
Washington is a team we just can’t quit on, as they rise three spots in our rankings into the top 20 after running away with the apple cup. Despite grading well all year, the Huskies have underachieved in 2019, yet they still boast the fifth best defensive ranking in the country. They will be a tough out for whoever they draw in a bowl game, with Greenline most likely leaning their direction on a team we have been higher on than most throughout the 2019 season.
USC, unfortunately, stays at home after their bye, not getting the help they needed to backdoor into the Pac-12 title game. An 8-4 record for a team with a top-10 strength of schedule while losing their starting quarterback for the year is an impressive feat. USC should play in one of the biggest non-New Year's Six bowl games — especially if Utah finds a way into the College Football Playoff.
22. Texas A&M
It was not exactly the performance the Aggies were hoping for as they ran into a mack truck masked as the LSU offense. On Senior Night, Joe Burreaux cemented his Heisman case to the dismay of the Aggie faithful. Texas A&M finished with the fourth most difficult strength of schedule in the FBS. They can at least say they are battle-tested when bowl season rolls around.
23. Kansas State
The Wildcats leap back into our top 25 after their second signature victory of 2019. They are now tied for the best against the spread record in all of college football and have five victories in games where they closed as a dog on the spread. The Wildcats have been a pleasant surprise despite an up-and-down conference performance in 2019. They somehow rank well despite not having an offensive or defensive unit rank in the top 50 in our opponent-adjusted metrics.
Texas showcased its ability to beat the lesser teams of the Big-12, cementing its place in the middle of the conference pack. It will once again be a year filled with questions surrounding this defense, as Texas finishes the regular season with just the 78th ranked defense in the FBS. With an offense that ranks 11th overall, expectations will once again be sky-high in Austin for 2020.
Virginia won the right to finish as the ACC runner-up after Bryce Perkins ran all over the Virginia Tech defense during rivalry week. Virginia has found next to no backing for the ACC title game, pushing out to four-touchdown dogs to Clemson. In the ‘so your saying there's a chance' category, Greenline gives Virginia a 2.9% win probability this Saturday.