In Brian Kelly’s 9th season the Fighting Irish become the 10th college program to earn a bid to the playoffs joining Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan State, Georgia, Washington, and Florida State. So now, Notre Dame has joined an exclusive club.
My first thought after surveying the landscape with 26 days remaining until the semi-finals kickoff was to try and put some historical context surrounding the teams we’ll see on the field soon. So, I decided to take a look at past S&P+ ratings in the recent past.
Full disclosure, this doesn’t go back that far. I really wish the S&P+ ratings began with the 1998 season because we’d have a clean break from the last option champion (Nebraska) and a cut-off that would make more sense with the game we see today.
Top 10 S&P+ Rated Teams (2005-Present)
Here are several thoughts about this table, the upcoming semi’s, and a couple other topics.
As you’d expect, these teams have gone (pending results for 2 teams!) 128-8 in their respective seasons. That’s kind of good. What’s maybe more interesting is that it includes 4 teams that lost in the National Championship Game, including the top 2 teams on the list. The 2016 Alabama squad will forever regret not winning it all. They beat 5 ranked teams but not the 6th they faced. Curiously, the Tide were the best defense in the country backed by a true freshman quarterback–shades of this year’s Clemson team. In that title game, Deshaun Watson passed for 420 yards on 56 attempts, we should probably get comfortable with the idea that Ian Book will have to use his arm a whole lot on December 29th if the Irish are to win.
A playoff for the 2008 season would’ve been epic as 3 teams from that campaign feature in the Top 10 ratings. That season definitely needs its own 30 for 30 documentary. Oklahoma lost to Texas as No. 1 but would reclaim the top spot after crushing Missouri in the Big 12 title game. Florida dropped a game to unranked Ole Miss (cue the Tebow post-game “promise” speech) and moved up to No. 2 after toppling previously undefeated Alabama in the SEC title game. USC stumbled early at Oregon State and never climbed higher than 5th where they stood in the final BCS rankings! What do you do with one-loss OU, Florida, Texas, Alabama, and USC plus Utah (and Boise) were unbeaten as the Utes took out Alabama in their bowl game. Penn State and Texas Tech were also 1-loss teams and were mere afterthoughts. People are complaining now about this 2018 season but a possibly great USC team not even making the hypothetical playoffs in 2008 would’ve been something.
It’ll probably take the playoffs to appreciate things more fully but both Alabama and Clemson are perhaps severely underrated this year from a historical standpoint. The Tide especially–whether it’s pure boredom of seeing them so much in the spotlight or the suddenly competitive game against Georgia–have gone from “best team ever” to maybe not in the same discussion as some of their other great teams like 2012. Well, I think it’s still very much in play this is Saban’s best team overall. They are giving up 5 more points per game than 2012 but scoring 10 more points–and that’s with Tua missing a whole lot of action. Clemson is currently a full point higher in rating right now than their 2016 title-winning team. When you factor in they may not have a collection of defensive linemen together like this ever again, it’s possible Dabo has his best team if you can convince yourself Trevor Lawrence has freshman balls of steel.
Obviously, the Fighting Irish are big underdogs in this whole thing. But, there is hope! During the S&P+ era the average national title winner carried a 25.7 rating or roughly what the 2013 Florida State team looked like. Every program was at least a 22.0 rating with one exception: 2017 Alabama. The Tide finished at 20.0 last year I think it’s fair to say because their offense under Jalen Hurts really bogged down over the course of the year. Notre Dame’s current rating is 20.6 and would be a touch higher if Ian Book games are projected over the whole season.
Let’s not sleep on the Sooners, either. We might have to wait decades for a worse defense to make a 4-team playoff and by then the tournament surely will be expanded. However, offense > defense and if you’re going to be strong on one side of the ball well Oklahoma’s offense is downright scary. Here are the top-rated offenses over the past 5 seasons according to S&P:
Oklahoma 2018 (52.2)
Oklahoma 2017 (47.2)
Oklahoma 2016 (46.8)
Alabama 2018 (46.4)
Texas Tech 2015 (45.5)
Ohio State 2014 (45.5)
Oregon 2014 (45.0)
What do they put in the water in Norman? That’s a heck of a resume-builder for Lincoln Riley. It’s a bit frightening to see Alabama of today on this list although their 8th defensive rating and their recent game against the Dawgs do point out that the Tide have more cracks in their defensive armor than usual. That’s great news for Oklahoma! They are head and shoulders above the best offenses in recent seasons and if you’re going to beat Alabama surely it will be by out-scoring them in a race to the finish.
The conference title week seems to have swung the pendulum in favor of Kyler Murray winning the Heisman and to me that’s probably the correct choice. Tua’s season was memorable for its efficiency but due to the Crimson Tide’s weaker-than-normal schedule it lacked any signature moments and he completely missed that opportunity against Georgia by first playing poorly, being injured and continuing to play poorly, then finally exiting with an ankle injury. Jalen Hurts coming in and immediately sparking the offense to a comeback win isn’t a good look no matter how you slice it.
Tua really doesn’t have the raw stats that would justify the award, although sitting out so many 4th quarter blowouts is a valid rebuttal. I’m just saying, years down the road looking back at his numbers it would be a little bit of a head scratcher. Still, the Tide quarterback is sitting at 3,543 yards of total offense and the last several Heisman winners at the position were all around 5,000 yards or a little over that mark. Murray had to carry so much more of the load for Oklahoma and will break the 5,000-yard mark after a series or two against Alabama. In fact, he’s already surpassed Baker Mayfield’s 2017 in terms of yardage and touchdowns with only one more interception. It could be a very close vote but the Heisman should be Kyler Murray’s. You never know how many dumb voters made up their mind weeks ago, though.