Predicting the football season with preseason award watchlists

App State and UNC appear to be the class of the state

NC State senior wide receiver Emeka Emezie runs a drill during the first day of the Wolfpack’s fall football camp in preparation for the 2020 season. (Photo courtesy of NC State Athletics)

There’s still plenty of uncertainty about the college football season, but the sport is still proceeding as if it will start sometime in the next month.

Players are working out, schedules are being set, and the college football awards released their annual preseason watchlists, honoring everything from the best defensive player to the top placekicker.

A total of 15 watchlists were released. As in previous years, we assumed that the watchlists serve as a proxy for the talent level of each team. After all, the more watchlist players a team has, the better it should be.

Simply by comparing the number of watchlisted players two teams have, we should be able to get an idea of which roster has more talent, and, therefore, who will win.

It’s a simple model, but — for the most part — it’s an accurate one. Here are some of its better predictions from last season for the North Carolina teams’ regular season records. (Note: If two teams had the same number of watchlisters, the game was considered a “toss-up” and is listed in the predicted record as a tie. So Wake’s 7-4-1 predicted record means that one game was a toss‑up)

                             Predicted        Actual
Team                   record           record
App State                12-0                   11-1
Wake Forest           7-4-1                  8-4
Duke                        5-6-1                  5-7
Charlotte                6-4-2                  7-5
NC State                 2-8-2                  4-8
East Carolina           3-9                    4-8

In fact, every local team finished within one game of its predicted record, except for one:


                             Predicted       Actual
Team                   record           record
North Carolina         2-10                 6-6

Obviously, the model, like much of the college football’s watching public, didn’t see Mack Brown’s rebuild of the Carolina program proceeding quite as quickly as it did.

Across the ACC, we saw similar results, with many teams finishing very close to their projections:

                           Predicted        Actual
Team                   record           record
Clemson                  12-0                   12-0
Boston Coll.           7-4-1                    6-6
FSU                          6-5-1                   6-6
Virginia                   10-2                     9-3
Georgia Tech         5-5-2                    3-9

With a few embarrassing outliers:

                               Predicted        Actual
Team                     record           record
Syracuse                     11-1                    5-7
Louisville                   1-10                   7-5
Miami                         11-1                   6-6
Pitt                              4-7-1                 7-5
Virginia Tech            4-7-1                 8-4

So, since the watchlists give us some relatively reliable information about the upcoming season, what do they say for 2020?

Well, schedules are still up in the air. We know who each of the ACC teams is playing in the conference, but each team’s nonconference opponent is still unknown. And we’re still not sure what ECU, Charlotte or App State’s schedules will look like.

So we did the best we could. For the non-ACC teams, we went with their original schedules, throwing out opponents from the SEC, Pac-12 or Big Ten, who have all said they’re not playing nonconference games.

With all of that said, it’s looking like the state will have three bowl teams and a couple of near-misses.

Team               Watchlisters        Record
App State                      11                       12-0
North Carolina            11                      8-2-1
Charlotte                       4                      6-2-3
East Carolina                4                        5-6
Duke                               8                      5-4-2

Then there are the other two home state teams:

Team               Watchlisters        Record
Wake Forest                  8                      4-4-3
NC State                         4                       1-10

For the ACC teams, we estimated their nonconference opponent based on their currently scheduled nonconference slate. For instance, Duke has more watchlisters than all three of their remaining nonconference foes: Charlotte, Elon and Middle Tennessee. So we gave them a win in their nonconference game. UNC had the edge over two of its three potential foes (UConn and James Madison, but not UCF), so the Tar Heels got a win as well.

Turning our attention to the ACC, here’s a look at how the league measures up in terms of the number of watchlisters:

Team                            Watchlisters
Clemson                                      14
Notre Dame                                13
Pitt                                                12
Virginia Tech                              12
North Carolina                           11
Florida State                               11
Duke                                              8
Wake Forest                                 8
Louisville                                      8
Boston College                             8
Miami                                            8
Syracuse                                        5
Georgia Tech                                5
Virginia                                         5
NC State                                        4

Pitt and Virginia Tech feature more talent than many preseason predictions seemed to credit them for. Meanwhile, it looks like a long year for last season’s Coastal Division champion, Virginia.

In a quirk of the new ACC schedule, Clemson doesn’t play any of the Research Triangle teams, a fact that explains the league’s strength of schedule ratings (each team’s rating is the sum of the watchlist players on each of its opponents’ rosters)

                                        Strength of
Team                               schedule
Boston College                        93
Virginia                                    92
Syracuse                                   91
Georgia Tech                           91
Miami                                       90
Notre Dame                            90
Wake Forest                            88
Florida State                           88
Pitt                                            88
Clemson                                   87
Louisville                                 87
Virginia Tech                          86
NC State                                  85
Duke                                         82
North Carolina                       82

The other in-state FBS teams have much easier slates than the ACC teams. Here’s the strength of schedules for ECU, Charlotte and App.

                                        Strength of
Team                               schedule
East Carolina                            51
App State                                  38
Charlotte                                   33

So let’s take a look at how this ACC season should shake out. Here’s a look at each team’s projected 10-game conference record. Remember, there are no divisions this season, so it’s just a 15-team list.

Projected ACC Standings

Team                      ACC Record
Clemson                           10-0
Notre Dame                     9-1
Virginia Tech                 8-1-1
UNC                                 7-2-1
Pitt                                   7-2-1
Florida State                  6-3-1
Duke                                4-4-2
Wake Forest                   3-4-3
Louisville                        3-4-3
Boston College              3-5-2
Miami                             3-5-2
Syracuse                         1-8-1
Georgia Tech                 1-8-1
Virginia                            1-9
NC State                         0-10

The two teams with the best record would go to the ACC Championship Game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. That would be Clemson and Notre Dame (although Virginia Tech has a shot at tying them depending on how its toss-up game goes).

UNC and Pitt also appear to be in the league’s top tier, followed by FSU and Duke. In all, seven of the league’s 15 teams are projected to have .500-or-better records.

Of course, that’s just what the model says. As the old saying goes, “That’s why they (hopefully) play the games.”