Predicting the college football season with preseason watch lists

NC State, Wake Forest, App expected to lead North Carolina bowl contingent

Quarterback Chase Brice and running back Nate Noel power an Appalachian State offense that should again help the Mountaineers battle for the Sun Belt Conference title. (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

Last year, Wake Forest shocked the college football world by storming to an 11-3 record. At 7-1 in ACC play, the Demon Deacons dethroned Clemson and took the ACC Atlantic Division crown.

It was a miracle season no one saw coming — unless, of course, they read our watch list preview for the 2021 season last August.

For several years, the North State Journal has followed a simple, if counterintuitive, rule for predicting college football: If you want to know which team is going to win a given game, check the preseason award watch lists.

Each July, the organizations that vote on college football’s end-of-season awards — honoring everything from top defensive player to best punter — release lists of several dozen players to watch. Taken as a whole, the 16 lists of more than 300 total players represent a fairly accurate preseason picture of which schools have the most talent on their rosters.

For a given game, looking at how many watch-listers each team can boast should give a good read on which team is expected to have more talent — and is thus more likely to win.

Based on comparing the number of watch-listers with their opponents, the Demon Deacons were predicted to go 9-3 in the regular season, including 6-2 in ACC play, just one game off of what Wake actually achieved.

That wasn’t the only in-state team that the model pegged. NC State was expected to go 6-1 with one toss-up game (meaning the Wolfpack and their opponents had the same number of watch list players) in ACC play. Sure enough, State went 6-2.

App State was projected to go 10-0 with two toss-ups in the regular season. The toss-ups didn’t go the Mountaineers’ way as they finished 10-2 in the regular season.

Charlotte outperformed its expectations by a bit. The model said the 49ers would go 2-8 with two toss-ups. Charlotte won both toss-ups and stole a win from a game it was expected to lose, going 5-7.

Of course, the model wasn’t perfect, and when it missed, it missed big last season.

Let’s just say that, despite what Mack Brown thinks, the media weren’t the only ones overrating his team.

Across the ACC, the model liked Clemson and Miami a bit too much and shortchanged Pitt and Virginia Tech.

So what’s in store for 2022? We pored through the watch lists and came up with four teams in North Carolina that should make bowl plans and another team (or two) on the cusp.

Looking across the league, in the last year of divisional play, it once again looks like the Atlantic will be a meat grinder, while the Coastal will be wide open.

The model expects Clemson to return to the top of the Atlantic, but State and Wake will be pushing the Tigers. The rest of the division’s teams will be clumped in a second tier.

The Coastal likes Miami, with Carolina and Duke in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, the cupboard appears to be bare at once-proud Virginia Tech.

In addition to returning a large number of starters, NC State got a break on its schedule this season. By looking at the total number of watch-listers a team will face, the model can give an estimate of strength of schedule. With Clemson, Wake, UNC and Wake on the schedule, State usually has one of the tougher ones in the league. While the Pack plays those same teams this year, the rest of the slate appears to be lighter.

Duke also caught a break on the schedule. The Blue Devils face fewer watch-listed players than any other ACC team.

Pity Georgia Tech, which boasts two watch-listers and must face a schedule that includes the Coastal as well as defending national champion Georgia and Atlantic favorite Clemson.

For the non-ACC programs in the state, strength of schedule explains why App and Charlotte have rosier outlooks than ECU.

The Pirates face NC State, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston, which gives them a tougher schedule than seven of the 14 ACC teams.

So, using a comparison of each team’s watch-listed players to determine who will win each matchup, here’s how the ACC season shakes out.

The only thing separating State and Wake will be the game between the two teams, which, fittingly, is rated as a toss-up by the model. Louisville appears to be bottoming out, with Syracuse not far ahead.

Over in the Coastal, Miami and Pitt appear to be the class of the division, followed by Virginia. It will be another up-and-down year for Mack Brown and the Tar Heels, while Duke makes a small step in new coach Mike Elko’s debut season.

That’s what the preseason talent pool says will happen. We’ll see over the next few months what injuries and surprises have to say about that.