Predicting the college football season with award watchlists

UNC and Duke are looking at strong years, while Wake Forest could take a step back

UNC’s Drake Maye was named to the preseason watchlist for the Maxwell Award, which is given annually to the best player in college footaball. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

Last year, Wake Forest and NC State both had strong seasons, finishing with eight wins and earning bowl bids and attention from national polls. Still, it wasn’t quite enough to overcome Clemson, which stormed back to an undefeated ACC regular season and league title.

Surprising? Not to anyone who read our annual season prediction based on preseason watchlists.

For several years, North State Journal has been using an unusual source of information to predict winners and losers for the upcoming season. It’s often written off as fluff — a way for football programs to get attention for the upcoming season — but the preseason watchlists for the major college football awards are actually a relatively accurate gauge of how a team’s roster stacks up to the opposition.

In late July, each of the 16 major awards — everything from the Maxwell player of the year award to the Ray Guy award, given to the top college punter — lists two to three dozen players who are expected to contend for their honor. A total of more than 300 players receive watchlist mentions each offseason.

Our prediction model is based on a simple concept: The more watchlist players a team has on its roster, the higher its talent level, and the more likely it is to win games.

For instance, UNC opens with a game against South Carolina in Charlotte. The Tar Heels have players on the watchlists for the Bednarik, Biletnikoff, Nagurski, Butkus, O’Brien, Groza, Maxwell, Lott, Guy and Camp awards, and two players on the Mackey Award watchlist.

(Those awards, by the way, go to the top defensive player, receiver, defensive player, linebacker, quarterback, kicker, overall player, defensive player, punter, overall player and tight end, respectively.)

The Gamecocks have players on the Biletnikoff, Nagurski, Mackey, Groza, Outland and Guy award watchlists, and two on the Maxwell Award list. So the Tar Heels, with a 12-8 edge in watchlisted players, have the talent edge and would be expected to win.

Does the model work? In short, usually, but not always. In general, over the five years we’ve been running the model, it gives a fairly accurate prediction of a team’s record. This year, it came closest with NC State and Wake Forest.

It was overly optimistic for some teams.

And overly pessimistic for others.

Around the ACC, Florida State, Louisville and Syracuse all outperformed their projected records, while Boston College, Miami and Virginia fell short.

So what can we expect for the upcoming season? After crunching the numbers on the watchlists, we found four teams in UNC that may want to start making postseason plans.

For the record, toss-ups occur when a team and its opponent have the same number of watchlisters in a given game.

The other three in-state teams could be in store for long seasons.

Expanding our scope to the ACC, the league is getting rid of divisions for the upcoming season. Here’s a look at how the teams rank based on the number of watchlisters on each roster.

Clemson and Florida State are expected to be neck-and-neck, miles ahead of the rest of the league. UNC and Duke will battle to top the second tier, followed by a clump of teams.

Of course, the number of watchlisters on your team’s roster is only one factor. By looking at the total number of watchlist players each team will face, we can get a sense of the strength of schedule for the league. And that’s not good news for Duke or Wake.

UNC seems best positioned to take advantage of its light schedule to push for a repeat trip to the ACC Championship Game. Duke, who played fewer watchlisters than any other ACC team last year, will definitely face an upgraded slate this season.

For the non-ACC programs in the state, East Carolina will have the toughest road.

Finally, comparing watchlist players on each roster for every ACC team’s full schedule this season gives us the following projected league standings.

UNC is well-positioned to push the loser of the Clemson-FSU toss-up game for a spot in the conference title game. Duke and Syracuse will be right behind the Heels, and the Wolfpack will battle Miami and Boston College among the league’s lower-level bowl teams.

Of course, injuries and other issues can cause a team to lose a large number of watchlist players, and there are always players that are overlooked in the preseason and then play their way into relevance.

That’s why, as they say, they play the games.