College football SP+ rankings after Week 3: The Big Ten, led by No. 1 Ohio State, is back


The biggest ratings shifts early in the 2020 college football season have not come from top teams playing big games — they’ve come from teams being subtracted from the list, then added again. With the Big Ten announcing its late-October return, I’ve gone ahead and added those teams, with their preseason projections, back to the SP+ rankings below. If or when other conferences announce their return, they’ll be thrown back into the pool as well.

Optically, this is going to be an awfully strange season. (That fits the general motif — everything is weirder in 2020.) Only one of the top seven teams below has actually played a game, and three of them won’t kick off for another month. It might be a good time to note, then, that your preseason projections are given heavy weight until you’ve played a few games and that, if you’ve played no games, your preseason rating remains.

It’s also a good time to remind you that SP+ isn’t a résumé rating. If your first reaction is, “How can Ohio State and Alabama be ranked ahead of Clemson when they haven’t played anyone yet??” please keep that in mind.

What is SP+, then? In a single sentence, it’s a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. I created the system at Football Outsiders in 2008, and as my experience with both college football and its stats has grown, I have made quite a few tweaks to the system. SP+ is intended to be predictive and forward-facing. That is important to remember. It is not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or particularly brave scheduling — no good predictive system is. It is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football. If you’re lucky or unimpressive in a win, your rating will probably fall. If you’re strong and unlucky in a loss, it will probably rise.

Here are the full numbers.

This week’s movers

Moving up

Looking at where teams would have been ranked last week had Big Ten teams been included (so we can compare apples to apples), and comparing them to this week’s rankings, seven teams moved up at least six spots:

  • SMU: up 12 spots from 50th to 38th

  • Troy: up 11 spots from 63rd to 52nd

  • Liberty: up 11 spots from 82nd to 71st

  • Cincinnati: up nine spots from 28th to 19th

  • Tulsa: up seven spots from 64th to 57th

  • Boston College: up six spots from 53rd to 47th

  • Navy: up six spots from 75th to 69th

It was a pretty good week for the AAC, apparently. SMU looked spectacular against North Texas, Cincinnati treated Austin Peay as a top-20 team should, Tulsa confounded Oklahoma State for three quarters, and … well … I guess Navy’s rise came at the expense of another AAC team (Tulane). And another AAC team led the “moving down” list. So the week was merely pretty good and not great.

Biggest fall

Nine teams fell by at least nine spots compared to where they would have been ranked last week.

  • USF: down 17 spots from 60th to 77th

  • Georgia Tech: down 15 spots from 36th to 51st

  • Oklahoma State: down 11 spots from 21st to 32nd

  • Duke: down 10 spots from 56th to 66th

  • NC State: down nine spots from 51st to 60th

  • Louisville: down eight spots from 27th to 35th

  • Tulane: down seven spots from 52nd to 59th

  • Appalachian State: down seven spots from 38th to 45th

  • North Texas: down six spots from 78th to 84th

NC State moving down nine spots after a win seems harsh, but SP+ really isn’t a fan of Wake Forest, and as you see above, the teams in that No. 55-64 range are extremely packed together. So they probably didn’t fall as far as it seems.

Conference averages

With the SEC getting started this coming weekend, let’s take a look at the average SP+ ratings for each conference officially playing this fall:

1. SEC (12.5 adjusted points per game)
2. Big Ten (9.3)
3. ACC (5.4) — just for clarity, this includes Notre Dame
4. Big 12 (4.7)
5. AAC (0.6)
6. Sun Belt (-7.7)
7. Conference USA (-11.3)

Obviously not a ton has changed here just yet — there hasn’t been much of a chance for change yet — but it bears mentioning that in the preseason rankings, the Big 12’s average rating was 6.8. That’s a pretty decent stumble for this early on, especially considering the conference’s two best teams looked top-10 worthy out of the gates.

Miami — yes, Miami — is No. 1 in special teams

Last year, Manny Diaz’s Miami Hurricanes ranked 94th in special teams SP+, and honestly, that felt high. Missed kicks were devastating and played a key role in their losing five one-score games. Watching transfer Jose Borregales bomb in a couple of long field goals against Louisville, then, felt pretty jarring. So, too, is their current No. 1 ranking in special teams SP+.

As you see, special teams aren’t worth much in the SP+ equation early on — it’s far too much of a small-sample exercise to be very predictive — but Miami’s ranking is noteworthy all the same. If Diaz has fixed The U’s offensive and special teams woes, this is an awfully intriguing team.

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