-- Have you ever watched a game and thought: "That team is way better than the score." Or the opposite: "Geez, I cannot believe that team is unbeaten."
Of course you have. It's the eternal battle of eye test versus stat sheet, or as we're calling it, man versus metric. ESPN Stats & Information analytics writer Sharon Katz takes a run through some of the more debatable data, and then ESPN senior writer Mark Schlabach offers his take.
Let's just say they agreed to disagree ... but their conversation is worth reading.
Texas A&M vs. Arizona State
Sharon Katz: Coming off a 10-3 season, Arizona State is a trendy pick to win the Pac-12. According to Travis Haney, the Sun Devils have the top breakout candidate in the nation, quarterback Mike Bercovici; they also have nine returning starters on defense. Why, then, does ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) give Arizona State only a 26 percent chance to beat Texas A&M on Saturday night? FPI's projections are more a testament to the faith it has in Texas A&M than an indictment of Arizona State. After three straight top 12 recruiting classes, the Aggies are loaded with talent, particularly on offense. FPI expects Texas A&M to have one of the top five offenses in the nation -- one that is projected to be about 10 points per game stronger than Arizona State's. Although the Sun Devils have the edge on defense, FPI does not believe it will be enough to make up for the offensive disparity. Finally, FPI accounts for distance traveled in its projections, and although the game is technically at a neutral site (NRG Stadium in Houston), Texas A&M is traveling 900 fewer miles (worth about one point, all else being equal) and essentially will be playing another home game.
Mark Schlabach: I'd like to tell Sharon to recheck the wires on her FPI machine, but I can't forget that she recently told me FPI correctly picked 75 percent of the straight-up winners in games last season. She said it was higher than any system used in Las Vegas in 2014. That said, I don't think there's any way Texas A&M should be a nine-point favorite versus Arizona State, especially when Saturday night's game is being played on a (somewhat) neutral field in Houston. It's not as if the Sun Devils are playing with Texas' offense. Bercovici, their new quarterback, started three games in 2014 after Taylor Kelly was hurt. In three straight contests against UCLA, USC and Stanford, Bercovici passed for more than 1,200 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions, completing better than 60 percent of his passes in every game. Have you watched Texas A&M's defense the past few seasons? It's not as if the Aggies are better than those Pac-12 teams.
Baylor : No. 2 in the rankings
Sharon Katz: Baylor ranks second in preseason FPI, but it's important to note how close the Bears are to the No. 3 team, TCU. The main reason Baylor ranks so high is its offensive projection. After ranking in the top four of ESPN's offensive efficiency ratings for four straight seasons, FPI projects that Baylor will be the top offense in the country in 2015. The Bears lost quarterback Bryce Petty, but replacing QBs has never been an issue for coach Art Briles (top 11 in Total QBR in every year since 2011), and they are loaded with skill-position talent. With nine returning starters, FPI also projects Baylor will have a top-25 defense, which may surprise average college football fans. Based on traditional yardage statistics, Baylor has been one of the worst defenses in the country, but the way that FPI evaluates defenses (opponents-adjusted expected points added) accounts for the fact that the Bears force a lot of turnovers, face tough offenses in the Big 12, and are generally strong on a per-drive basis.
Mark Schlabach: There's no question Baylor's offense is going to be explosive. But it will be the second-best offense in the Big 12, behind TCU, which I believe will be the best team in the Big 12. Sure, Briles plugs quarterbacks into his system and they instantly flourish. He turned Robert Griffin III into a Heisman Trophy winner, and the Washington Redskins can't even turn him into an NFL starter. Seth Russell is next in line, and there's little reason to believe he won't be as good as RG III, Nick Florence and Petty. But Russell won't be as good as TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, who is a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Last season, Boykin threw for more than 3,900 yards with 33 touchdowns and ran for more than 700 with eight scores in his first season under co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. Boykin will be even better in Year 2.
Alabama: 5 percent chance to win SEC
Sharon Katz: No, that is not a typo. So how can FPI give Alabama only a 5 percent chance to win a conference it has dominated the past few years? FPI is not particularly low on Alabama compared to the public; the Tide rank seventh in FPI, ahead of teams such as Oregon, USC and Michigan State. Alabama is not ranked in the top five, however, because of its turnover on offense. The Tide lost eight offensive starters, including their top passer, rusher and receiver from last season. Even though Alabama is projected to have the top defense in the nation by FPI, the offense is expected to rank outside the top 20.
The other major reason for FPI's projection is Alabama's schedule, which FPI ranks as the toughest in the nation heading into the season. The Tide play a full slate of SEC West opponents and FPI's top two teams in the SEC East (Georgia and Tennessee) in cross-divisional games. Assuming Alabama maneuvers successfully through that schedule, it must emerge from a crowded SEC West, which includes three other teams ranked in the FPI top 10. Georgia, in comparison, has a more favorable path to the SEC championship game through the SEC East -- a major reason why the Bulldogs are FPI's favorite to win the conference.
Mark Schlabach: Nick Saban has only a 5 percent chance of winning the SEC? Where can I buy those odds? Sure, it's hard to argue that the SEC West isn't pretty crowded this season. I think there are as many as five teams that could end up winning the division, and that doesn't even include Mississippi State, which was ranked No. 1 for more than a month last season. Even though the Bulldogs are the only SEC West team bringing back an experienced quarterback ( Dak Prescott), they've been picked to finish last in the division in most preseason predictions. Alabama certainly has some reloading to do, especially on offense, but when hasn't Saban been able to do it? The Tide might have some holes to fill, but it's not as if Saban is trying to rebuild Wake Forest's offense. I'll take my chances with Alabama, a team that has done it many times before, over teams that haven't done it yet, such as Ole Miss and Texas A&M.