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How to tell if your college football season has an unusual number of contenders

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It probably doesn’t, but here are two charts to check just in case.

Getty. Banner Society illustration.

Most college football seasons follow a similar rhythm, at least at the broadest level. We usually have roughly the same number of undefeated teams at certain points along the way, and we rarely have way too many (or no) truly championship-grade teams.

In the moment, though, it’s easy to forget this. Almost every midseason, I notice some people wondering about those things — as in, whether we have an outlier number of contenders on course to mess up the whole postseason. We pretty rarely do!

Let’s look at this two different ways.

First, does the current season have too many/few undefeated teams, compared to this point in time during the average season?

You’ll often hear this concern right around Week 10, which is usually late October-ish. The Playoff rankings are nigh, and we have so many unbeaten power-conference teams, we won’t have room for all of them in the Playoff field, let alone all the deserving one-loss powers! And there might even be a few undefeated non-power teams as well, all of them vying for their token New Year’s Six bowl.

Look at the schedule! Nobody’s gonna beat any of these top-10 teams from here on out! How in the world are we gonna sort through all of this in just over a month?? Our dining room isn’t big enough for all these New Year’s guests!!!!

The answer*: patience. Trust in college football’s mayhem gods.

You, dear Halloween-adjacent reader, have entered the most Blood Week-prone portion of the season, when top-10 upsets more or less double in quantity. Even though lots of records are inflated by multiple easy games, everybody’s now entering the scariest parts of their conference schedules, with chaotic rivalry games and conference championships still to go. And at least a couple of those invincible top-10 teams have still yet to play each other.

Watch the attrition as each category of contender steadily whittles down throughout the autumn march toward Selection Sunday, when we have a nearly perfect Playoff picture (if we added another spot or two, perhaps):

This chart goes back to 2006, because that’s when the NCAA began allowing every team to play 12 regular season games. I also based it more around how many weeks there were to go until Thanksgiving, since “Week 1” in college football has had a number of historical definitions, seasons have differing numbers of bye weeks, and so forth. That’s why I referred in the chart to Weeks 10-14 as if they’re loose concepts.

If it went back beyond 2006, you’d see similar numbers. Researching Blood Week history since 1936 affirmed to me how consistent college football seasons remain from era to era, no matter how wild they get on a single-Saturday basis.

* Or we could just do the dumb/smart thing and let only those undefeated teams into the Playoff.

Second, does a given season have too many/few really good teams overall, compared to the average full season?

This question is a bit different, because it’s less about an exact point in time and more about how many truly excellent teams a full season is giving us, regardless of their number of losses or Playoff viability.

This concern can arise either when a couple teams tower over everyone else (2005 USC and Texas, for example) or when the #1 team is only #1 by default (2007 everyone).

Here, I used publicly available SP+ ratings, based in part on a chart Bill Connelly made during 2018. Let’s define true national championship-grade teams as those who rated in the 98th percentile (or better) in SP+, Playoff-type teams as those in the 95th percentile or better, and teams worthy of BIG BOWL (BCS/New Year’s Six) consideration as being anybody in the 90s.

Going by those standards, which aren’t manually adjusted for number of losses (but which do inherently factor schedule strength, because SP+ is adjusted for opponent), we can see:

  • The average season tends to produce only two or three standard championship-type teams.
  • Six would often be the fairest number for the Playoff (with two teams getting byes), though we’d still argue about expansion every year anyway.
  • And 12, the current number, is probably a good number of teams to put in the full range of BIG BOWL games, though there’d often be room for another game in that mix without watering down those special bowls.

Yep, in 2010, not even national champ Auburn graded all that highly — a quite average defense weighed that team down, but they had Cam Newton, who would’ve been good enough to carry something like a couple dozen different teams to a title that year.

If your college football season really is seriously out of line with either of these sets of numbers, then congratulations!

You’re probably gonna have even more fun than usual, one way or the other.