Are Ohio State and Oklahoma really better than Georgia? These numbers say yes

Among the many college football metrics, I like Bill Connelly’s SP+ the best. It gauges efficiency, explosiveness, field position and drive finishing while adjusting for tempo. It also includes an opponent adjustment and filters out garbage time, which are key factors as good teams beat up on lesser foes early in the season.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, SP+ is a good tool for tackling the problem of comparing teams from different conferences that don’t play head-to-head and have vastly different schedules. After five weeks, SP+ is relying more on results and opponent adjustments and less on preseason projections. That’s why it’s notable that Georgia has slipped from third to fourth in the rankings.

Ohio State, preseason SP+ No. 7, has surged to No. 2. Oklahoma has moved up from No. 5 to No. 3. (Clemson, No. 2 in the preseason, is tied for sixth in SP+ rankings after surviving at North Carolina last weekend.

Before the season SP+ rated Georgia as roughly equal to No. 2 Clemson and a notch above No. 4 LSU. Now there’s a nearly two-point gap between SP+ No. 4 Georgia and No. 3 Oklahoma. Several other teams are creeping up behind the Bulldogs.

Preseason SP+ rated the No. 3 Bulldogs as about four points better than No. 4 LSU. The latest rating has Georgia as two points better than Nos. 6 Clemson and Penn State and just three points better than No. 8 Wisconsin. Georgia has regressed a bit in SP+ but it’s more the case that several other teams have gained ground.

There’s been similar movement in ESPN’s Football Power Index. Georgia has dropped from No. 3 in the preseason FPI to No. 4 now as Ohio State moved up from to second. FPI rates No. 5 Oklahoma as one point worse than Georgia.

FPI likes the Bulldogs better now than in the preseason, but Alabama and Ohio State made larger gains. FPI gives Georgia a much smaller chance of winning out (seven percent) than Clemson (59.6 percent), Ohio State (36.7), Oklahoma (28.6) and Alabama (25.6).

Poll voters see things a bit differently. The Associated Press top five is Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU. The coaches agree on the top three, but have Oklahoma No. 4 and Ohio State No. 5. Of course, the only rankings that really matter are those compiled by the College Football Playoff committee.

The initial CFP poll will be released Nov. 5. Committee members may or may not use SP+ or any other statistical formula to evaluate teams. According to the CFP web site, committee members “examine statistical data” and are provided analytics in addition to game video. But there is no stipulation on which numbers are used or how.

SP+ indicates that there may be more CFP contenders than assumed before the preseason. Back then it seemed Clemson and Alabama were locks, Georgia was a good bet and a fourth team to be named later would emerge. Now Ohio State and Oklahoma are on the rise and several other teams outside of the top four appear good enough to eventually make a case for the CFP.

The obvious development early in the season is that the transfer quarterbacks at Ohio State and Oklahoma have been instant hits. The Buckeyes have the fifth-rated offense in SP+ with ex-Georgia QB Justin Fields. Former Alabama QB Jalen Hurts has teamed with offensive guru Lincoln Riley in Oklahoma to produce the No. 1 offense in SP+. Georgia’s offense is No. 8 in SP+.

It’s true that Georgia has a better victory than either Ohio State and Oklahoma. The Bulldogs beat Notre Dame (No. 22 in SP+) by six points at home. Ohio State and Oklahoma earned their best victories last weekend. The Buckeyes won by 41 points at SP+ No. 39 Nebraska and the Sooners bested No. 40 Texas Tech by 39 points.

But Oklahoma and Ohio State both own decisive victories against opponents rated higher in SP+ than the two other FBS teams that Georgia beat handily, No. 81 Arkansas State and No. 87 Vanderbilt. Ohio State beat SP+ No. 38 Cincinnati 42-0 and No. 29 Indiana 51-10. The Sooners crushed No. 68 Houston and No. 66 UCLA.

SP+ theoretically accounts for quality of opponents. Running up big margins against bad opponents has diminishing returns. Winning by close margins against good teams isn’t punished. SP+ still rates Georgia as among the top four teams, but it’s getting more crowded at the top for the Bulldogs and legitimate challengers are lining up behind them.

At least that’s the case if, like me, you trust SP+.