In ESPN’s new Championship Drive Ratings, Stanford is rated No. 2 after an enormous win over Oregon last Thursday night. Despite having one loss, the Cardinal are just behind Alabama but ahead of everyone else, including undefeated Florida State (No. 3), Ohio State (No. 4), and Baylor (No. 8). Before you go screaming your head off about how biased or unfair or (other words not fit for print) these ratings are, keep in mind their intent: to measure the strength of a team’s résumé based on what it has done to date.
The calculations here are based on how difficult it is for an average FBS team to achieve the team’s results (primary W-L, but also average in-game win probability) given its schedule. It’s relatively easy to be undefeated if you play lower-quality opponents each week – people intuitively understand this, otherwise Northern Illinois and Fresno State would be ranked in the Top 10 this week. The flip side is that it can be quite hard to go through a much tougher (e.g. Pac-12 or SEC) slate with only a couple of losses – harder than it is for a lot of teams to go undefeated vs their own schedule.
Stanford has played an extremely tough schedule, one that is rated seventh-hardest in the Championship Drive system, and done quite well against it. The Cardinal have played six Top-50 opponents and beaten five of them, more than any other FBS team.
Notable W-L By Opponent Strength
Yes, Stanford lost the one game at Utah and that hurts, but looking at the entirety of Stanford’s schedule shows that suffering just one loss over all those tough games is still quite impressive (an average team would have less than three wins). Utah is not the one loss you’d expect, but it makes sense that with so many tough games, at least one loss would occur somewhere.
A quick digression about Utah: The Utes are MUCH better than their record indicates. Their 4-5 record is heavily influenced by having played the hardest schedule in the country. Instead of evaluating an opponent solely by its W-L, this system looks through all games and gets a better indication of every team’s true quality. This is how it knows that beating 7-2 UCLA is more impressive than beating 9-1 Ball State, for example.
Utah has high-quality wins against Stanford and BYU, and had close losses vs Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State. Based on Championship Drive ranking (where Utah is 31st), the Utes would be the second-hardest opponent on Ohio State's or Baylor’s schedule to date (behind Wisconsin and Oklahoma, respectively); they are only the fourth-hardest opponent on Stanford’s schedule so far.
Put it all together and we can see that Stanford’s record given its schedule is the most unlikely in the country when compared to everyone else’s. The Cardinal fall behind Alabama in the final rating because of the average in-game win probability component, which favors the Tide for having dominated most of their opponents.
Keep in mind that the Championship Drive Rating is simply about comparing résumés, and does not imply that Stanford would beat Florida State, Ohio State or Baylor. There’s another rating system for that, called the Football Power Index, which shows the Cardinal currently a couple of points behind the Seminoles, Bears and Tide, just ahead of the Buckeyes.
Of course, this is how the résumés stack up now, and the ratings are clearly subject to change in the final month of the season. Stanford has some more solid opponents coming up in Notre Dame and USC, along with a potential Pac-12 Championship Game.
Alabama will face a good test at Auburn and its own conference title game. Baylor still has to face most of the tougher Big 12 teams. Florida State and Ohio State have what likely are the toughest games on their schedules behind them but can continue to take care of business and see what happens to the others.
But as it stands right now, Stanford’s résumé is definitely deserving of consideration along with the major-conference unbeatens for a top ranking.