The Observer’s new college football projection model ZeLO has Notre Dame as the 17th best team in its rankings, boasting a defense ranked 12th with an offense ranked 42nd. This initially surprised me as Notre Dame’s weighted four-year average ZeLO ranked 10th. Notre Dames Recruit+Return Metric, however, rated 105th offensively and 51st defensively, which dramatically altered their final ZeLO number. Losing players like Kyren Williams and Jack Coan, who played many snaps, will substantially affect the returning metric. Even if Notre Dame had gotten perfect recruiting grades, the offense was going to take a step backward (as far as ZeLO is concerned).
On the other side of the ball, thanks to solid retention and recruiting, the defense essentially stayed put (if not improved ever so slightly).
Looking at the ND schedule through the ZeLO lens, ND is currently averaging 8.7 wins. There are a few games that ZeLO has ND as an underdog in. Two of them are pretty obvious, Ohio State and Clemson. ZeLO has the Buckeyes in a different class than the Irish, but ND beating Clemson is reasonable. Two of the more surprising games ND is not favored in are UNC and BYU, though both are well within what I would consider the “toss-up” category. If both games were at home, it would be enough to swing them in favor of ND.
The remaining games, Marshall, Cal, Stanford UNLV, Syracuse, Navy BC, and USC, should all be reasonably easy games for ND to win.
While ND is not projected to make the CFP, the Marcus Freeman era should be off to a good start with a 9-3 or 10-2 record.
In the Atlantic Division, Clemson is the current favorite to make the conference title game (a true shocker, I know). The fourth ZeLO-ranked Tigers are likely to be a force and are just one of a small group of teams considered to be a lock for a double-digit win total. Two other significant teams are the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (an average record of 8.5-3.5) and the NC State Wolfpack (8.7-3.3).
In the Coastal, the favorite to face Clemson is much less clear. The top three teams are all separated by less than a single game. Pitt is undoubtedly a strong contender, and with an average record of 9.8-2.2, there is no reason Pitt cannot repeat as divisional champion.
Next, is the upstart Miami squad being led by their new head coach. Miami has a relatively wide range of outcomes, sometimes finishing with a record of 7-5 but also winning the coastal with a record of 10-2 (so really an average of 8.4-3.6).
Last is Carolina (which I do not love), and they are currently projected to go on average 8.1-3.9. Since Sam Howell graduated and the offense is being turned over to Drake Maye, I expect Carolina to step back more than ZeLO is anticipating.
The SEC East is much like the Atlantic division in that it feels largely predictable. Georgia may take a step back defensively, but it is not much of a step back; the Bulldogs are projected to remain #1 defensively. The Bulldogs are currently projected to go 11.2-0.8, so a potential undefeated season as they make it to the SEC title game. Some teams of note are Tennessee (8.4-3.6), Florida (8.6-3.4), and Kentucky (7.4-4.6, though Kentucky, is prone to having some odd
sub .500 records).
The West is reasonably straightforward (Alabama, 11.1-0.9) as far as the favorite is concerned. What is more interesting to me is the race for second. There are four teams that ZeLO currently considers contenders. Ole Miss is currently averaging an 8.5-3.5 record, Texas A&M 8.4-3.6, Auburn 8.1-3.9, and Mississippi State (7.8-4.2). For those of you who have an axe to grind with LSU, the Tigers are not geauxing anywhere; instead, they should finish with a 4.9-7.1 record.
As a Michigan native, I was thrilled with the Wolverine’s season last year (until they played Georgia). Sadly, ZeLO thinks the Wolverines’ breakthrough season is an outlier, and Ohio State (with a record of 11.2-0.8) will take the East and the Big 10. Trailing behind the Buckeyes are the Wolverines (10-2), Penn State (8.9-3.1), and Michigan State (7.6-4.4).
In the West, the picture is a little cloudier. Wisconsin is the highest-ranked team at eight, led by their second-ranked defense. The Badgers are projected to finish with a 10.4-1.6 record, which should give them a solid chance of winning the division. Following closely behind Wisconsin are Minnesota (9-3) and Iowa (9.3-2.6).
This is the first year that the Pac-12 has moved away from divisions and is pitting the top two finishers against each other for the title. Currently, that pits Arizona State (9.7-2.3) against Utah (9.9-2.1). Not far behind are the Oregon Ducks, with an average record of 9.5-2.5 following the departure of Mario Cristobal. The UCLA Bruins are in a distant fourth with a projected 8.6-3.4 finish. And for those following how well a former B12 coach will do in his new conference, ZeLO has
an unfavorable view of the USC Trojans, with the team barely breaking the five-win threshold. However, roughly once in about every five simulations, the Trojans get close to winning eight games.
And speaking of the Big 12, guess who it’s time for? The B12 will likely see Baylor (8.9-3.1) take on Oklahoma (10.1-1.9) for the Conference Crown. I was legitimately surprised by this result seeing as Oklahoma lost Lincoln Riley to USC and ESPN’s FPI is pretty low on Baylor,
giving them less than a 10% chance of winning the conference (compared to Texas’ near 40% chance). And on the note of Texas, ZeLO currently has the Longhorns in a similar boat to the Trojans;
they should be a five to six-win team, though every few simulations, Texas does make it past the seven-win mark. The next likeliest team is the Oklahoma State Cowboys, a consistent eight-win team with an
average record of 8.4-3.6.
Group of 5
While I could probably write a separate column about the Group of 5, I doubt we have that kind of room in the budget. So instead, I will just run through some teams that have a chance to win their respective conference.
MAC: In the East, ZeLO likes Buffalo (7.5-4.5) and Miami-Ohio (7.4-4.6) to win their division. In the West Toledo (9.7-2.3) (what can I say, the model really likes Toledo, it is genuinely one of the more random teams).
MWC: In the Mountain division, the hands-down favorite is Air Force. The Falcons are currently a 10.7-1.3, which is an incredibly high record. Air Force is not the only high-caliber team; Boise State is currently a 9-3 team. In the West Fresno State is currently 9.9-2.1.
CUSA: In CUSA (which takes the two teams with the best record), the top four teams are UAB (9.3-2.7), FAU (8.5-3.5), and Western Kentucky (8.1-3.9), and UTSA (8.7-3.3).
SBC: The only team ZeLO sees as a legitimate competitor in the West is Louisiana, with a record of (8.7-3.3). The East is a little more competitive, with Appalachian State potentially breaking nine wins. Coastal Carolina and Marshall are both eight-win solid teams.
AAC: The AAC is by far the most robust Group of 5 Conference, with household teams like Cincinnati (10.2-1.8), Houston (10.4-1.6), and UCF (8.8-3.2). Memphis (8-4) and SMU (8.2-3.8)