March Madness Strategy: Analytical comparisons to 2017 college football teams


March is here which means time for March Madness bracket selection season. It also means that it is the season for irrational bracket selections, such as which team has better colors or a more fearful mascot. But why risk your standing in the office social ladder at the risk of how many times you’ve seen Trae Young play on TV? If you’re at all like me, your simple brain is much better at choosing between two alternatives if given proper comparisons to more familiar concepts, such as 2017 college football programs.

Lucky for you, my endless knowledge of both college football and college basketball provides me the opportunity to bridge the gap. Partially statistically driven, partially subjective observations driven, mainly guess driven, these comparisons are scientifically guaranteed to help you fill out a perfect bracket.

The teams were selected based on how much I cared. Some comparisons are more accurate than others. It’s up to you to figure out which those are. Teams are ranked by their overall seed given by the selection committee. All opponent-adjusted basketball efficiency metrics are from KenPom and football from S&P+.

1. Virginia (31-2; ACC)
Offensive Efficiency: 116.5 Points/100 possessions (Rank: 21)

Defensive Efficiency: 84.4 Points/100 possessions (Rank: 1)

CFB Comparison: Alabama (Offensive Rank: 23; Defensive Rank: 1)

Notes: Both teams were dominant all year, with a historically strong defense-first approach. Both offenses are highly efficient and top 5 nationally in limiting turnovers. The biggest difference being preseason expectations, where Alabama entered the season ranked first and Virginia was expected to be in a rebuilding year. That said, the slow-paced and subjectively “ugly” style of play of both will frustrate all of those that are not fans of the programs.

2. Villanova (30-4; Big East)
Offensive Efficiency: 127.4 (1)

Defensive Efficiency: 96.0 (22)

CFB Comparison: Oklahoma (1; 101)

Notes: Contrary to the first comp where defense was the focus, Nova and Oklahoma both fielded historically dangerous offenses that carried them to a high postseason seeding. Like Oklahoma, this upperclassmen led team has been here before and relies heavily on the deep ball. Junior point guard Jalen Brunson is a favorite for national player of the year awards, similar to Baker Mayfield.

3. Kansas (27-7; Big 12)
Offensive Efficiency: 120.9 (6)

Defensive Efficiency: 97.7 (46)

CFB Comparison: Oklahoma State (3; 70)

Notes: Also two extremely efficient offenses that focused on the deep ball. Defensive liabilities. Both relied on senior leadership (Devonte Graham, Sviatoslav vs Mason Rudolph, James Washington) and coaching experience (Bill Self vs Mike Gundy).

4. Xavier (28-5; Big East)
Offensive Efficiency: 120.7 (7)

Defensive Efficiency: 99.0 (59)

CFB Comparison: Central Florida (2; 74)

Notes: Underrated in-state (in-city in this case) rivalry with Cincinnati that draws comparisons to UCF-USF. Trevon Bluiett is an elite offensive wing but there are legitimate defensive questions that face the entire team.

5. North Carolina (25-10; ACC)
Offensive Efficiency: 121.9 (4)

Defensive Efficiency: 96.9 (34)

CFB Comparison: Southern Cal (16; 55)

Notes: Tough team to find a comparison for. Metrics point to Southern Cal but this Tar Heels team was built with a combination of blue chip (Theo Pinson), four-star (Joel Berry), and walk-on (Luke Maye) athletes, dissimilar to the Trojans football team.

6. Duke (26-7; ACC)
Offensive Efficiency: 122.6 (3)

Defensive Efficiency: 93.5 (7)

CFB Comparison: Ohio State (7; 8)

Notes: Both recruited at an extremely high level to fill highly skilled teams. Lots of young talent to match with a senior leader (Grayson Allen vs JT Barrett). Duke has shown the ability to fight in the trenches like the Buckeyes, leading the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.

7. Purdue (28-6; Big 10)
Offensive Efficiency: 123.2 (2)

Defensive Efficiency: 96.6 (29)

CFB Comparison: Georgia (3; 14)

Notes: Both teams lost a key contributor to the previous season (Caleb Swanigan vs Jacob Eason), on the way to an even stronger season. Young, unexpected contributors have received much of the praise (Carsen Edwards vs Jake Fromm), while the upperclassmen (Isaac Hass, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias vs Roguan Smith, Trenton Thompson, Lorenzo Carter) have carried much of the dirty work. Purdue, like Georgia, fielded a highly efficient offense which found smart shots without relying too heavily on the deep ball.

8. Cincinnati (30-4; American)
Offensive Efficiency: 113.1 (54)

Defensive Efficiency: 86.1 (2)

CFB Comparison: Auburn (34; 5)

Notes: Elite defenses led both of these teams to very strong seasons, but offense will always remain a limitation. Just like Auburn, we were told that this Cincinnati offense would be revamped and a different look from years past. Instead, we saw more of the same. Both were beneficiaries of contributions from major school transfers (Kyle Washington vs Jarrett Stidham).

9. Michigan State (29-4; Big 10)
Offensive Efficiency: 120.0 (9)

Defensive Efficiency: 93.6 (9)

CFB Comparison: Penn State (10; 12)

Notes: Complete packages. Elite talent (Miles Bridges & Jaren Jackson vs Saquon Barkley & Trace McSorely). Both squads yield one of the few highly efficient, yet balanced approaches in the nation. Deep ball is a strength but not relied on.

10. Tennessee (25-8; SEC)
Offensive Efficiency: 114.8 (40)

Defensive Efficiency: 92.7 (5)

CFB Comparison: Washington (18; 6)

Notes: Both have been somewhat overlooked because of the conference reputations. Defenses have both been very stout, accompanied by efficient offenses.

11. Michigan (28-7; Big 10)
Offensive Efficiency: 115.9 (29)

Defensive Efficiency: 92.7 (4)

CFB Comparison: Michigan State (92; 4)

Notes: Big 10 teams that outperformed preseason expectations with elite defensive approaches.

12. Texas Tech (24-9; Big 12)
Offensive Efficiency: 114.0 (46)

Defensive Efficiency: 92.1 (3)

CFB Comparison: Wisconsin (41; 3)

Notes: Another group of elite defensive teams. Both coaches are early in their tenure at the respective schools. Both have had trouble beating the elite teams in the conference.

13. Auburn (25-7; SEC)
Offensive Efficiency: 118.2 (16)

Defensive Efficiency: 97.5 (44)

CFB Comparison: North Carolina State (22; 62)

Notes: Both had success in-conference with efficient offenses. Reputation for being scrappy and beating teams with effort.

14. Wichita State (25-7; American)
Offensive Efficiency: 121.9 (5)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.8 (107)

CFB Comparison: Toledo (20; 57)

Notes: Admittedly one of the weaker comparisons, both offenses carried these teams through weak schedules largely unharmed.

15. Gonzaga (30-4; West Coast)
Offensive Efficiency: 119.8 (12)

Defensive Efficiency: 95.0 (15)

CFB Comparison: South Florida (27; 28)

Notes: Balanced mid-level teams that earned the right to hang with the blue bloods.

16. Arizona (27-7; Pac-12)
Offensive Efficiency: 119.0 (15)

Defensive Efficiency: 99.6 (70)

CFB Comparison: Stanford (29; 59)

Notes: West coast squads with elite talent (DeAndre Ayton vs Bryce Love). Both had early rough patches but peaking at the end of the season.

17. Kentucky (24-10; SEC)
Offensive Efficiency: 116.4 (25)

Defensive Efficiency: 96.0 (23)

CFB Comparison: LSU (42; 18)

Notes: Elite talent that struggled early to live up to preseason hype before figuring it out down the stretch. Given this, don’t be surprised if Kentucky gets upset in round 1 by Davidson (Troy).

18. West Virginia (24-10; Big 12)
Offensive Efficiency: 119.1 (14)

Defensive Efficiency: 97.4 (39)

CFB Comparison: Miami FL (36; 22)

Notes: Teams known for (somewhat overrated) turnover-reliant defensive identities. Only difference being Miami flashes the turnover chain while West Virginia flashes the Javon Carter full court press.

19. Clemson (23-9; ACC)
Offensive Efficiency: 113.8 (48)

Defensive Efficiency: 93.5 (8)

CFB Comparison: Michigan (85; 10)

Notes: Defensive teams that have been able to beat the teams they are supposed to and not the teams above them with.

20. Ohio State (24-8; Big 10)
Offensive Efficiency: 116.1 (27)

Defensive Efficiency: 95.0 (17)

CFB Comparison: Notre Dame (24; 27)

Notes: Balanced teams. Overachieved preseason expectations. Both led by underrated juniors (Diop and Adams).

21. Florida (20-12; SEC)
Offensive Efficiency: 115.1 (37)

Defensive Efficiency: 96.4 (25)

CFB Comparison: Appalachian State (33; 24)

Notes: Sort of obscure comparison but clear parallels can be seen from the metrics rankings. Also, Florida wing Jalen Hudson is a baller and super underrated. Similar to App QB Taylor Lamb.

23. Houston (26-7; American)
Offensive Efficiency: 115.8 (31)

Defensive Efficiency: 95.2 (18)

CFB Comparison: TCU (39; 16)

Notes: Strength is defense and effort. Rebounding is a strength of this team despite their lack of size.

24. TCU (21-11; Big 12)
Offensive Efficiency: 120.6 (8)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.7 (104)

CFB Comparison: Memphis (4; 102)

Notes: Spread out offense, spread out defense. Lots of high scoring games when these two teams play.

27. Nevada (27-7; Mountain West)
Offensive Efficiency: 119.9 (10)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.7 (105)

CFB Comparison: Florida Atlantic (6; 52)

Notes: One of my favorite teams of the year, mainly because of their unique starting lineup which features four 6’7″ players. This elite offense prides itself on protecting the ball and taking smart shots. The defense is a clear weakness, particularly against “power conference” teams where they gave up 82 and 84 points to Texas Tech and TCU respectively.

40. Oklahoma (18-13; Big 12)
Offensive Efficiency: 115.1 (38)

Defensive Efficiency: 100.7 (83)

CFB Comparison: Louisville (5; 84)

Notes: As r/CollegeBasketball knows, this wouldn’t be a complete Reddit post without mention of Trae Young or Oklahoma. Similar to OU, Louisville was seen as a one-man show, with Lamar Jackson’s elite talent leading them to a mediocre final record. The team only goes as far as the star can take it. Offense led both of these squads with a particular focus on the big play.

Now that you have this extra layer of knowledge, the only reason you won’t be able to fill out a winning bracket is you obviously don’t know much about college football. Best of luck.


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