Calculating VGR+: A college football player ratings system

As we prepare to launch CFB Winning Edge, we introduce VGR+, our foundational player ratings metric for college football rankings, projections and predictions.

College football fans across the country have learned to live without a new annual edition of the NCAA Football video game franchise (though a replacement may be on the way), but the idea of individual player ratings is well established and simple to understand. Player ratings are common, even expected, in sports video games like Madden, MLB The Show, and FIFA, among many others. 

However, few media outlets, and specifically those that make college football projections and predictions, have taken the time and energy to assign an overall rating to players and make them available to the public. As we prepare to officially launch CFB Winning Edge, we would like to introduce VGR+ (Adjusted Video Game Rating). We took a simple idea that has been underutilized in the industry, and made it one of the primary tools in our quest to produce the best college football projections and predictions on the market.

Coaches are prone to the saying “it’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmies and Joes,” meaning players are far more important to the success of a team than the scheme it plays. This might be overly simplistic, but the fact remains: the more talented team will win more often than not. 

Of course, talent manifests itself in many ways. VGR+ aims to combine a player’s raw talent, potential, experience and production in order to paint a complete picture of his overall value to his team.

Calculating VGR+

The college football recruiting industry has grown into a behemoth. Outlets like 247Sports, Rivals, ESPN and Scout have a wealth of skilled talent evaluators that rank and rate the top high school and junior college prospects in the nation year after year. They may not be perfect – scouting involves far more art than science – but there is an unmistakably positive correlation between recruiting rankings and on-field results – particularly at the highest levels of the game. For instance, Bud Elliott of SBNation has shown teams with a “Blue Chip Ratio” of 50-percent or higher are the only programs to compete for a national championship in more than a decade.

VGR+ begins with recruiting, because as the cliché goes, it is the lifeblood of every college football program.

Step 1: Record the 247Sports Composite Player Rating for every player.

The 247Sports Composite is the gold standard of college football recruiting ratings because it combines input from the top analysts across the recruiting industry. It also helps that players are rated from (roughly) .6500 to 1.000 - an easy conversion to 65-100, which is in line with the player ratings we are familiar with in video games. 

Thanks to the Composite, we have a terrific starting point for every player’s overall potential rating. But not all players are given ratings coming out of high school. In particular, walk-ons are often unrated, and are listed as “NA” in the 247Sports database. In such cases, we assign a .7500 rating to unrated players at the Power Five level, and .7000 for those on Group of Five rosters (with some exceptions), giving them a raw potential rating of 75 and 65, respectively.

As a result, VGR+ uses a 0-100 scale, though essentially operates on a 55.3-100 scale because a G5 walk-on would earn a 59.5 raw VGR as a true freshman (.7000 x .85).

In practice, and using two of the top Clemson recruits from the 2015 class, offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, ranked No. 23 overall in the 247Sports Composite with a 0.9897 rating, has a max potential of 98.97, rounded to 99. Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, ranked one spot lower and rated .9893, has a raw max rating (or raw VGR) of 98.9. Quarterback Kelly Bryant, a three-star prospect from the same class, was given a rating of .8777, giving him a raw max rating of 87.8. 

Step 2: Adjust for experience

Even the highest rated high school prospects rarely enter their true freshman seasons at full potential. And, keeping with the NCAA Football video game as our guide, elite prospects top out at roughly an 85 rating when they step on their virtual campuses. Therefore, we adjust true freshmen to .85 of their Composite score. 

On the other end of the spectrum, seniors should be at their maximum potential, leaving an easy calculation of .9 for sophomores, .95 for juniors, and .875 for redshirt freshmen, who have progresses somewhat through their exposure to one year of college football through weight training and practice, but don’t yet have on-field experience.

  • Multiply Composite rating by .85 for true freshmen
  • Multiply Composite rating by .875 for redshirt freshmen
  • Multiply Composite rating by .9 for sophomores
  • Multiply Composite rating by .95 for juniors
  • Multiply Composite rating by 1.0 for seniors

Keeping with the Clemson example, the Tigers signed two elite quarterback prospects in each of the last two recruiting classes. Hunter Johnson, the No. 2 pro-style signal caller in the 2017 class according to the 247Sports Composite, was assigned a .9854 rating. As a redshirt freshman, he enters the 2018 season with an 86.2 VGR+ (.9854 x .875 = .862). Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall player in the 2018 recruiting class (.9999 rating), comes it with a VGR of 85 (.9999 x .85 = .8499).

Based simply on the amount of time they’ve been on campus, we see Kelly Bryant, though a far less heralded prospect coming out of high school, still has a slight edge in the Clemson quarterback competition.

Clemson Tigers QB Depth Chart (VGR), Spring 2018: 

  • Kelly Bryant, Sr. (87.8)
  • Hunter Johnson, rFr. (86.2)
  •  Trevor Lawrence, Fr. (85)

Note: After spring practice, Hunter Johnson announced his intention to transfer to Northwestern. He will be eligible in 2019.

Step 3: Adjust for production

Because recruiting rankings are imperfect, as is the Step 2 process of adjusting for experience alone, we also adjust VGR+ for production. 

Fans only have to look at the last two Heisman Trophy winners to note the best players in college football don’t always come in as top recruits. Lamar Jackson entered Louisville with a .8788 rating in the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 class. Ranked as the No. 409 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite, two years Jackson later was named the top overall player in the nation. Baker Mayfield, a walk-on at Texas Tech, earned an even lower .8384 rating in 2013. He was ranked No. 1,029 overall, No. 42 among pro-style quarterbacks, and No. 160 in Texas, yet transferred to Oklahoma and was eventually selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Therefore, players earn increased ratings for their performance on the field. Earning a starting nod earns a 0.1-point bump each week, and meeting certain statistical standards earns even more:

  • +0.1 for every career start
  • +1 for specific statistical accomplishments:
    •  300-yard passing game
    • 100-yard rushing game
    • 100-yard receiving game
    • 25 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, or 1 defensive touchdown

Applying these figures to Mayfield and Jackson, we can see both players would have finished their careers with a 100 VGR+ rating. Mayfield earned 47 career starts (+4.7), and accounted for 24 300-yard passing games in his four seasons combined at Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Along with his 83.8 raw VGR as a senior, his 28.7 production points would have pushed him to 111.8 if not for the cap at 100. Also worth noting, Mayfield entered his senior season with a 100 rating based on the 33 starts and 16 300-yard passing games he produced through his first three seasons as a college quarterback.

Jackson made 33 starts for the Cardinals, and racked up 11 300-yard passing games and an incredible 23 100-yard rushing performances in his career. Adding his 37.3 production points to his 83.5 raw VGR (.8788 x .95) as a junior would have given Jackson a 120.8 VGR+ (but again, VGR+ maxes out at 100). Jackson would have entered his Heisman winning sophomore campaign with a (.8788 x .9 = .79.1 + 6.7 production points) 85.8 VGR+. He ended with a 99.1 VGR+ after making 13 starts (1.3), throwing for 300 yards four time, and reaching the century mark eight times on the ground (12). His five-percent bump entering his junior season in 2018 would have increased his rating past the 100 maximum.

As for Bryant, who has yet to be named the starter at Clemson as a senior, he has earned a total of 3.4 production points for his 14 career starts (1.4), one 300-yard game as a passer (1), and one 100-yard rushing performance (1), pushing his total to 91.2.

Updated Clemson QB Depth Chart (VGR+), Spring 2018:

  • Kelly Bryant, Sr. (91.2)
  • Hunter Johnson, rFr. (86.2)
  • Trevor Lawrence, Fr. (85)

Players can also earn points for accolades they earn throughout the course of a season, and just in case production doesn’t lift a player enough, there are basement ratings assigned for 1stTeam All-Conference selections, Freshman All-Americans, and national award winners. Simply, had Lamar Jackson not reached a 100 VGR+ rating because of his passing and rushing numbers in 2016, he would have gotten it for winning the Heisman (or Walter Camp). 

  • +1 for every 1stTeam All-Conference Team Selection (including Freshman All-Conference)
  • +1 for every All-American Team Selection (including Freshman All-American)
  • +2 for winning Conference Player of the Year
  • +1 for every Conference Player of the Week honor
  • Automatic 100 rating for Heisman Trophy or national award win
  • Automatic 90 rating for 1stTeam All-Conference selection
  • Automatic 85 for Freshman All-American selection

Looking ahead to 2018, Stanford running back Bryce Love secured himself a 100 VGR+ for winning the 2017 Doak Walker Award, regardless of how he would have otherwise rated for his production on the field. 

Also, these distinctions help reward great players that were overlooked in the recruiting process. For instance, Louisiana Tech cornerback Amik Robertson was assigned a .8488 rating in the 247Sports Composite, and entered his true freshman season with a 72.1 VGR. However, having been named to the FWAA Freshman All-American Team secured Robertson an 85 VGR+ baseline for his upcoming sophomore season. 

How to use VGR+

Rating players is hard work. The good folks at 247Sports have done much of the heavy lifting having assigned a specific rating to a huge percentage of players on FBS football rosters. However, we have taken additional time to adjust those potential ratings based on experience and production to give a more complete picture of a player’s overall value. But to what end?

By seeing individual player ratings, we can compare one team to another, position by position. For example, see how the Alabama quarterback depth chart compares to Clemson:

Alabama QB Depth Chart (VGR+):

  • Jalen Hurts, Jr. (100)
  • Tua Tagovailoa, So. (88.6)
  • Mac Jones, rFr. (77.7)

Two-year starter Jalen Hurts is the highest rated player on the Crimson Tide QB depth chart, having earned a perfect 100 VGR+ (more on this later). The top three players average 88.8, while the two most likely to see the field in 2018 average 94.3. The Tigers have a comparable top-three average of 87.5, but an even larger deficit when comparing the top-ranked signal caller (91.2) and the average of the top two (88.7). 

We can also compare the VGR+ for two teams. When accounting for the 120 players on the full Alabama football roster, the Crimson Tide has an average VGR+ of 82.05, which would be far superior to the 77.26 VGR+ of SEC West rival Arkansas. But we can get even more specific by comparing the edge at quarterback for the Crimson Tide, or how much better the Alabama defensive line is than the Arkansas offensive line. 

Furthermore, can sort by player pods, or in other words, by accounting only for the players likely to contribute on the field in a particular game. The Alabama roster currently features 26 players with a .7500 walk-on-level rating – none of which has appeared in a single game to this point in their careers. By only accounting for contributors, Alabama’s team VGR+ would top 85. 

Imperfections in VGR+

As knowledgeable college football fans have probably already recognized, there are imperfections in calculating VGR+. Specifically, when referring back to the Clemson quarterback position, Kelly Bryant currently has a 6.2-point edge over Trevor Lawrence. However, the two exited spring practice on relatively even footing in the QB position battle. 

More strikingly, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and challenger Tua Tagovailoa are locked in one of the highest profile position battles of the 2018 preseason. Our metric gives a huge edge to the more experienced Hurts – in fact, Hurts has a 100 VGR+ as a junior because of the production (12.8 production points) of two seasons as a starter, added to his 87.7 VGR based on his .9231 recruiting rating. Nevertheless, most fans and analysts prefer Tagovailoa.

After all, Hurts has struggled with his command in the passing game, and Tagovailoa has remarkable upside. Tagovailoa has yet to make a start, and has yet to pass for 300 yards or run for 100 yards in a single game. The former five-star prospect arrived in Tuscaloosa with a .9843 rating from the 247Sports Composite, but because of inexperience, Tua has a far less impressive 88.6 VGR+ entering his sophomore campaign. Still, the rising sophomore, who came off the bench in the national championship game, sparked the Tide offensively, and delivered a perfect game-winning pass in overtime to beat Georgia and win the national title, isn’t only expected to win the job, he is a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate according to odds makers.

Admittedly, some players will be overrated by VGR+, and others will be underrated. Is Hurts really worthy of a 100 rating? Shouldn’t Tagovailoa be rated higher than an 88.6? 

Some positions are also more susceptible to flaws in the ratings. We include ratings boosts based on statistics, but we don’t yet have a metric assigned to offensive linemen. Pancake/knockdown blocks would be a natural choice, but most schools don’t release such blocks with their official statistics, and even if they did, the description of a knockdown varies from school to school. We simply don’t have the manpower to grade every offensive lineman every week (not yet, anyway), and as a result, the vast majority of an offensive lineman’s player rating relies on his recruiting ranking and number of starts. Because offensive linemen are notoriously difficult to evaluate at the high school level, that raises its own problems. 

Interior defensive linemen pose their own problems in our system. We award points for big plays on defense, and though nose guards and defensive tackles play huge roles by taking up multiple blockers and eating up space along the line of scrimmage, their effort often leads to opportunities for other players to reap the statistical rewards. Interior defensive linemen might score tackles for loss and the occasional sack, but linebackers and edge pass rushers are far more likely to see a ratings boost.

Nevertheless, despite these imperfections, VGR+ offers great insight for a variety of reasons. One, it is better than raw recruiting ratings. If Alabama had the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation every year from 2011 to 2017, that would tell us the Crimson Tide should have the most talented roster in the country. The 247Sports Team Talent Composite shows this well. However, VGR+ adjustments for experience and production offer a more precise measure.

CFB Winning Edge Patreon supporters will have access to the complete VGR+ database, which includes ratings for every player on every roster for all 130 FBS college football programs. These ratings will be updated weekly based on experience and production.

Beyond VGR+

Here is where the art of college football talent evaluation comes in. VGR+ is a useful tool for comparing one player to another, or when comparing two teams or position groups. We can also see how players and teams compare to the average in their respective conferences, or to the FBS level as a whole. 

But most importantly, VGR+ is just one tool at our disposal. We believe in metrics and analytics, but we are not slaves to the numbers. CFB Winning Edge projections and predictions will include VGR+ breakdowns and comparisons for every FBS vs. FBS matchup, but - as we will detail in the coming weeks and months ahead of our July 1 soft launch – we also take into account scouting reports from film study. Stay tuned.