Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Dec 2013
by Brian Fremeau
One second was put back on the clock at the end of regulation in the Iron Bowl, setting the stage for one of the greatest moments in college football history. My colleagues Bill Connelly and Matt Hinton have each written outstanding postscripts to last weekend’s Alabama-Auburn game which you should definitely read. My take here will center on the impact of the game and that play on the FEI ratings.
Overall, not much changed. Auburn vaulted from No. 14 in the FEI ratings last week to No. 8 this week. That’s a healthy bump, but while they are certainly a major player in the BCS national championship conversation following the win, they continue to be ranked behind the other major contenders as far as FEI is concerned.
A week ago I speculated whether Auburn has been more lucky than good in their performances to date, and though they’ve certainly produced several magical moments, the Tigers haven’t played exceptionally better than their expected mean wins. Mean wins are a factor of a team’s current FEI rating and the strength of opponents faced. Auburn has 1.1 actual wins over its mean wins expectation. By this measure, the Tigers are the 19th most fortunate team in terms of record versus performance. (San Diego State is currently the most fortunate team with 2.6 actual wins over its mean wins expectation).
As for Alabama, they dropped out of the No. 1 spot but only slid to No. 2 behind Florida State. The loss has nearly (but not yet completely) eliminated Alabama from the national championship race, but in the eyes of their possession efficiency over the course of the year, the Crimson Tide are still one of the best teams in the country. Their margin behind the Seminoles is narrow enough that the outcome of the SEC (or ACC) championship game could boost Alabama back to No. 1 this weekend.
And what about that final play? I posted last week that Alabama was on pace to finish with the best overall special teams efficiency ratings on record, ranking among the top ten in all five of our key special teams unit ratings heading into the Iron Bowl. And then they proceeded to have one of the worst field goal kicking games ever. Oops.
Alabama’s Cade Foster missed a 44-yard attempt on the Crimson Tide’s first possession of the game. He missed a 33-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter. He had another 44-yard attempt blocked with just under three minutes left in the game with the Tide clinging to a seven point lead. And finally, Nick Saban turned to the stronger leg of Adam Griffith for the 57-yard attempt that set up the dramatic touchdown for Auburn as time expired.
The drive ending value on those four possessions was worth 6.25 points. Based on starting field position and the production of the offense leading up to those four field goal attempts, an average field goal unit would have been expected to connect on better than two of the four kicks. Throw out the last one at a distance that not many teams would even attempt, and an average unit would have been expected to average 5.85 points on the other three kicks. Alabama had the ninth-best field goal unit heading into the Iron Bowl according to our field goal efficiency metric and was certainly expected to do better than 0-for-4.
But oh yeah, what about the final play -- the run back touchdown after the last field goal attempt? The 57-yard attempt had a very small success expectation, and since it came with only one second left on the clock, nearly everyone watching expected that a failure would merely lead to overtime. Auburn obviously prepared for and executed the perfect return, claiming the SEC West title and potentially much more in one fantastic play.
I calculated the Game Splits that night and tweeted that the value of the field goal failures (minus-6.3 points) and the value of the runback (minus-5.1 points) cost Alabama a total of 11.4 points from its field goal unit alone. When I posted the overall special teams ratings here at FO on Monday night, I tweeted that Alabama’s field goal unit fell from 9th to 69th due to the Auburn game. I only realized last night that I miscalculated an elements of the special teams ratings and discovered that the field goal performance was even worse.
I discovered that my formula erroneously attributed the value of the run back to Alabama’s kickoff return team rather than its field goal unit. There is no good explanation for this other than it is such a rare occurrence that I didn’t notice the formula error. The error applied only to blocked field goals returned for touchdowns, an event that has happened 11 times this season. It took the greatest play of the season and one of the greatest in history to catch my attention to the formula error.
This error didn’t impact game splits, game factors, or any of the offensive, defensive, or field position ratings produced and published here. Fixing the error did impact the overall special teams ratings and some of the individual special teams ratings for each of the teams involved in one of those 11 blocked field goal return touchdowns this year.
In Alabama’s case, it made their field goal efficiency ranking drop all the way to 97th, a fall of 88 ranking positions due to one really bad day for the Crimson Tide field goal units. They remain ranked in the top 10 in punt returns, kickoff returns, punting and kicking. Their overall special teams efficiency rating actually inched up slightly when I corrected the error because of the relative weight placed on those elements. Even after a disastrous performance on special teams in the Iron Bowl, the Crimson Tide retain their position as the best overall special teams unit in the nation. I'm sure they feel great about that.
In the offseason, I will review and update as necessary the special teams stat ratings for the 2007 to 2012 seasons that may also be affected by this error.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) rewards playing well against good teams, win or lose, and punishes losing to poor teams more harshly than it rewards defeating poor teams. FEI is drive-based and it is specifically engineered to measure the college game. FEI is the opponent-adjusted value of Game Efficiency (GE), a measurement of the success rate of a team scoring and preventing opponent scoring throughout the non-garbage-time possessions of a game. FEI represents a team's efficiency value over average.
These FEI ratings are a function of results of games played through November 30th. The ratings for all FBS teams can be found here. Program FEI (five-year weighted) ratings and other supplemental drive-based data can be found here.
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