"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
09 Oct 2013
by Brian Fremeau
The Stanford Cardinal have played in three straight BCS bowls and have only lost five of their last 45 games. The program trajectory skyrocketed after the arrival of Jim Harbaugh in 2007 (see chart below), and David Shaw seamlessly transitioned into his role in 2011 and has kept the momentum going. Stanford has finished in the FEI top 10 for three straight seasons. This week, they claim the No. 1 spot in the FEI ratings for the first time.
(Ed. Note: Wait, isn't Baylor on top of the Football Outsiders college ratings? Well, Baylor leads in the play-by-play-based S&P+ ratings, but rank just 17th in the FEI ratings. Bill Connelly will be covering this issue in Friday's "Varsity Numbers" column.)
I was a bit surprised by some of the shifts in the FEI ratings this week. Alabama "slipped" not because they played poorly, but because they played a very poor team. Oregon "slipped" because they have played the 123rd toughest schedule in the country to date -- and though they’ve been dominant, the opponent adjustments drag them down (see also: Louisville and Florida State). I wasn’t too surprised by Stanford’s leap into the top spot after their victory over Washington. The Cardinal have played well against a decent set of opponents so far, and their preseason projection (No. 3) is still a small factor. Next week, we will debut the first FEI ratings of the season that do not include any preseason projected data.
It’s hard to tell at this point if Stanford will be in a position to retain their No. 1 ranking for the long haul. If they keep dominating field position, they might. I haven’t posted the FPA ratings for the season to date, but Stanford is the leader in the clubhouse. The Cardinal have a .631 FPA rating through their first five games, meaning that they have earned 63.1 percent of the total field position value at stake in the games they have played. That’s a big factor that boosts a team’s FEI rating, as evidenced by Kansas State throughout the 2012 season (.577 FPA, best in the nation). Stanford is blowing that away through the early part of 2013.
One important factor included in FPA is non-offensive scores. If a team records a defensive touchdown (fumble or interception return) or special teams touchdown (punt return, kickoff return, blocked field goal return), those are counted as "possessions" as well as "field position value" equaling 6.96 points. Even though the offense doesn’t take the field on such non-offensive scores, I need to properly assign this value such that a return which ends just shy of the end zone doesn’t distort these field position values.
Stanford has recorded two interception returns for touchdowns (both against Washington State) and a kickoff return touchdown (against Washington). Those three plays account for 20.9 points of field position value total. On the year, Stanford has 52.4 points of field position value, most in the country. Their non-offensive scores are responsible for nearly 40 percent of that value. If instead of scoring touchdowns, Stanford was tackled inside the opponent’s 10-yard on each of those plays, they still would have been credited with generating more than 15 points of field position value on those three plays. Big non-offensive plays are huge, both for teams that generate them and for teams that avoid them.
But Stanford’s field position success has been much more than big non-offensive scores. The Cardinal ranks No. 2 nationally in starting field position, beginning its non-garbage offensive drives at its own 38.4 yard line on average. They rank No. 3 in opponents starting field position, forcing opponents to start drives on average from their own 22.9 yard line. That 15.5 yard advantage per drive is best in the country. Houston is second with a 12.3 yard advantage. Oregon is third with a 10.9 yard advantage.
Stanford has started only five non-garbage drives from inside its own-20 yard line, and it has started 13 drives at midfield or in opponent territory. Stanford opponents, meanwhile, have started only two drives in Stanford territory (the Cardinal gave up only three points on those two drives) and have started 18 drives from inside the opponent’s own 20-yard line.
Teams that want to take down Stanford this season are going to have to do a much better job of positioning themselves for success with shorter fields and forcing the Cardinal to move the ball over longer distances. In non-garbage possessions on the season, Stanford has started drives a total of 987 yards further downfield than its opponents.
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 October 5th. 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.
13 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2013, 9:53pm by Brian Fremeau