Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

30 Sep 2015

FEI Week 4: Utes Vault Into Playoff Picture

by Brian Fremeau

The first month of the college football season featured a handful of eyebrow-raising results, and a few stunners. Eleven out of the 194 FBS-versus-FBS games played so far (5.7 percent) resulted in a victory for an underdog of at least nine points, matching the upset frequency for underdogs of at least nine points from last season. Toledo's 16-12 victory over Arkansas as a three-touchdown underdog on September 12 officially ranks as the biggest upset of the year, but Utah's 62-20 blowout of Oregon on the road this past Saturday as a 10-point underdog is the most jaw-dropping result. It's also the game that has shaken up the playoff picture most dramatically.

The Utes throttled the Ducks in every phase of the game. Their offense racked up 79.6 percent of available yards and held Oregon to only 30.5 percent. It was the first time since a 2012 loss to Stanford that the Ducks failed to eclipse 40 percent of available yards in any game, and only the second time in the same span that they had allowed an opponent to eclipse 70 percent of available yards. Utah earned a 9.6-point advantage in Saturday on turnover value, a 6.3-point advantage in field position value, and an 8.1-point advantage on special teams. The last time Utah earned values that high in those three categories, their offense sputtered and they lost a 27-28 game against Washington State last September. In Eugene, everything clicked and Utah thrust itself into the national spotlight.

At the start of the year, the FEI projections pegged Utah as the 29th-best team with a projected total of 7.2 FBS mean wins. The Utes were given only a 6.4 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 South division according to FEI, and only a 4.6 percent chance of winning each of their first four games. Wins over Michigan, Utah State, Fresno State, and Oregon have vaulted Utah to No. 15 overall in this week's ratings and a new projected total of 10.1 mean wins. Utah still must face Pac-12 South contenders USC (No. 16) and UCLA (No. 10), but the Utes have fewer conference pitfalls ahead of them than either the Trojans or the Bruins. As a result, this week's FEI ratings project Utah with a 44.1 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 South division, a higher likelihood to claim the division than either UCLA (35.6 percent) or USC (16.0 percent).

Whether Utah remains a playoff contender throughout the year is not certain, but their big win clearly knocked Oregon out of the playoff conversation, and it may also have an impact on several other team's resumes. Michigan State had laid claim to one of the biggest wins of the year when they beat the Ducks in East Lansing 31-28 two weeks ago, but that win no longer resonates as particularly remarkable, and the undefeated Spartans have slipped down to No. 11 in the FEI ratings this week as a result. Meanwhile, the Michigan Wolverines are on the march up the ratings in part due to their resounding victory over BYU on Saturday, and the fact that their loss to Utah by only seven points back on September 3 now looks like a pretty good defeat. The Big Ten race may not be Utah's concern, but the potential playoff candidacy of Ohio State and Michigan State (if not Michigan as well) may hinge in part on Utah's continued success.

As I did throughout last season, I'll be tracking an offshoot of the FEI ratings I call "degree of difficulty" (DOD). The DOD rankings are based on current FEI ratings, but instead of measuring efficiency against schedule, DOD measures record against schedule. How difficult would it be for an elite team (two standard deviations better than average) to play a given team's schedule to date and achieve that team's record? My hypothesis is that the College Football Playoff selection committee is likely to value and reward something akin to DOD through their process and deliberations. Last year, the top four teams in DOD before the bowls were also the four teams selected for the playoff, and TCU and Baylor ranked fifth and sixth, respectively.

Early-season DOD rankings are heavily influenced by a handful of notable wins so far and I expect this list to change regularly and significantly as the season progresses. But as of this week, the following teams have the most impressive undefeated records and have accomplished the most to date.

Degree of Difficulty through Week 4
Rank Team DOD W-L
1 Mississippi .339 3-0
2 Northwestern .613 3-0
3 Utah .652 4-0
4 LSU .670 3-0
5 Texas A&M .755 4-0
6 Ohio State .777 4-0
7 UCLA .811 4-0
8 TCU .818 3-0
9 Notre Dame .824 4-0
10 Michigan State .831 4-0

FEI top-30 teams have lost a total of 18 games this season, and 15 of those losses have come at the hands of other FEI top 30 teams. The only two teams with a victory over a top-15 opponent are Ole Miss (over No. 1 Alabama) and Northwestern (over No. 9 Stanford). Utah (over No. 21 Oregon and No. 26 Michigan) and Northwestern (No. 9 Stanford and No. 29 Duke) are the only teams with two wins over top-30 opponents to date.

Even though they have the best records to date, I certainly do not expect the playoff to feature Ole Miss, Utah, Northwestern, and LSU, and I'm not sure it is particularly likely that it will feature any of those four. But I would not be surprised at all if at least three of the playoff teams at the end of the year are on this week's top 10 DOD list. That said, it is worth noting that last year's national champion Ohio State ranked No. 52 in the DOD rankings through four weeks in 2014.

I'll post this top 10 list weekly leading up to the release of the first CFP committee rankings, and run a full top 25 comparison with the CFP rankings from that point forward through the end of the year.

FEI Week 4 Ratings

The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. Approximately 20,000 possessions are contested annually in FBS-vs.-FBS games. First-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores are filtered out. Unadjusted game efficiency (GE) is a measure of net success on non-garbage possessions, and opponent adjustments are calculated with special emphasis placed on quality performances against good teams, win or lose. Other definitions:

  • SOS: Strength of Schedule, measured as the likelihood of an elite team going undefeated against the given team's regular season schedule. Schedule strength data based on FEI ratings and calculated across other dimensions can be explored in this interactive visualization.
  • FBS MW: Mean Wins, the average number of games a team with the given FEI rating would be expected to win against its regular season schedule of FBS opponents.
  • FBS RMW: Remaining Mean Wins, the average number of games a team with the given FEI rating would be expected to win against the remainder of its regular season schedule of FBS opponents.

Preseason projections are a function of program strength and trajectory as well as transition factors including returning starters and recruiting success. The weight given to preseason projections is reduced in the FEI formula over the first half of the season until it is eliminated entirely following the results of Week 7. Preseason projection data receives 43 percent of the weight in this week's ratings. Ratings for all FBS teams can be found here.

Rank Team FBS
1 Alabama 3-1 .286 1 .224 15 .101 6 9.3 5.7
2 Ohio State 4-0 .243 2 .252 12 .455 81 11.0 7.3
3 Baylor 2-0 .237 4 .479 1 .245 45 9.4 7.4
4 Mississippi 3-0 .220 5 .192 22 .102 7 8.6 6.4
5 Clemson 2-0 .220 11 .209 18 .323 62 9.4 7.6
6 Georgia 3-0 .213 6 .295 6 .210 38 9.0 6.2
7 LSU 3-0 .210 10 .189 23 .082 3 8.1 5.7
8 Notre Dame 4-0 .204 12 .240 14 .162 19 9.5 5.9
9 Stanford 3-1 .203 13 .148 27 .232 42 9.7 6.7
10 UCLA 4-0 .202 7 .273 9 .200 36 9.6 6.0
11 Michigan State 4-0 .201 8 .199 19 .242 44 10.2 6.5
12 TCU 3-0 .198 9 .074 47 .172 24 8.5 5.9
13 Texas A&M 4-0 .197 15 .262 11 .091 5 7.8 4.4
14 Oklahoma 3-0 .182 18 .193 21 .167 21 9.1 6.5
15 Utah 4-0 .180 29 .299 5 .236 43 9.3 6.1
Rank Team FBS
16 USC 3-1 .179 19 .338 4 .136 16 8.6 5.6
17 Florida State 3-0 .168 16 .281 7 .275 52 8.8 6.0
18 Georgia Tech 1-2 .164 14 .058 50 .125 15 7.3 5.4
19 Kansas State 2-0 .161 20 .149 26 .262 49 8.1 6.3
20 Mississippi State 2-1 .147 26 .098 37 .110 11 6.8 4.9
21 Oregon 1-2 .139 3 -.075 83 .190 32 7.3 5.6
22 Arizona State 1-2 .133 17 -.089 86 .167 20 7.1 5.3
23 Boise State 2-1 .132 21 .092 39 .699 111 9.6 7.4
24 Oklahoma State 3-0 .125 30 .210 17 .266 50 7.3 4.6
25 Northwestern 3-0 .121 35 .082 44 .312 61 7.3 5.6
26 Michigan 3-1 .120 36 .264 10 .226 40 8.1 5.3
27 Wisconsin 3-1 .111 25 .221 16 .260 48 9.1 6.1
28 Virginia Tech 1-2 .111 24 -.018 70 .341 65 7.3 5.5
29 Duke 2-1 .101 38 .090 40 .488 88 7.7 5.9
30 Tennessee 1-2 .095 31 .063 48 .108 9 6.4 4.7

Posted by: Brian Fremeau on 30 Sep 2015

4 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2015, 9:14pm by Brian Fremeau


by techvet :: Wed, 09/30/2015 - 4:32pm

How come Clemson is being "rewarded" for only playing two FBS schools to date? UCLA, Michigan, and other undefeated teams have played four (4) FBS schools to get where they are. It seems there is no penalty for scheduling FCS schools and taking the easier road to being undefeated.

Related question: are FCS schools accounted for in SOS? I am assuming not.
Also, has there ever been a thought of breaking down FBS to Power 5 and non-Power 5 schools?

by RickD :: Wed, 09/30/2015 - 5:22pm

How is Clemson being "rewarded"? They've played three games and the table only shows results from their two FBS games. Am I missing something?

" It seems there is no penalty for scheduling FCS schools and taking the easier road to being undefeated."

It's not quite as simple as that. For one thing, it seems that the FCS game is simply ignored. Not sure how a team is supposed to gain recognition by playing games that are not recognized by the system.

It's still early. Don't sweat the one game that much.

by techvet :: Wed, 09/30/2015 - 6:40pm

What you say makes sense if losses are disregarded in this table and maybe they are.

by Brian Fremeau :: Wed, 09/30/2015 - 9:14pm

Thanks for the questions.

I discard all FCS results in my data. Neither wins nor losses against FCS opponents count in the FEI ratings. I discussed the reasons for this in a recent FEI column: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/fei-ratings/2015/fei-week-2. Basically, it boils down to two reasons, that I cannot make reliable opponent adjustments for FCS games, and that those games really don't matter anyway since we'll learn enough about the team's merits based on its performance against FBS opponents.

With regard to SOS, there is no advantage to playing FCS teams in the way I calculate strength of schedule. Since SOS is defined in my system as the likelihood that a team would go undefeated against its schedule, an FCS opponent counts as a 100 percent win likelihood and therefore has no impact on the team's SOS, except to rate it incrementally easier than had the game been played against a terrible FBS opponent (99.9 percent win likelihood). With other systems that calculate SOS as the average strength of the opponents faced, the difference between counting or not counting these games could be rather significant.