Perfection the Goal for Bearcats
NCAA Week 7 - The Cincinnati Bearcats are going undefeated in the regular season ... probably. There is no such thing as a guarantee in college football, and this year has already proven to be especially unpredictable. Just this past weekend we had an upset victory by a 32.5-point underdog, while a team ranked in the top three in the AP poll lost for the third straight week to an unranked opponent.
The Bearcats have ascended to the No. 2 ranking in the AP poll this week, and they have climbed to No. 5 overall in my FEI ratings. It is at this mid-October point in the season when I used to remove all preseason projection data from the FEI ratings formula and publish numbers based exclusively on results to date. I adjusted that methodology this year, which should improve accuracy in game projections in the coming weeks. Preseason data this week represents 18% to 33% of each team's FEI, OFEI, and DFEI ratings, depending on its number of FBS games played.
Cincinnati and other teams with only five FBS results on the books still have a third of their opponent-adjusted efficiency ratings driven by preseason priors. I projected the Bearcats as merely a top-25 team before the season, which means their FEI ceiling has not yet been reached. Just as significantly, the obstacles in their path have been crumbling. The six teams Cincinnati will face down the stretch had an average preseason FEI ranking of only 73, and those teams now have an average FEI ranking of 89. Only one of the six has a better FEI ranking now than it did in August: East Carolina, Cincinnati's regular-season finale opponent, has moved up from No. 110 to No. 84.
Cincinnati has a projected win likelihood of at least 80% in each of its remaining games based on current FEI ratings, the only team in the nation in that position. Only three other teams—Georgia, Alabama, and Coastal Carolina—have an 80% win likelihood in more than half of their remaining games. And I think FEI may still be selling the Bearcats short. If I remove all preseason projection data from the formula, Cincinnati's individual game win likelihoods rise to over 85% in every game and their overall likelihood of running the table through the regular season rises to 74%.
The Bearcats laid waste to UCF on Saturday in a 56-21 victory that was completely lopsided from the jump. Cincinnati led 35-0 with just under three minutes left in the first half, and to that point in the game its defense had only surrendered drives totaling 5, 14, 7, 2, -1, 5, and -3 yards. They dominated Miami (Ohio) and Temple by a combined non-garbage score of 73-3. The Bearcats posted Power 5 road wins over Indiana and Notre Dame that were less statistically dominant than those Group of 5 blowouts, but they still won both games comfortably by double digits.
Cincinnati joins Georgia as the only team currently ranked among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive drive yards per play. As with the Bulldogs, the Bearcats defense is the stronger side of the ball. They have surrendered only a single score all season on a drive longer than 75 yards, and have given up no points and a paltry 7 yards per drive on opponent possessions started inside the opponent's own 20-yard line. They are especially nasty in the secondary, ranked among the nation's leaders in interceptions (eight in five FBS games, 11 overall) and completion percentage (49.5% against all opponents, 48.0% against FBS opponents).
The question that looms over the Bearcats in their remaining games is not whether they can run the table, but by how large of a margin can they destroy their opponents. Cincinnati will face significant scrutiny about its overall schedule strength and will not receive much benefit of the doubt by the playoff selection committee in comparison to other contenders. Previous seasons have proven that many things need to go their way for any Group of 5 team to receive strong consideration for a playoff berth. Some of those dominoes have fallen in their favor this season, but a weak AAC conference slate is not on that list. Teams have little to no control over the strength of their opponents, but they can control how strong they play against them. The Bearcats are clearing that bar exceptionally well to date.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 7)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Expanded ratings for all teams include overall, offense, defense, and special teams efficiency ratings. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.