Wake Forest Can't Be Stopped
NCAA Week 8 - In the highest-scoring FBS game of the 2021 season—three touchdowns more prolific than the next-highest-scoring game this year—Wake Forest topped Army 70-56. The box score numbers were bonkers on both sides of the scoreboard as the teams traded almost uninterrupted touchdown-scoring drives for four quarters and racked up a combined 1,233 yards of offense and 53 first downs. Had the Black Knights not turned the ball over twice, including an interception returned by the Demon Deacons in the third quarter that opened up what turned out to be an insurmountable two-score cushion, the teams might still be throwing haymakers.
One of the wonderful things about college football is that highly efficient offenses can produce scores in wildly different ways. Sometimes those teams face off head-to-head as they did in this matchup. The Demon Deacons had scoring plays of 41 yards, 46 yards, 54 yards, and a pair of 75-yard scores, racking up a whopping 13.1 yards per play on non-garbage drives. Meanwhile, Army possessed the ball for more than 42 minutes and marched efficiently downfield each possession to the tune of 7.4 yards per play on non-garbage drives.
A massive margin in terms of yards per play can often be a big factor in determining margin of victory, but it can also simply be a descriptor of style of play and the explosive potential or lack thereof of two teams in a given matchup. Army's offense ranks fourth in the nation in touchdown rate through Week 8, but 59th in the country in yards per play. Wake Forest ranks sixth nationally in touchdown rate and ninth in yards per play. My possession efficiency numbers ultimately focus on maximizing possessions, and that can happen either by lighting up the scoreboard quickly or by controlling clock and limiting possessions. Wake Forest and Army both rank among the top 10 in drive efficiency, points per drive, and available yards percentage. This contest featured the highest combined available yards percentage (87%) and points per drive (5.6) marks in a single game since I began tracking this data in 2007.
Head coach Dave Clawson took over at Wake in 2014 and has certainly elevated the floor of a program that has historically ranked below average (if not way below average) among power conference teams. The question is how high he can elevate the ceiling, and this year has the potential to be an all-timer for the Demon Deacons. They have finished the season ranked in the final Associated Press top-25 poll only four times in program history, most recently 18th at the end of an 11-3 season in 2006. They have had an average final FEI ranking of 66th in the 14 seasons since then, only once finishing the year among the top 30 (28th in 2017).
This season has certainly been different so far, spurred by the offense. Wake has never finished among the top 40 in offensive points per drive under Clawson, but they currently rank fourth nationally, a full 1.3 points better per drive than a year ago. That ranks as the nation's fourth-best improvement in offensive points per drive from 2020 to 2021. Their defensive efficiency metrics are not special, thanks in large part to last weekend's Army game, but their net efficiency has dramatically improved. The Demon Deacons are 1.9 net points per drive than they were a year ago, the sixth-best year-over-year improvement in the nation, and fourth-best among Power 5 teams (behind only Georgia, Michigan, and Michigan State).
Wake Forest has risen from 49th in my preseason FEI projections to 12th this week, and that is with preseason projections accounting for 25% of their current opponent-adjusted team efficiency. If I drop preseason weight altogether from the formula, Wake jumps up to fifth overall this week.
Will the Demon Deacons keep rolling with explosive offensive production all the way to an ACC championship and, if we dare to dream, a College Football Playoff berth? They currently project per FEI as the favorite in each of their remaining games, but none of those games in November will be easy—at North Carolina on November 6, home vs. North Carolina State on November 13, at Clemson on November 20, and at Boston College on November 27. FEI gives Wake Forest only a 15% chance to run through that tricky (though not impossible) gauntlet unscathed. But if they play like they did on Saturday, who is going to stop them?
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 8)
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.