Ohio State Takes the 'Big Three' Lead
NCAA Week 5 - A wild Week 5 featured upsets in 17 of 57 games (29.8%), including a pair of 20-plus-point underdogs (Georgia Tech and Connecticut) winning outright. The Big 12 seems completely turned upside down so far this season—the Red River Rivalry this Saturday between Oklahoma and Texas features preseason ratings darlings in a battle to remain above .500, supplanted in national interest by a showdown in Lawrence, Kansas, between undefeated TCU and Kansas. FBS newcomer James Madison is thriving, UTEP picked up its first victory of all time in the Eastern time zone, and UNLV is on track for its first winning season in a decade. The Big Ten West standings are currently locked in a six-way tie for first place, including one team (Northwestern) which went winless in non-conference play and another (Nebraska) that fired its coach three weeks ago.
Unpredictability is a feature of the sport, not a bug, which makes the consistent success of the Big Three all the more remarkable.
Ohio State surged ahead of Alabama and Georgia this week to No. 1 overall in the FEI ratings after a 49-10 win over Rutgers. It has been a full year since any team outside of this trio has held a top-three position in the weekly FEI ratings, and one of the three has held the top spot every single week since Week 9 of 2018. Two of the three have held the top two spots nearly every one of those weeks since as well. They have shuffled their order at times over multiple seasons, but the power structure of the sport remains substantively unaltered week in and week out.
Consider that not only are no other teams currently in position to challenge the Big Three, but a theoretical best combination of other teams probably wouldn't either. Michigan currently ranks fourth overall with the No. 8 OFEI rating and the No. 5 DFEI rating. If the Wolverines swapped their offense for the best non-Big Three offense (currently USC, No. 4 OFEI), they would still be separated from the elite tier by a measurable gap, and it would be the same story if they swapped their defense with Iowa's (No. 3 DFEI). If the Trojans' offense was combined with the Hawkeyes' defense—a theoretical "next best" combination of units outside of the Ohio State-Alabama-Georgia trifecta—that imaginary team would also be rated a step behind the Big Three.
Elite though these teams may be, they are not infallible, of course. The defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs played with their food on consecutive weeks against Kent State and Missouri in Weeks 4 and 5. Their opponents in those games easily covered spreads of 44.5 points (39-22 final versus the Golden Flashes) and 31 points (26-22 final versus the Tigers), indicators that perhaps Georgia may not cruise unscathed to the SEC Championship Game. Those results did yank the Bulldogs back somewhat in the FEI ratings (from a clear No. 1 two weeks ago to No. 3), but this is still a program that notched two of the best opponent-adjusted single game performances of the season to start the year, absolutely dominant wins over Oregon and South Carolina. Though Georgia fans don't want to see their team play sloppy and edge out inferior opponents, the rest of the nation (and especially their upcoming opponents) don't want to see Georgia play with its hair on fire like they are very much capable of doing either.
Alabama had a scare of its own in Week 2 with a one-point win against Texas, but otherwise has smothered its opponents. This past weekend, the Arkansas Razorbacks fell behind the Crimson Tide by four touchdowns in the first half before clawing back to within five points in the third quarter, then Alabama took over again to finish with a comfortable 23-point victory. No team has a better collection of "good wins" than Alabama through Week 5. If a team rated one standard deviation better than average (i.e., ranked around 20th to 25th in FEI) played the Crimson Tide schedule to date, it would expect to have lost 1.1 games, giving Alabama the most "wins above good" in the nation through Week 5.
Alabama and Georgia have nearly matching FEI rating profiles, but the Buckeyes just sprinted out in front of both of them on the strength of their extraordinary offense. Ohio State is the only team with five wins all rated among the 90th percentile of opponent-adjusted single-game performances to date according to the core possession efficiency data that fuels FEI. Not only is the offense pushing new efficiency and explosiveness boundaries (4.7 points per non-garbage drive, 65% touchdown rate, 75% of available yards, 8.8 yards per play), the Ohio State defense is playing well also. The Buckeyes currently rank among the top 10 nationally in points per drive and available yards percentage allowed, a marked improvement in both categories over the prior two seasons, and plenty strong enough to support a national championship contender.
Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia will each face good (and possibly great) opponents over the next two months, and as a result, FEI regular season win projections still only give them each between a 49% and 58% chance of running the table to 12-0. That works out to an 86% likelihood that at least one of those teams will lose at least one game between now and conference championship weekend. Such a result will certainly be an upset when it happens, and would likely open the door to one or more other programs to enter the College Football Playoff discussion.
But I think it will take more than that to shake up the Big Three's control at the top of the FEI ratings, since even a single inefficient game will likely be overcome by many very efficient games. Whether we still have three undefeated monsters heading into the end of the year or not, the story of the season may once again prove to be that no other program is ready to join them on the mountaintop, and they're all really just battling it out for fourth place.
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 5)
Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) are opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data representing the per-drive scoring advantage a team unit would be expected to have against an average opponent unit. Net drive efficiency (NDE) is the sum of offensive drive efficiency and defensive drive efficiency data representing scoring value earned by offense and defense units per drive. Strength of schedule ratings represent the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against each team's schedule to date (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule to date (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule to date (ALS). Ratings for all 131 teams are found here, and expanded ratings including projected win totals are found here.