South Carolina's Sensational Special Teams

South Carolina Gamecocks HC Shane Beamer
South Carolina Gamecocks HC Shane Beamer
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 8 - South Carolina's Xavier Laguette had only one play recorded in the box score of the Gamecocks' 30-24 victory over Texas A&M on Saturday, but he made the most of it. Laguette received the opening kickoff of the game just inside his own end zone, bobbed and weaved through blockers, slipped out of the grasp of a defender, was nearly tripped up, then regained his balance and sprinted along the sideline for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown. The raucous home crowd erupted and turned what was already a hostile environment up a notch. Texas A&M threw an interception on its first possession and fumbled the ball away on its second drive, setting up two short fields and 10 more points for South Carolina. Just over five minutes into the game, the Gamecocks had a 17-0 lead.

South Carolina had run seven plays and gained 19 yards on the two drives following A&M turnovers, possessions that started at the Aggies' 5-yard line and 19-yard line, respectively. Based on starting field position alone, those two drives should have generated an average of over 10 points, so the Gamecocks offense had actually produced negative value to that point in the game. Their defense had produced almost 6.5 points of value on the turnover stops, but the returns were the biggest value adds according to the possession splits for the game. Laguette's opening kickoff return was credited with 4.8 points of return value, the difference between a touchdown and the expected value of a kickoff return that results in average starting field position. And Darius Rush's 59-yard interception return to set up South Carolina with a first-and-goal at the 5 was worth another 2.8 points. In total, 14.9 of South Carolina's first 17 points were attributed to a combination of defense and special teams, the offense actually took 0.1 points "off the board," and the remainder (2.2 points) was attributed to the extra possession they had over Texas A&M at that point in the game.

The Gamecocks didn't cruise to victory over the next 55 minutes of the game, but the head start helped hold off a comeback. South Carolina's offense had only 13 first downs on the day (Texas A&M had 23), and they were outgained by over 100 yards. Texas A&M won the net available yards percentage (NAY) battle and outgained South Carolina on net yards per play (NPP). It isn't exceptionally rare for a team to win a game and have both negative NAY and negative NPP—it has happened in 21% of FBS games so far this season. But South Carolina stands alone this season in terms of its consistency in generating value on special teams, which has been critical to its 5-2 start.

SRV combines the values generated on both defensive and special teams returns, plays that generally speaking are rare and often random. On the year, the Gamecocks have produced 38.2 points in SRV value in six FBS games, leading the nation in both total SRV generated and SRV generated per game (6.4 points). South Carolina is one of only four teams that have had a positive SRV value in every game it has played this season. Against Georgia State, South Carolina produced touchdowns on two blocked punt returns, generating 16.9 points of SRV in a 21-point victory. Against Kentucky, the Gamecocks dominated starting field position with turnover and special teams returns, generating 7.5 points of SRV in a 10-point win. And against Texas A&M, South Carolina finished the game with 3.5 points of SRV in a six-point win, and that was after surrendering a late onside kick to the Aggies which cost them 2.6 points of SRV. Prior to that play, the Gamecocks had actually generated more SRV value than the scoring margin in the game.

South Carolina leads the nation in my overall special teams ratings through Week 8, and Beamer Ball is alive and well in Shane's second year at the helm in Columbia. There is no doubt that big special teams plays can swing games and potentially overcome offensive and defensive efficiencies. But is it sustainable? Special teams ratings do not correlate with winning games as reliably as offensive and defensive metrics, and we extract the randomness of special teams and defensive return data from possession data precisely because they are less predictive and may actually disguise a team's fundamental strengths or weaknesses.

The Gamecocks rank 68th in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency and 50th in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency through Week 8. A team with those ratings against the schedule South Carolina has faced to date would project to have three losses, not two. Picking up an extra win on the strength of stellar special teams play is great, especially considering the challenge awaiting them at the end of the year. South Carolina has Missouri (FEI No. 53), Vanderbilt (No. 84), and Florida (No. 37) before closing the year with currently undefeated and College Football Playoff contenders Tennessee (FEI No. 6) and Clemson (No. 11). There are 2.2 projected wins for the Gamecocks among those five games according to the updated FEI season win projections, but if their special teams magic keeps up, the Gamecocks may steal an extra game (or two?) and disrupt the playoff race.

2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 8)

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.

Rk Team Rec FBS FEI OFEI Rk DFEI Rk NDE Rk ELS Rk GLS Rk ALS Rk
1 Ohio State 7-0 7-0 1.50 2.29 1 1.02 4 3.63 1 .26 74 1.50 55 3.93 32
2 Georgia 7-0 6-0 1.43 1.69 2 1.35 1 3.22 2 .25 78 1.33 66 3.37 59
3 Alabama 7-1 7-1 1.22 1.26 7 1.21 3 1.90 4 .98 8 2.84 4 4.97 4
4 Michigan 7-0 7-0 1.13 1.25 9 .87 6 2.62 3 .38 59 1.48 57 3.09 67
5 Texas 5-3 5-3 .92 1.08 13 .74 12 1.13 17 .99 6 2.82 5 5.27 1
6 Tennessee 7-0 6-0 .92 1.51 5 .21 42 1.71 5 .86 16 2.05 26 3.37 58
7 USC 6-1 6-1 .77 1.64 3 -.29 87 1.51 6 .32 66 1.51 53 3.85 36
8 Penn State 6-1 6-1 .71 .65 27 .76 8 1.28 12 .72 24 1.97 31 3.94 31
9 Utah 5-2 4-2 .70 1.11 12 .31 34 .99 23 .41 51 1.75 41 3.88 34
10 LSU 6-2 5-2 .69 1.20 10 .55 18 1.10 19 .82 22 2.84 3 5.04 3
11 Clemson 8-0 7-0 .67 .55 34 .74 11 1.15 16 .37 62 1.68 45 3.86 35
12 TCU 7-0 6-0 .63 1.05 14 .26 37 1.25 14 .38 58 1.80 39 3.84 38
13 Oklahoma State 6-1 5-1 .63 .69 22 .50 20 .48 45 .65 30 2.16 20 4.04 25
14 Mississippi State 5-3 5-3 .62 .68 25 .72 13 .88 26 1.00 5 2.79 6 5.20 2
15 Ole Miss 7-1 6-1 .62 1.36 6 .06 56 1.27 13 .35 63 1.52 52 3.78 42
16 Oregon 6-1 5-1 .60 1.60 4 -.05 66 1.36 8 .87 15 1.92 34 3.79 40
17 Wake Forest 6-1 5-1 .57 1.13 11 .25 38 1.49 7 .29 69 1.22 71 3.07 68
18 Kansas State 5-2 4-2 .52 .52 35 .77 7 .61 40 .42 44 2.13 22 4.56 10
19 Minnesota 4-3 3-3 .49 .58 32 .43 25 .87 28 .38 60 1.56 50 3.16 65
20 Illinois 6-1 5-1 .49 .02 62 .97 5 1.31 10 .28 72 1.41 61 3.52 54
21 Iowa State 3-4 2-4 .48 .21 53 .75 9 .26 54 .61 33 2.16 19 4.21 20
22 Wisconsin 4-4 3-4 .45 .40 43 .49 21 .35 51 .99 7 2.26 18 4.21 21
23 UCF 5-2 4-2 .45 .69 24 .14 52 1.02 22 .11 106 .81 97 2.58 89
24 Syracuse 6-1 5-1 .44 .47 39 .25 39 .84 30 .34 65 1.60 48 3.55 52
25 Kentucky 5-2 4-2 .44 .22 52 .71 14 .70 35 .41 49 1.68 44 3.57 51
26 Maryland 6-2 6-2 .41 .82 19 .03 59 .91 25 .62 31 1.83 36 4.15 23
27 Notre Dame 4-3 4-3 .41 .18 54 .55 17 .36 50 .83 19 1.61 47 3.58 50
28 Florida State 4-3 3-3 .39 .67 26 .13 53 .21 55 .62 32 2.35 12 4.42 15
29 Baylor 4-3 3-3 .39 .59 31 .34 31 .67 37 .31 68 1.46 59 3.43 56
30 Iowa 3-4 2-4 .38 -.63 108 1.23 2 -.47 86 1.50 2 2.77 7 4.02 28

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