Syracuse Keeps Slugging
NCAA Week 7 - In the second half of Syracuse's 24-9 win over NC State on Saturday, the Wolfpack possessed the ball only three times. They laboriously plodded 50 yards in 14 plays on one drive, then 56 yards in 18 plays on another, two long possessions that yielded only six points on two field goals and chewed up over 17 minutes of game clock. The Orange methodically drained the clock on offense as well, but did so effectively, following each of NC State's second-half field goals with touchdown drives. One went 78 yards in 13 plays and the other 65 yards in 9 plays, making the most of their precious two (!) second-half possessions to pull ahead by two scores. When the Wolfpack started the final drive of the game, they only had two minutes and change to work with and drove 57 yards in 12 plays into the red zone before the clock expired.
College football games come in all shapes and sizes, and the second half of this one was an extreme outlier on the possession count ledger. Since the start of the 2007 season, there have been more than 11,000 games played between FBS opponents, and this was one of only four complete games in which there were only five total possessions in a half. (There were two other occasions since 2007 in which only five second-half possessions were played in a game, but each of those was a blowout cut short at the end of the third quarter due to severe weather). Two of the four outlier complete games involved service academy teams, and two involved Syracuse: a 44-38 overtime loss to Virginia in 2015 and Saturday's victory over NC State.
What do we make of the 6-0 Syracuse Orange, now ranked No. 29 overall in this week's FEI ratings? This was not a program we anticipated would make a leap forward in 2022. They posted a losing record in seven of the last eight seasons coming into the year, and their best FEI ratings finish in any season since 2007 was 35th overall in 2018. Syracuse had a Vegas win total of only 5.0 wins in the preseason, and FEI preseason projections gave the Orange only a 31% chance to exceed those expectations. Six straight wins to start the year elevated their FEI win projections each week, of course, and Syracuse now projects to have a 75% chance to finish the regular season at 9-3 or better.
But are they a legitimate conference championship contender? They stand alongside Clemson as the only ACC Atlantic division teams with a conference record above .500, and they'll face the Tigers (FEI No. 11) this weekend in a matchup that may ultimately determine the conference race. But their schedule strength to date ranks substantially weaker than most of the other teams currently ranked in the top-30, and it isn't just Clemson that will prove to make their remaining schedule strength tougher than their slate so far. Syracuse also has road games at Pittsburgh (FEI No. 43), Wake Forest (FEI No. 22), and Boston College (FEI No. 94), plus home games against Notre Dame (FEI No. 26) and Florida State (FEI No. 35) still to come. None of those opponents should be nearly as challenging as Clemson, but most of them will be tough outs.
Syracuse isn't overwhelming any team offensively or defensively, either. They have had only one game ranked in the 90th percentile in terms of opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency, a 48-14 win over lowly Connecticut, and they have only had one game ranked that well in terms of opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency, a 31-7 defeat of Louisville. They've won some rock fights against good-but-not-great teams, and none of their efficiency ratings are dazzling. As in the NC State second half, Syracuse has held teams out of the end zone when it matters most, but opponents haven't struggled mightily to move the ball on them. The Orange defense ranks 27th nationally in available yards percentage (41%) and 41st nationally in value drive defense, which measures the percentage of opponent drives that conclude with a drive ending value greater than the drive start value based on field position.
Of all of the efficiency metrics I track, Syracuse ranks in the top 10 in only two: the percentage of offensive drives that average at least four yards per play (71%, 9th nationally) and the percentage of opponent offensive drives that average at least four yards per play (41%, 10th nationally). Notably, they rank 74th in the percentage of offensive drives that average at least seven yards per play. Those numbers highlight a team that isn't interested in lighting up the scoreboard or the stat sheet with big plays, on either side of the ball. They move the ball pretty well, and a team that can consistently move the chains can reliably win slugfests.
So far, so good. But the degree of difficulty will ramp up this weekend and beyond.
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 7)
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.