by Brian Fremeau
College football is finally underway and it didn't take long for the first major statement of the year to be made. By halftime of Texas A&M's blowout victory on the road against South Carolina Thursday night, the Aggies had already rolled up five scores and 393 yards of total offense on six non-garbage possessions. They finished the game averaging 7.7 yards per play, and new starting quarterback Kenny Hill completed 73 percent of his passes for a school-record 511 yards.
Our F/+ projections were higher on the Aggies than pretty much anyone else, but we were still stunned by the result. South Carolina was supposed to be a major playoff contender and being on the wrong end of a laugher at home in Week 1 isn't a good look. The early-season FEI ratings will be influenced by preseason projections through the first six weeks of the year, but the lopsided nature of this particular game had an immediate impact. Texas A&M leaped up ten ranking spots to No. 8 in FEI, joining No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 LSU, and No. 7 Auburn among the SEC West behemoths in the top 10. South Carolina fell seven spots to No. 13, the biggest fall of any preseason top-25 team.
Can South Carolina recover from a 52-28 thud and become a legitimate playoff contender by the end of the year? It might not be likely, but it is certainly possible. We took a look at elite team characteristics a few weeks back in part to understand how often elite teams underperform expectations. Teams that finished in the Massey Consensus Top 5 at the end of each of the last 10 years combined to lose only 55 total times in that span. Only eight of those losses came by at least 21 points, and only two of those came in regular season games.
- 10/2/2010: Stanford (No. 3 Massey Consensus) lost 52-31 to Oregon (No. 4).
- 10/6/2012: Georgia (No. 5 Massey Consensus) lost 35-7 to South Carolina (No. 8).
South Carolina should actually be quite familiar with this phenomenon by being on the other side of a blowout game. The Gamecocks demolished Georgia by 28 points in 2012 but the Bulldogs ultimately recovered, won the SEC East, and nearly upset Alabama in the SEC Championship with a trip to the BCS title game on the line. Not only that, but Georgia finished ahead of South Carolina in the end-of-year Massey Consensus, three ranking spots ahead of an opponent to which it had lost by four touchdowns. In 2010, Stanford finished the year one spot ahead of an opponent to which it lost by three touchdowns.
With only one week of results in the can, it is hard to picture a scenario where South Carolina would establish itself as a better team than Texas A&M. But this kind of thing happens with more regularity than most realize. Over the last ten years, there have been 7,074 FBS vs. FBS games played, and in 1,224 of those games (17.3 percent), the winner ended the year ranked behind the loser in the Massey Consensus. In 62.5 percent of those retro-upsets, the margin of victory was eight points or less. But 7.9 percent of those retro-upsets were decided by 21 points or more. Five teams finished the year ranked ahead of an opponent to which it lost by 40 or more points.
Many of those retro-upsets didn't happen among particularly good teams. We defined Very Good teams as those ranked between No. 6 and No. 15 in the Massey Consensus. Only one of those teams suffered a retro-upset defeat last year by 24 or more points, and it came late in the year. Baylor (No. 9 in Massey Consensus) lost 49-17 to Oklahoma State (No. 14) on November 23, knocking the Bears out of the BCS national championship race. That loss may have also knocked Baylor out of the playoff picture had this year's postseason format already been in place. But how relevant was the timing of the loss compared to its severity? If Baylor's blowout loss was at the beginning of the year like South Carolina's, an impressive run down the stretch of the season would theoretically make it easier to overcome the bad result.
Head-to-head results matter, but college football won't present the playoff selection committee with a clean data set of results with no ranking violations. Only 17.6 percent of FBS teams last year finished the season by losing only to teams ranked ahead of them and winning all games against those ranked below them. Only ten of those teams played in a Power Five conference, and only two of them would have been in the playoff discussion.
- Florida State (13-0)
- Ohio State (11-2)
- Clemson (9-2)
- Washington (8-4)
- Texas A&M (8-4)
- Oregon State (7-5)
- North Carolina State (2-9)
- Kentucky (1-10)
- California (0-11)
- Purdue (0-11)
The committee is going to have to wrestle with the severity of bad losses versus the quality of great wins, and South Carolina may be one of the teams with which they'll have to wrestle. Maybe. Even though the Gamecocks currently hold the top spot in FEI for teams with a loss, it will take quite a run the rest of the way for them to be a real playoff challenger. Our FEI projections give South Carolina only a 2.5 percent likelihood of winning the rest of its regular season games and only a 15.9 percent chance of finishing the year 10-2 or better. A record of 8-4 (7.3 FBS wins) is the most likely result, and that will fall further if they don't play like the No. 13 team in the country in the coming weeks.
Texas A&M's most likely end-of-year record is 9-3 (8.0 FBS wins), and our updated projections actually don't look good for any of the SEC West contenders to emerge at the end of the year without a bruised resume. Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Texas A&M all still have to contend with one another. None of the four projects to have much of a chance of sweeping the others.
- 26.8 percent chance for Alabama to sweep Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M.
- 13.4 percent chance for LSU to sweep Alabama, Auburn, and Texas A&M.
- 7.5 percent chance for Auburn to sweep Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M.
- 5.3 percent chance for Texas A&M to sweep Alabama, Auburn, and LSU.
The first of those SEC West showdowns comes on October 4 when Auburn hosts LSU. There are many big games to be played in the 2014 regular season, but collectively those games may have the most potential to dramatically impact the playoff race.
FEI 2014 Week 1 Ratings
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The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. Nearly 20,000 possessions are contested annually in FBS vs. FBS games. First-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores are filtered out. Game Efficiency (GE) is a function of the starting field position and outcome of non-garbage possessions. Opponent adjustments are calculated with special emphasis placed on quality performances against good teams, win or lose.
Strength of Schedule (SOS) is calculated as the likelihood that an "elite team" (two standard deviations above average) would win every game on the given team's schedule. SOS listed here includes all regular season games scheduled. A multifaceted approach to measuring schedule strength is available here.
Mean Wins (FBS MW) represent the average total games a team with the given FEI rating should expect to win against its complete schedule of FBS opponents. Remaining Mean Wins (FBS RMW) represent the average total games a team with the given FEI rating should expect to win against the remaining opponents on its schedule.
These ratings are partially influenced by preseason projections, a function of Program FEI ratings, previous-year FEI and garbage time data, previous-year turnover-neutral, special teams-neutral, and field position-neutral FEI, returning starters, recruiting success, and quarterback reliance. As the season progresses and actual 2014 data continues to be collected, the weight given to projection data will be reduced each week until Week 7, at which point it will be eliminated from the rankings entirely. Offensive and defensive FEI ratings will also debut in Week 7.