FEI Week 13: Anchors Aweigh
by Brian Fremeau
Four weeks ago, Notre Dame and Navy recorded one of the most remarkable stat lines of the college football season. The Midshipmen won by a final score of 28-27 in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 5. There were no turnovers in the game, the total yardage was nearly the same (370 for the Irish, 368 for the Midshipmen), and the first down totals were dead even (21 apiece). What stood out in the game was the number of possessions. Notre Dame finished the game having possessed the ball only six times, four times in the first half and only two times in the second half.
The victory was a perfect example of the particular kind of deliberate efficiency that Navy's triple-option attack is designed to execute. Navy's defense allowed Notre Dame to score on each of its second-half drives, but ruthlessly milked clock by methodically driving downfield for scores of its own, then killed the clock entirely with a 14-play, 57-yard possession over the final 7:28 of the game to win.
Navy was only getting started. A week later against Tulsa, the Midshipmen offense took the field ten times and scored 42 points. As with the Notre Dame game, two of their offensive possessions were actually clock kills to end each half. A week after that against East Carolina, Navy scored 66 points on 12 possessions -- nine touchdowns, one field goal, one punt, one final possession to run out the clock. Last weekend against SMU, the Navy offense took the field 11 times and scored 10 touchdowns -- only their final clock kill failed to reach the end zone.
Navy's offense in November was absurd. The Midshipmen took the field 40 times and scored 29 touchdowns and one field goal. They turned the ball over on downs twice, ran out the clock to end the half six times, and punted only twice. If we strip away garbage time possessions, the numbers are even more impressive. Navy's offense had 31 non-garbage possessions in November and scored 26 touchdowns, a ridiculous touchdown rate of 83.9 percent for the month.
I pulled every FBS team's non-garbage possession data from each of the last ten seasons to find out if any other team has enjoyed that kind of relentless success over a similar stretch. Navy stands alone. The next highest touchdown rate over any stretch of 31 offensive possessions in the last ten years was recorded by Baylor at the start of the 2013 season. The Bears scored 24 touchdowns over their first 31 non-garbage offensive possessions to start that season, a touchdown rate of 77.4 percent.
In Navy's case, as well as Baylor's in 2013, the opposing defenses faced were not particularly good. But Navy didn't just face the dregs of college football over the last month either. Notre Dame's defense ranks 61st in opponent-adjusted DFEI, Tulsa's ranks 56th, East Carolina's ranks 118th, and SMU's ranks 53rd. In comparison, Baylor faced Buffalo, Louisiana Monroe, and West Virginia in 2013, defenses that ranked 38th, 76th, and 82nd in DFEI respectively.
It's particularly delightful to discover that the two most prolific multi-game touchdown rate stretches over the last ten years were produced by two offenses that could not more strategically opposite in their approach. Baylor's up-tempo offense ranked sixth nationally in total plays from scrimmage in 2013. Navy currently ranks 122nd in total plays. Baylor attempted 448 passes in 2013 and had a total of 4,668 yards through the air (fifth most nationally). Navy has attempted a total of 121 passes this year for 1,408 yards through the air (125th most nationally).
Navy currently ranks No.1 in opponent-adjusted OFEI, with a rating (1.84) that is better than all but two of the full-season OFEI ratings recorded over the last ten years. Only Wisconsin in 2011 (1.97) and Oklahoma in 2008 (1.88) have had a better opponent-adjusted single season offense than Navy has to date. The Midshipmen have earned 66.8 percent of available yards to date, the second best rate over the last decade behind only 2010 Boise State. Navy's season-long 52.8 percent touchdown rate would rank fourth over the last decade behind 2011 Wisconsin (55.4 percent), 2008 Oklahoma (54.9 percent), and 2013 Florida State (53.2 percent).
How would the Midshipmen fare against the nation's best defense in Alabama? It's hard to imagine that a team as big, fast, and talented as the Crimson Tide would struggle against Navy, and yet it's the Midshipmen's precision scheme that ultimately overwhelms their opponents. Against the best defense it has faced this year (Houston, 16th nationally in DFEI), Navy's offense had the ball 11 times and scored four touchdowns and three field goals, punting three times and turning it over on downs once. It wasn't nearly as proficient as it was in November, but that game against Houston still ranks in the 70th percentile in raw offensive efficiency and in the 85th percentile in opponent-adjusted efficiency.
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Navy will play Temple (44th in DFEI) this weekend in the American Athletic Conference championship game, then conclude its season against Army (85th in DFEI) to end the regular season. If the Midshipmen's December looks anything like their November on offense, they have the potential to finish the year with the best offensive efficiency statistics of any team in the last ten seasons.
FEI Ratings Through Week 13
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. Approximately 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. Unadjusted game efficiency (GE) is a measure of net success on non-garbage possessions, and opponent adjustments are calculated with special emphasis placed on quality performances against good teams, win or lose. Overall SOS ratings represent the likelihood than an elite team (two standard deviations better than average) would go undefeated against the given team's entire schedule.
Offensive FEI (OFEI) is value generated per offensive non-garbage possession adjusted for the strength of opponent defenses faced. Defensive FEI (DFEI) is value generated per opponent offensive non-garbage possession adjusted for the strength of opponent offenses faced. Special Teams Efficiency (STE) is the average value generated per non-garbage possession by a team's non-offensive and non-defensive units. Strength of schedule ratings for games played to date (SOP) are also provided.