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11 Jan 2017
by Brian Fremeau
If you had told me before the championship game that Clemson would punt nine times against Alabama, I would have told you that the Crimson Tide were probably going to win. In the 2016 season, teams that punted at least nine times in a game went 19-79 (.193) and lost by an average of 20.5 points per game. Alabama had forced five of its opponents to punt at least nine times in a game this season, and they won all five of those games (including the College Football Playoff semifinal over Washington) by an average margin of victory of 35.6 points.
Since 2008, the Crimson Tide had forced a total of 22 opponents to punt at least nine times in a game, and Alabama won all 22 of those games by an average final score of 37-6. They didn't allow more than 15 points in any of those games.
On Monday night, Clemson punted nine times against Alabama. Clemson won.
If you had told me before the championship game that Alabama would win the turnover margin battle by two, I would have told you that the Crimson Tide were probably going to win. In the last ten years in FBS games, teams that won the turnover margin battle by at least two turnovers won 82.5 percent of the time. In the same span, the entirety of the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide were a perfect 35-0 when winning the turnover margin battle by at least two turnovers.
On Monday night, Clemson had two turnovers to Alabama's zero. Clemson won.
If you had told me before the championship game that Alabama would dominate the field position battle, I would have told you that the Crimson Tide were probably going to win. Alabama's average starting field position was its own 35-yard line and the Crimson Tide started only two offensive possessions from inside their own 20-yard line. Clemson's average starting field position was its own 23-yard line and the Tigers started seven offensive drives from inside their own 20-yard line.
Based on starting field position alone, an average offense playing an average defense would have been expected to score 5.7 fewer points with Clemson's starting field position than with Alabama's. And the Crimson Tide had been particularly formidable in defending long fields, allowing only two scoring drives all season on opponent possessions started more than 80 yards from the end zone.
On Monday night, Clemson had touchdown scoring drives of 87 and 88 yards. Clemson won.
The 2016 National Championship game played out pretty much exactly as Alabama would have wanted it to, with a few key exceptions. The first is that the Crimson Tide, for the first time all season, couldn't convert opponent turnovers into points. A pair of Clemson fumbles, one in the first half and one in the second half, left Alabama with the two best field position opportunities either team would have in the entire game. The Tide wasted the first entirely, losing 7 yards and punting on a drive that started at the Clemson 35-yard line. The second was a failure as well, 7 yards on three plays on a drive that started at the Clemson 16-yard line, concluding with a field goal.
The turnovers were worth a total of 8.4 points based on the resulting field position, but Alabama netted only three points on those two drives. Blowing those 5.4 points was huge in a game they would go on to lose by only four points.
The second biggest issue with how the game played out was that it lasted too many possessions. The Crimson Tide won 110 games against FBS opponents since 2007, and on average their opponents possessed the ball a total of 12.7 times per game. Through the first 26 possessions of the national championship game, Alabama led 24-21. They allowed only 11 yards on nine plays on Clemson's next two possessions after that point. But the final two Tigers drives -- the 16th and 17th of the game with Alabama's offense on the field -- both went for touchdowns. Until Monday night, Alabama's defense under Saban had never taken the field in a single game on 17 non-garbage opponent possessions.
I thought Clemson would need to play a perfect game to beat Alabama, and they played far from it. But they were able to extend the game to a point no team had ever really done against the Crimson Tide, and they executed perfectly when it mattered most on those final two possessions.
The final FEI ratings below still have Alabama ranked No. 1 and Clemson ranked No. 2. The head-to-head matchup represents 11.4 percent of Clemson's final rating and 12.5 percent of Alabama's final rating. The Tigers finished the year with eight opponent-adjusted single game efficiency ratings in the 90th percentile in all of college football. Alabama had 12 such games.
The biggest difference between the two teams' overall FEI ratings is their worst performances of the year. Alabama's 48-43 victory over Ole Miss (47th overall in FEI) ranks in the 84th percentile, and the loss to Clemson ranks in the 87th percentile. Clemson's 30-24 win over Troy (77th percentile) and 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh (69th percentile), both at home, were worse than either of Alabama's two worst games in terms of opponent-adjusted efficiency. They weren't albatrosses -- Clemson finishes with the best FEI rating for a No. 2 team I've measured -- but the Alabama resume is still distinct.
Alabama won the national championship in 2011 but finished third overall in FEI. This year they stand ahead of the team that dethroned them. Sometimes the games play out as expected, and sometimes even that isn't enough.
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.
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