by Brian Fremeau
It's the end of the regular season, and the College Football Playoff field and bowl matchups have been set. The playoff selection committee had its work cut out for itself this year, with the fourth and final berth coming down to a choice between a pair of historically powerful programs that were both worthy and yet unworthy of consideration, depending on your perspective. As the creator of a statistical analysis tool that is designed to evaluate data and data alone, my own perspective is also conflicted.
The Alabama Crimson Tide were given the nod, and there are plenty of statistical reasons to agree with that choice. Along with the SEC champion Georgia Bulldogs (the No. 3 seed in the playoff rankings), Alabama is one of only two teams that rank among the top six nationally in opponent-adjusted offense, opponent-adjusted defense, and overall opponent-adjusted FEI ratings. Though not prolific offensively, the Crimson Tide were efficient and protected the ball better than any other offense this season, ranking first nationally in turnover percentage (3.7 percent of non-garbage drives). Their defense wasn't particularly reliant on turnovers, but was very efficient. Alabama ranked among the top five nationally in defensive drive success rate (17.4 percent of opponent drives generated more value than expected based on field position), available yards allowed (31.4 percent), and touchdown rate (10.1 percent).
All of that said, did Alabama prove themselves this year? The opponent-adjusted numbers recognize Alabama's elite status, but the Crimson Tide failed the one and only test they were given against a fellow elite opponent in their 12-point loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Alabama has zero wins against top-10 FEI opponents, while each of the other three playoff contenders have one each. Alabama has only one win against an FEI top-20 opponent, while the other three playoff contenders have ten such wins combined. The Crimson Tide may have the capacity for greatness, but they didn't prove it when it mattered most this year, and their failure to reach the conference championship game might have actually benefited them, since they did not have to risk a second loss against another formidable foe. Is that playoff-worthy?
In comparison, Ohio State has an excellent collection of playoff-worthy victories. The Buckeyes have two wins against fellow FEI top-10 opponents, with victories over Penn State and Wisconsin. Ohio State is tied with Clemson for the most opponent-adjusted single game efficiency performances that rank in the 90th percentile nationally -- eight such wins, three more than Alabama. The Buckeyes rank among the top 10 in FEI, OFEI, and DFEI, and they played a more difficult schedule than the Crimson Tide. Ohio State's overall schedule strength played to date ranks 12th nationally. An elite team would have been expected to lose 1.73 times against their slate played to date. Alabama's schedule ranks 60th, and the same elite team would have been expected to lose only 1.12 times against their opponents.
That's the rub, though, isn't it? Ohio State has two losses, 0.27 more losses than an elite team "should have had" and Alabama has only one loss, 0.12 fewer losses than an elite team "should have had." Was the committee simply reluctant to pull the trigger on granting a playoff berth to a two-loss team, regardless of how strong that team's profile was otherwise? I think, perhaps, that might be so, but the committee appeared well prepared to have granted an exception for then-two-loss Auburn had the Tigers won the SEC championship game.
The albatross around Ohio State's neck was the bigger and more definitive issue, I think. And that's ultimately an albatross that drags down the Buckeyes in the FEI ratings as well. For as strong as Ohio State proved to be against the bulk of its schedule, their 31-point loss to Iowa was terrible. The Hawkeyes aren't terrible -- in fact, FEI has Iowa ranked 18th this week, so it's hardly the worst loss suffered by an otherwise great team in terms of the strength of the opponent faced. It's the blowout nature of the loss, inexcusable for a playoff-contending team.
The worst performance of the season recorded by Alabama this year was a 12-point loss to a top-five opponent, a loss that still ranks higher than 78 percent of all other single-game performances recorded in FBS this year. As for the other playoff teams, Clemson's worst game (a three-point road loss to Syracuse) ranks in the 55th percentile; Oklahoma's worst game (a 7-point loss to Iowa State) ranks in the 62nd percentile; and Georgia's worst game (a 23-point loss to Auburn) ranks in the 63rd percentile. Ohio State's loss to Iowa ranks in the 25th percentile. As bad losses by elite teams go, it was as bad as it gets. And I think the committee, whether they evaluated it through a data lens or otherwise, agreed.
Given a choice between Alabama and Ohio State for the final playoff spot, the FEI ratings would also pick the Crimson Tide. But if we used FEI to pick the playoff field, neither Alabama nor Ohio State would have gotten the nod. Instead, that seat would belong to Auburn. The Tigers played the nation's toughest schedule this year, with four games against the playoff field. A 2-2 record in those four games is nothing to sneeze at either, and actually reinforces their worthiness among the nation's elite. Unlike the Crimson Tide, we know what Auburn is capable of against elite competition.
Of course, a three-loss conference runner-up has no shot at the playoff and likely never will, since there will inevitably be several teams with unblemished or barely-blemished resumes. A case can certainly be made that if Auburn had traded schedules with any of the playoff teams, they likely would also have traded records and found themselves safely in the field. But that's college football, and we ultimately love it despite all of its imbalances and imperfections. And the eventual national champion, whether it is Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, or Clemson, will have been able to prove itself when it matters most in the end with a pair of wins against fellow elite teams.
FEI 2017 Week 14 Ratings
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. Approximately 20,000 possessions are contested anually 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 measure of net success on non-garbage possessions, and FEI opponent adjustments are calculated with special emphasis placed on quality performances against good teams, win or lose. Strength of schedule (SOS) ratings represent the average number of losses an elite team (two standard deviations better than average) would have against the team's schedule to date.
Offensive FEI (OFEI) is value generated per drive adjusted for starting field position and opponent defenses faced. Defensive FEI (DFEI) is value generated per opponent drive adjusted for starting field position and opponent offenses faced. Special Teams Efficiency (STE) is the average value generated per possession by a team's non-offensive and non-defensive units.
|21||North Carolina State||7-4||.124||.043||49||1.69||15||2.74||26||2.06||50||-.08||118|