by Brian Fremeau
The Alabama Crimson Tide claimed their fifth national championship of the last decade on Monday night with a thrilling 26-23 overtime victory over the Georgia Bulldogs. The program best positioned and best equipped to sustain elite success has done exactly that under head coach Nick Saban, and there is no reason to expect anything less out of Tuscaloosa for the foreseeable future. Alabama contending for and frequently winning conference and national championships has and will continue to inspire awe and respect from many, and generate frustration and disgust from many more.
It is certainly possible that this kind of domination by a single program is not healthy for the sport itself, and that college football may suffer somehow by Alabama repeatedly finishing on top. I'm not in that camp, or more specifically, I'm not in the camp that would put that all of that problem on Alabama's shoulders. The sport is dominated by an elite group of programs, and it has pretty much always been that way. Alabama is hoisting the championship trophy at season's end with exceptional frequency of late, but they're not the only program we can count on to win year in and year out.
Ohio State finished sixth overall in the final FEI ratings, the first time since 2013 that the Buckeyes didn't finish in the top five. Clemson reached the College Football Playoff for the third straight season, having lost only four times in the last three years; only two of those four losses came in the regular season. Oklahoma has racked up a total of only six losses in the last three seasons. Along with Alabama, each of these three programs has had elite recent success, each was subsequently projected to have a great year in 2017, and each delivered on that expectation.
And there are many other examples of teams finding consistency year over year. Washington made the playoff last season and finished fifth overall in the 2016 FEI ratings. The Huskies went 9-3 this year and finished 11th overall. Penn State nearly missed the playoff in both 2016 and 2017, finishing 11th and seventh respectively in the FEI ratings. Wisconsin finished sixth last season and eighth this season in FEI. Five of the top seven teams in this year's FEI preseason projections, including national runner-up Georgia, finished ranked among the top six in the final FEI ratings at year's end. I can take a victory lap of sorts on the Bulldogs, but there's very little to boast about in my other projections. Elite teams seem to be getting easier and easier to forecast because the same elite teams are performing at an elite level year after year.
Georgia actually finishes the season ranked No. 1 overall in the final FEI ratings, just ahead of the team they lost to on the final, dramatic play of the college football season. That marks the second straight season in which the top two teams in the final FEI ratings flipped the outcome of the championship game results. As with last season, it's relatively easy to understand why. Georgia and Alabama were statistically very similar in their opponent-adjusted team and unit ratings, but Georgia was rewarded for having recorded a higher number of elite performances. The Bulldogs had eight single-game opponent-adjusted victories that ranked in the 90th percentile or better this year, including five of the top-50 single game performances in college football. Alabama had seven games in the 90th percentile or better, and three top-50 single game performances. Alabama saved its best for last, however. Their playoff wins each rank among the top 15 opponent-adjusted single game victories of the year.
The other program worth mentioning is the other program laying claim to a national championship of its own, the Central Florida Knights. Central Florida ran the table this year, the only team to do so, with an efficient offense that ranked among the top five nationally in touchdown efficiency (44.3 percent of non-garbage drives) and finished sixth nationally in net points per drive (1.62). Central Florida played one game against an FEI top-five opponent and won it, a 34-27 victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
FEI ratings are not designed to be slanted for or against the non-Power 5 conferences, but the ratings are designed to prioritize results against top opponents. Alabama didn't get a chance to prove itself to the FEI ratings system until it drew a trio of elite opponents to close out the season. Central Florida didn't get the chance to do the same -- their Peach Bowl victory was their only game played against an FEI top-20 opponent, in fact. The other top 10 teams in the FEI ratings faced an average of 4.7 games against FEI top-20 opponents this year.
It's unfair to assume Central Florida would necessarily fail or pass a test if they had been given the same opportunity to play more of those games. I wish the Knights could get more regular-season games against top opponents. But I simultaneously wish Power 5 conference teams faced off more often as well, and we're not likely to get either wish granted in a satisfactory manner.
We have an imperfect system, and with a group of power programs dominating the sport, we probably always will. College football can always be counted on to deliver exhilarating games and preposterous results throughout the year anyway. And a 41-yard walkoff touchdown pass in the national championship game, executed by a perennially dominant program, capped the year with a simultaneously exhilarating, unexpected, and predictable result.
Bravo, college football. Come back again real soon.
[ad placeholder 3]
FEI 2017 Final Ratings
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. 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 entire schedule.
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.
|19||North Carolina State||8-4||.144||.065||40||1.78||18||2.89||15||2.09||52||-.07||116|