by Brian Fremeau
Auburn and Washington faced off in one of last weekend's premier match-ups, a game that may have a lasting impact on the College Football Playoff championship race. The Tigers scored a touchdown on a 10-yard run by JaTarvious Whitlow with just over six minutes remaining to win 21-16. It was only the third touchdown scored by either team in the contest, even though both teams had plenty of scoring opportunities. Auburn had seven drives finish inside Washington's 40-yard line, netting two touchdowns and three field goals on those possessions. Washington had six drives finish inside Auburn's 25-yard line, netting only one touchdown and three field goals on those possessions.
Finishing drives is critical to winning football games, and it's easy to focus on success or failure in the red zone as shaping the outcome of a close game in particular. A drive that moves into scoring range isn't guaranteed to result in points, but I measure the value of offensive possessions based not just on the points that end up on the scoreboard but also the expected points created by moving into field goal range, regardless of the outcome of the field goal attempt.
Auburn, for instance, missed a pair of field goals against Washington, a 33-yard attempt and a 54-yard attempt. Both of the drives that resulted in those field goal attempts started inside the Tigers' own 25-yard line, and Auburn's offense gets some credit for each of those drives. The first drive concluded at the Washington 15-yard line, and on average, a drive that ends at that yard line is worth 2.36 points. The second drive concluded at the Washington 37-yard line, worth only 0.32 points on average. It would be incorrect to conclude that the Tigers forfeited six points on those two failed field goal attempts. Rather, the total expected value of both attempts was only 2.68 points.
Where do these values come from? They are based on national drive results data over the last 11 seasons, measured not only on the success rate of field goal units but also on the frequency of those attempts from long field goal range. Consider the following chart, indicating the average points scored on field attempts from each yard line as well as the average points scored when adding in punts.
Not every team is blessed with a kicker strong and accurate enough to ever bother attempting field goals from drives ending outside the opponent's 35-yard line. There have been a total of 24,638 field goal attempts on non-garbage drives since 2007, and only 492 of those attempts (2.0 percent) were attempted from such a distance. Only 55 field goal attempts (0.2 percent of all field goal attempts) were on drives that concluded outside the opponent's 40-yard line.
The value that a long-range placekicker provides in successfully converting a field goal from these distances is worth more than the average value produced solely on such attempts. Any successful field goal of around 55 or more yards (attempted from the opponent's 38-yard line or further) is almost exclusively earned by the kicker. The offense that put that kicker into that position didn't earn much of anything by doing so. But once that offense moves the ball inside the opponent's 30-yard line, the kicker's contribution to a successful field goal attempt is only partially his own. In fact, according to this data and methodology, more than half of the three-point value scored on a successful kick of 46 or fewer yards (attempted from inside the opponent's 30-yard line) belongs to the offense that put that kicker in position to succeed.
I calculate the drive-ending field value based on the blue dot trend line, inclusive of both field goal attempts and punts. It's worth noting that the chart above and its underlying data do identify one of the blind spots my numbers have by not drilling down to the play-by-play level. As with the decision to punt or attempt a field goal, coaches also have the option of going for it, of course. An argument could be made that the expected drive-ending value should also factor in turnovers on downs (which I have) and successful fourth-down conversion attempts in these ranges (which I don't have). Since I don't have all of the data to consider on this part of the coaching decision tree, my drive-ending field value calculations are more limited.
Once all teams have played at least one FBS opponent, I will begin sharing game splits data that break down the offensive, defensive, and special teams contributions to victories and losses. Starting field position value and drive-ending value are key components to the offensive and defensive numbers in particular.
FEI Week 1 Ratings (updated 9/5/2018)
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency. Preseason projections (86 percent weight in this week's ratings) are based on five-year results, recruiting success, and returning offensive and defensive production. Strength of Schedule ratings (SOS) represent the average number of losses an elite team (two standard deviations better than average) would have against the team's regular season schedule. Strength of Schedule ratings against opponents played to date (PSOS) are also calculated from the perspective of an elite team.