On the heels of LSU mounting a 20-point first-half lead en route to a victory over Alabama, I wrote two weeks ago about teams that had distinctive first-half efficiency ratings. There's more detailed work to be done about game states and their impact on team performance measures of success, but there's no doubt that team results can be characterized in myriad ways.
Take Ohio State's 28-17 victory over Penn State this past weekend, the narrowest margin of victory for the Buckeyes all year. After forcing a Penn State punt on its opening drive, Ohio State scored on its first possession of the game with a 13-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to open up a 7-0 lead. They ran that lead out to 21-0 early in the third quarter, before the Nittany Lions ripped off 17 straight points to pull to within four points late in the third. Ohio State answered in the fourth quarter, forcing a punt from deep in Penn State territory to set up a short-field touchdown drive, and holding off any opportunity for a comeback.
It wasn't a lopsided rout by the Buckeyes, but they did grab a lead right out of the gate that they never relinquished. On the season, Ohio State has had a lead against its opponents at the start of 84.8% of all non-garbage possessions they've contested, the highest rate in the nation. LSU checks in at second overall in this stat (81.9%), followed up by Clemson (79.9%), Wisconsin (79.7%), and Oklahoma (74.9%). The Buckeyes also rank No. 1 in percentage of non-garbage possessions in which they've led by at least nine points (65.2%), led by at least 17 points (48.7%), and led by 25 or more points (28.1%).
Yes, the Penn State game was tightly contested at times. But it's also true that Ohio State held at least a two-score lead over Penn State for 11 out of the 24 non-garbage possessions in the game. There is a term that has emerged in college football in recent years called "game control," attributed in part to the College Football Playoff committee citing it as a factor considered in their deliberations. There may not be a universally agreed-upon definition of the term, but a common interpretation of it relates to the manner in which teams build and sustain leads against their opponents. Winning and losing still matter most in a head-to-head match-up, but perceptions of team strengths are often driven by dominance or lack thereof.
Perceptions are also sometimes shaped by how teams look in their worst moments, though recovering from those moments (even when not fully recovering) is a redeemable team quality. Oklahoma is still in the hunt for the playoff, but has lived dangerously on more than one occasion this year. They've trailed by at least two scores on 9.5% of possessions (29th-fewest nationally), by at least three scores on 4.7% of possessions (43rd-fewest nationally), and by at least four scores on 0.9% of possessions (55th-fewest nationally). Fueled by one of the nation's best and most explosive offenses -- 34.3% of Oklahoma drives average at least 10 yards per play -- the Sooners can turn it on and rally. They overcame a 25-point deficit against Baylor to win in Week 12, and they nearly overcame a 25-point deficit against Kansas State in Week 9. Oklahoma will likely ultimately be judged on the merits of their final results, and less by the roller coaster ride that led them there, but I do wonder if their lack of game control will haunt their playoff candidacy in the end.
In a way, Georgia is a polar opposite of Oklahoma. The Bulldogs boast a smotheringly efficient defense -- allowing a paltry 1.9% of opponent drives to average at least 10 yards per play -- but haven't wowed anyone offensively. Georgia ranks alongside undefeated Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson as the only teams that haven't trailed by more than a single score all season. But unlike those teams, the Bulldogs haven't consistently opened up big leads either. They've been tied against opponents at the start of 25.0% of all non-garbage possessions played, the 10th-highest rate in the nation. And they've played with a lead of 25 points or more on only 3.4% of non-garbage drives, the 44th-best rate in the nation.
Game control can be sliced a number of ways, and as a descriptor of game results independent of the quality of opposition faced, there are significant limitations as to how it can be utilized to predict future outcomes. But it may be worth remembering that last year's best two teams, Clemson and Alabama, were both outstanding game-control programs. Heading into the playoff in 2018, Alabama had led on 80.9% of its non-garbage possessions and Clemson had led on 75.4% of its non-garbage possessions, tops among all teams in FBS. Alabama had led by 25 or more on 19.9% of possessions, and Clemson had a four-score lead on 14.4%. Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson each have an opportunity to finish ahead of those marks in 2019.
2019 FEI Ratings (through Week 13)
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency, representing the per possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Unadjusted possession efficiency (PE) is calculated as a function of offensive, defensive, and special teams game splits. Schedule strength is represented by each team's average per possession opponent adjustment (OA). Opponent-adjusted offense ratings (OFEI), opponent-adjusted defense ratings (DFEI), and opponent-adjusted special teams ratings (SFEI) are calculated in a similar manner as overall FEI ratings. Team records against all FBS opponents (W-L) and against opponents ranked in the FEI top 10 (v10), top 20 (v20), top 30 (v30), top 40 (v40), and top 50 (v50) are also provided.
Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.