by Brian Fremeau
The first month of the season is nearly in the books, and it's time to check in on the teams that have exceeded or fallen short of their expectations thus far. As anticipated, the upper class of college football has been largely untested through the first four weeks of the season, dominating lesser opponents and doing nothing to shake confidence in their status as projected playoff contenders.
The Alabama Crimson Tide have scored an average of 50 points per game and allowed an average of only 11 points per game, leading the nation in net points per non-garbage drive (3.80) through Week 4. They haven't faced any real challenges to date, and they don't project to struggle much over the next month either. Their individual game projected win expectations against each of their next four opponents exceeds 95 percent, including a road trip to Texas A&M on October 12. Alabama's likelihood to run the table to an undefeated regular season jumped up to 57 percent this week, indicative of their power as well as the diminishing expectations of a couple of their upcoming opponents, namely A&M and Mississippi State.
The Tide will still have to contend with SEC West rivals LSU and Auburn, each of which ranks among the FEI top eight, and each of which has improved its projected record from the start of the season to now. LSU is lighting up scoreboards this year, ranking third nationally through Week 4 in offensive points per drive (4.66). We've grown so accustomed to defensive slugfests in November when LSU and Alabama face off, but early returns this year suggest that game may turn into a shootout. Auburn has two solid pelts on its wall, with wins over Oregon and Texas A&M, but more landmines ahead than most, including clashes with both Georgia and Alabama in November.
Georgia held off Notre Dame this past weekend in Athens in the only matchup between current FEI top-10 teams thus far. The Bulldogs don't have a fully cleared path, but they rank behind only Clemson and Alabama with a 26 percent chance of winning out each of their remaining regular-season games. Clemson has by far the clearest path -- a whopping 79 percent chance of running through the rest of the regular season unscathed -- and unlike Georgia and Alabama, once they do they won't have to face a particularly formidable opponent in the ACC Championship Game.
There are a handful of teams that have suffered a loss thus far, but have still improved their season forecast. Notre Dame played admirably well in their loss on Saturday, and though that game may have done significant damage to their playoff chances, their end-of-year projected record has actually improved slightly (0.2 wins) over where it was at the start of the season. Oregon lost to Auburn, but their projected win total has increased by 1.3 wins from the start of the season. For these teams and others, the impact on projected wins has as much to do with weakening future opponents as it has to do with their own team strength. Notre Dame's top remaining opponents include USC, Michigan, and Stanford, each of which has had early setbacks out of the gate.
The Cardinal, in fact, have had one of the worst starts relative to FEI projection thus far. Stanford has slipped from preseason No. 32 and 5.5 projected losses to No. 62 this week and 7.3 projected losses. That's rough, but not as poor as Tennessee. The Volunteers ranked No. 34 in the FEI preseason projections with an expected 5.8 losses. Stunning losses to Georgia State and BYU and a non-competitive loss to Florida have them reeling, 87th overall and 8.8 projected losses. They were somewhat more likely than not to reach bowl eligibility to start the year, and they are now 98 percent likely to miss that mark.
On the flip side, a handful of teams have jumped out to better-than-anticipated starts and have improved their bowl prospects significantly. SMU was projected to lose 6.7 games at the start of the season, but has an undefeated record to date and has leapt up the FEI ratings from No. 95 in the preseason to No. 46 this week, now boasting a 59 percent chance of going 9-3 or better. Cal has climbed similarly, from No. 73 to No. 40 in four weeks, and improving their projected win total by 2.6 wins. Wake Forest had a 72 percent chance of tallying six losses or more at the start of the season. FEI now has the Demon Deacons with an 89 percent chance of tallying five losses or fewer.
In terms of playoff aspirations, the Wisconsin Badgers have made the year's biggest move. Wisconsin ranked 12th in the FEI preseason projections, higher than most, but the Badgers have been one of the most impressively efficient teams this month and have ascended into the playoff picture. FEI still projects a 91 percent likelihood that they will lose at least once before the end of the regular season, but the early returns still indicate there's a strong chance they will put themselves into position to play in the Big Ten Championship Game with a resume strong enough for the committee to give them a hard look.
2019 FEI Ratings (through Week 4)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Ratings this week are partly (43 percent) based on weighted five-year FEI ratings. OFEI Offense ratings (OFEI) and Projected DFEI Defense ratings (DFEI) represent per-possession advantages projected for each unit. Projected losses (PL) represent the average number of losses expected based on individual game win likelihoods in regular season games. Projected season outcome distributions are also provided, represented as the percent chance of losing a given number of regular season games (0L is zero losses, 1L is one loss, etc).