by Brian Fremeau
Elite offensive performances tend to grab more headlines than elite defensive performances, and Week 5 was no exception. Top teams across the nation lit up the scoreboard again last weekend. Twelve teams scored 50 or more points against FBS opponents, including victories by still-undefeated Alabama, Appalachian State, Auburn, Oklahoma, and Penn State. Five teams -- LSU, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio State, and Penn State -- are averaging at least 50 points scored per game through Week 5. The first four offenses on that list are currently averaging more than four points scored per non-garbage offensive possession.
As striking as the offensive numbers have been, however, stifling defenses are shutting down opponents with a frequency we haven't witnessed in more than a decade. Since the start of the 2007 season, 3.2% of all FBS vs. FBS games resulted in a shutout victory. There have been nine shutout victories out of 239 FBS vs. FBS games played to date in 2019, 3.7%. There were two shutouts in Week 5, both in Big Ten matchups: Penn State rocked Maryland by a final score of 59-0 on Friday and Michigan crushed Rutgers by a final score of 52-0 on Saturday.
Those two results alone might not seem too unusual, but the defensive dominance is more apparent when we consider only the results of non-garbage time. Per my definitions, garbage time can kick in early or deep into the second half, depending on the scoring margin rung up by the winning team and the possession opportunities remaining for the losing team. Dropping garbage-time results from my possession efficiency analysis is a recognition that there is a point in every game in which the inevitability of the game result is clear, and frequently coincides with winning and losing teams resting key players and rotating in backups. Sometimes garbage-time results are inconsequential scores by a losing team late against second- or third-team defenders, or the winning team tacking on meaningless box score numbers in the waning drives of the fourth quarter.
When we drop all of these garbage possessions, we produce non-garbage "final" results, and it results in more shutouts to be celebrated. Non-garbage shutouts occurred in 6.0% of all FBS vs. FBS game results from 2007 to 2018. Last weekend, out of 51 FBS vs. FBS games played, a whopping eight games (15.7%) were non-garbage shutouts:
- Penn State 59, Maryland 0 (45-0 in non-garbage time)
- Michigan 52, Rutgers 0 (38-0 in non-garbage time)
- Ohio State 48, Nebraska 7 (38-0 in non-garbage time)
- South Carolina 24, Kentucky 7 (24-0 in non-garbage time)
- Cincinnati 52, Marshall 14 (45-0 in non-garbage time)
- TCU 51, Kansas 14 (38-0 in non-garbage time)
- Central Florida 56, Connecticut 21 (49-0 in non-garbage time)
- SMU 48, South Florida 21 (41-0 in non-garbage time)
Prior to last weekend, there had never been a week in my records (since 2007) in which there had been more than six non-garbage shutouts recorded.
Ohio State leads the nation through September, allowing only 0.53 points per opponent drive. In addition to their throttling of Nebraska this past weekend, the Buckeyes recorded a non-garbage (and full-game) shutout against Cincinnati in Week 2. Wisconsin ranks right behind Ohio State in opponent points per drive (0.57) and has posted a pair of non-garbage (and full game) shutouts themselves against South Florida in Week 1 and against Central Michigan in Week 2. Through Week 5, there are seven teams that are allowing an average of less than 1.0 points per drive. Four of those teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Iowa -- are in the Big Ten.
Blowouts have been more commonplace this year than in the past, and the perceived separation of the elite contender class from the rest of the pack is based largely on blowout performances. Clemson has slipped a bit this week in perception because they flirted with disaster in 21-20 victory over North Carolina on Saturday, while the rest of the playoff challengers crushed their opposition. The other reason those elite teams have dominated, of course, is that they have faced very few opponents that are up to the challenge. A handful of regular-season games are yet to be played between those contenders in 2019, so though it has been relatively uneventful at the top thus far, we should see more hotly contested matchups over the remainder of the year.
2019 FEI Ratings (through Week 5)
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 (29%) 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% chance of losing a given number of regular season games (0L is zero losses, 1L is one loss, etc).