LSU capped off a perfect season on Monday night in a 42-25 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. The Tigers were once again led to victory by their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, who took everything Clemson's defense could throw at him. Burrow and the LSU offense powered through a slow start but accelerated to three second-quarter touchdowns to take control of the game. Even though in retrospect (and on the stat sheet) the game remained competitive deep into the fourth quarter, LSU felt like a team that had too many weapons and too much confidence to be beaten. They've played with a swagger all year, and saved their best for the postseason.
Burrow's eye-popping season stats in particular -- 60 touchdown passes, 10.8 yards per attempt, 76.3% completions -- were a revelation this year, one that no one outside Baton Rouge could have seen coming. And in the title game, the LSU offense was as creative as it was relentless. Clemson aggressively blitzed early on and kept LSU from digging out of poor field position, but once they found their footing on their fourth game possession, it was as if LSU could call up a highlight play at will. LSU earned 354 drive yards out of 402 available yards over its last five possessions of the first half to take a 28-17 lead into the break. The second half wasn't quite as explosive, and in fact, Clemson forced a pair of three-and-outs to pull to within three points. But running back Clyde Edwards-Hellaire's legs pounded throughout the fourth quarter, and Burrow made every key throw from the pocket or improvising outside of it.
In the immediate aftermath of a spectacular game or season, it's tempting to throw around "best ever" accolades with wild abandon. LSU's 2019 offense is in that conversation, even if they didn't set records in every possession stat. LSU ranked second (behind Alabama) in both touchdown rate and available yards percentage in 2019. Though they led the nation in explosive drive percentage (35.6% of LSU's non-garbage possessions averaged at least 10 yards per play), they still finished more than six percentage points in that category behind Oklahoma's insanely explosive 2018 offense led by Kyler Murray. But neither 2019 Alabama nor 2018 Oklahoma faced the quantity nor quality of defenses LSU faced this year. The Tigers faced three of the top four defenses according to DFEI ratings this year, putting up 23 points against Auburn, 37 points against Georgia, and 42 points against Clemson. In "all-time" FEI ratings (2007 to present), LSU's offense edges out Oklahoma's 2018 offense as the best on record.
Possibly the most remarkable feat of LSU's season was the manner in which they seemed to keep outplaying themselves and raising their own ceiling down the stretch. Heading into their regular-season finale, the Tigers had already had a very good collection of single-game performances, with wins over Alabama, Auburn, and Florida in the bank. Those were impressive victories in terms of the strength of the opposition, but not dominant ones. But LSU dominated a good Texas A&M team in the season finale, then crushed a borderline-elite Georgia team in the SEC Championship Game, then obliterated Oklahoma in the playoff semifinal, then finished off Clemson in the championship. Those four games were LSU's best opponent-adjusted single game performances of the season, all rated among the top 1.3% of games played in college football in 2019. The wins over Georgia and Oklahoma rank as the two best single-game performances of the year.
Even with that finish, LSU finishes the season ranked behind Ohio State in the final FEI ratings. That's not shocking to me, as the Buckeyes also had a handful of the best single-game performances of the year themselves. And, as I've often reminded myself and my readers, FEI isn't designed to crown a champion, but rather to measure opponent-adjusted possession efficiency. Being the best at maximizing possessions doesn't guarantee a championship, and being the most accomplished team in college football doesn't require maximizing every possession so much as it requires maximizing the ones that matter most. LSU did that against Clemson, and LSU did that against every challenge it faced this season.
Including all postseason games, and measuring the challenge for any team to navigate its opponents with the fewest number of losses possible, no team played a tougher schedule than LSU in 2019. LSU went 10-0 against FEI top-50 opponents and 6-0 against FEI top-20 opponents. An average team against the Tigers' 14 FBS opponents would have been expected to lose 8.9 times. A good team, one standard deviation better than average, would have been expected to lose 6.1 times against LSU's schedule. A typical elite team, two standard deviations better than average, would have been expected to lose 3.5 times. LSU lost zero times, and won half of their toughest games by big margins.
I've used "elite adjusted wins" (EAW) as a way to measure accomplishment of a team's record, in part to evaluate the playoff selection committee's process. But if we take final FEI ratings and calculate elite adjusted wins (the delta between the number of losses each team since 2007 had and the number of losses an elite team would have been expected to have against that team's schedule) LSU's season was the best on record, and by a sizeable margin.
|2018 Alabama||13-1||1.53||1||2.37||2||Runner Up|
|2011 LSU||12-1||1.15||2||2.19||1||Runner Up|
|2016 Alabama||13-1||1.17||1||2.15||1||Runner Up|
|2019 Ohio State||13-1||1.57||1||2.07||2||Final Four|
Is LSU the best team of the last 13 years? That's a complicated question, and one that FEI and other metrics could be used to help answer. Is LSU the most accomplished team of the last 13 years? Without a doubt.
2019 FEI Ratings (Final)
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.