Notre Dame toppled Clemson in a 47-40 double overtime victory in South Bend on Saturday night, asserting itself as a legitimate playoff contender with the chops to compete with the upper echelon elite programs that have dominated the sport over the last half-decade. The Tigers weren't at full strength, of course, though backup quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei filled superstar Trevor Lawrence's shoes quite capably, throwing for 439 yards, 10.0 yards per attempt, and two touchdowns. For its part, Notre Dame made several spectacular plays including a first-half fumble return grab-and-score by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on a mishandled pitch to Travis Etienne. But the Fighting Irish left points on the table too, dropping a first-quarter touchdown pass and fumbling away another touchdown opportunity in the third quarter which set the table for Clemson take its first lead later in the half.
Notre Dame posted 33 points on the board in regulation, the third-highest total against a Clemson team in the last four years, but also bizarrely failed to score an offensive touchdown for a 59-minute stretch in regulation. Notre Dame exploded out of the gate with a 65-yard touchdown run by Kyren Williams on its first play from scrimmage, then didn't push an offensive drive into the end zone again until Ian Book connected with Avery Davis with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter. They moved the ball reasonably well throughout the game, but had a number of drives stall out in scoring range. Seven of Notre Dame's first nine offensive drives ended across the Clemson 40-yard line, but the Irish settled for field goal attempts on five of those possessions.
Stalled-out scoring opportunities were costly, but Notre Dame steadily converted four field goal attempts and thwarted enough Clemson possessions to stay in control for most of the night. The Irish held a lead at the start of 16 of 25 game possessions in regulation and were tied with Clemson at the start of another six possessions. On the three possessions in which Clemson held a late 33-26 lead, the Irish overwhelmed the Tigers. While trailing, Notre Dame's offense earned 119 drive yards on 14 plays (8.5 yards per play) and their defense allowed only 1 yard on three plays.
"Game control" has been a touchy subject in college football circles ever since the CFP selection committee chair Jeff Long referenced it as a factor in 2014 debates about Florida State living on the edge instead of dominating opponents from start to finish. ESPN publishes a Game Control ranking on its Football Power Index resume page, but doesn't specify precisely how the metric is calculated. The concept certainly isn't complicated, as the best college football teams usually jump ahead and stay ahead of their opponents and rarely play from behind. But I think we can be more specific about what we're measuring and what it might mean.
I explored this topic two years ago in a piece introducing what I call possession margins, a series of measures of how often a team plays while in control or while trailing its opponents, and by what scoring margins they are ahead or behind. I put that data set on the backburner last season but revisited it again after this weekend's results. On average over the course of non-garbage possessions against FBS opponents, Notre Dame has held a lead of 8.9 points through Week 10, good for the 13th-best rate nationally counting all teams, and good for the seventh-best rate nationally among teams with at least five games under their belts -- that is, the teams that have been playing with limited disruption since September, like the Irish.
|Average Possession Margin
(among teams with at least five games played)
Notre Dame has been in the lead at the start of non-garbage game possessions 79.3% of the time, the third-highest rate nationally in this data set behind only Marshall and Cincinnati. Though the Irish haven't faced a gauntlet of tough opponents this year, their victory over Clemson was another example of playing a frontrunner role throughout most of the game.
This week's FEI ratings didn't shift dramatically in Notre Dame's favor, however, at least not in an obvious way. Remember that preseason projection data remains significant, especially for teams with few game results to date, and the lack of connectivity between conferences is starting to reveal itself as well. By season's end, FEI won't know any difference between the relative strength of the Big Ten, Pac-12, or SEC -- each of which will play conference-only opponents all year -- and will have much less information than usual on the relative strengths of other conferences and independents. My hunch is that FEI may be stronger in comparing teams within conferences, and terribly unreliable in comparing teams nationally.
Scrutinizing conference-level data helps illustrate how this hunch is playing out. Clemson entered the game against Notre Dame with a 1.14 FEI rating and the Irish had a 0.86 FEI rating -- that is, against an average opponent, Clemson was expected to be 0.28 points per possession better than Notre Dame. Coming out of the weekend, that gap has narrowed to 0.15 points per possession advantage for Clemson -- the Tigers are still expected to outperform Notre Dame if (or more likely when) the two teams meet again, but not by much. That's not how I'd rank the teams based on achievement, but it's reasonable for a system prioritizing the forecasting of future results. But comparing either of the two teams to Alabama or Ohio State is complete guesswork since there will be no common opponents, or second- or third-order common opponents, against which to calibrate the ratings. Is the SEC better than the ACC? Is the Big Ten better than the Big 12? We won't know answers to these questions until the postseason, and even then, we'll have a more aggravated sample size problem than ever before.
For this reason, I find myself turning to raw efficiency metrics over opponent-adjusted ones this year, not as a way to pick a playoff field, but as a way to better describe how teams are playing, possession by possession. If there's an interest in slicing up drive data in new ways, drop a note in the comments below and I'll plan to dig in on it.
2020 FEI Ratings (through Week 10)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent unit. FEI, OFEI, and DFEI ratings are based on a combination of opponent-adjusted results to date and preseason projections.
Net points per drive (NPD) is the difference between points scored per offensive drive and points allowed per opponent offensive drive. Net available yards percentage (NAY) is the difference between offensive available yards percentage and opponent offensive available yards percentage. Net yards per play (NPP) is the difference between drive yards per offensive play and drive yards allowed per opponent offensive play. Three different schedule strength ratings for games played to date are provided, based on current FEI ratings, representing the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against the given team's schedule (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule (ALS).
Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.