One of the most common refrains echoed on broadcasts and across the social media universe this season is how challenging it has been to know what might happen on any given weekend. The coronavirus pandemic and various team and conference testing protocols have shaken up the schedule to a dizzying degree, and uncertainty about which players may or may not be eligible to play has dominated pre-game storylines leading into several big matchups. We're now at a point in the year where open dates to shift postponed games are scarce or non-existent, and there is speculation that players (especially those eyeing NFL futures) may begin opting out from teams already eliminated from national title contention.
We've repeatedly discussed the challenge of finding reliable data in such a disrupted season, and it's tempting to judge every result that defies expectations with some skepticism as to what it really means. LSU and Penn State were almost universally designated as top-10 preseason contenders, but neither one has played a single game to date that would support such a lofty ranking. Historically challenged but currently undefeated Indiana and Northwestern lead the Big Ten East and West divisions, respectively; the Sun Belt conference is undefeated in 2020 against the Big 12; and we're having very serious and legitimate conversations about non-Power-5 teams BYU and Cincinnati potentially breaking through the College Football Playoff glass ceiling.
Not everything is askew from expectations, of course. It might be odd to see Coastal Carolina and Liberty and others surging up the rankings, but the polls are still headed up by familiar faces Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Clemson. So how unusual has the 2020 season and game results to date been overall? Is there anything unusual about the way teams are performing possession by possession?
There has been a steady upward trend in offensive efficiency over the last decade or so, and so far this season, that trend line is spiking significantly. Offenses are scoring touchdowns at a higher rate than ever, and teams are punting at the lowest rate by far in any season in my database (2007 to present). Offensive points per drive, available yards percentage, and yards per play are all on the rise through the results of last weekend.
There are still games to be played in 2020, so there's no certainty about whether or not offensive efficiency rates will hold steady over the remainder of the season. But the trend lines suggest that offenses are finding their footing more reliably during this unusual season than defenses. Whether that has to do with preparations, personnel, coaching decisions, or other factors isn't clear. And it will certainly take some time, and more data collected over several seasons to come, to understand whether this year was an exception, or simply part of a more predictable trend.
Another indicator of the unpredictability of the season thus far is the relative accuracy of the betting market. There have been a handful of major upsets -- Kansas State over Oklahoma in Week 4 as a 27.5-point underdog, Michigan State over Michigan in Week 9 as a 21.5-point underdog, and Maryland over Penn State in Week 10 as a 27.5-point underdog have been the biggest stunners -- but each may be viewed now as a misfire on the strength of the favorite rather than an inexplicable outcome. Have the betting lines been more out of whack this season than in the past? Yes and no.
The average delta between the closing line according to covers.com and the actual game result was unusually high compared to previous seasons, particularly over the course of the first month of the season. But over the last seven weeks, there's little evidence that the betting markets are struggling with forecasting results in 2020. If anything, the season-long results suggest this year is getting more reliably predictable as the season progresses, not the other way around.
College football at its wildest and most unpredictable is awesome, and we may be headed into one of the wildest and most unpredictable finales we've ever had. Or, we may be settling into a month of more certain outcomes as we hit the home stretch. Whether games are played in the first place seems more uncertain now than how they may unfold when the teams do take the field. Finish strong, 2020, we're almost there.
2020 FEI Ratings (through Week 11)
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.