An inconsequential but nonetheless captivating game between Michigan and Rutgers took place on Saturday night, as the Wolverines rallied from 17 points down in the first half to overtake the Scarlet Knights in the fourth quarter, surrendered a last-minute game-tying drive and two-point conversion in regulation, then finally pulled out a 48-42 victory in triple-overtime. The college football Twittersphere had a blast gawking at the absurdity of game's many follies deep into the night, and Michigan ultimately (and barely) ended a three-game losing streak in what has been a miserable season in Ann Arbor.
Some of the game's cringiest (or most spectacular, depending on your perspective) moments came on special teams. Rutgers surrendered a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown to open the second half, while Michigan's field goal unit went 0-for-3 on the day, including a missed 35-yard attempt to open the first overtime that put Rutgers into position to win the game without needing to move the ball. That strategy failed them, however, as Rutgers quite literally and deliberately did not move the ball on its first offensive possession in overtime, choosing instead to center the ball on the field and kneel down on third down for a game-winning field goal attempt ... which they missed, from 45 yards out.
Field goals, kickoffs and kickoff returns, and punts and punt returns have all been an adventure at times in 2020. Given the disruptions to spring and summer team preparations, there has been speculation that special teams units have been short-changed with limited practice opportunities. But while special teams gaffes may lead us to such conclusions, the data doesn't really support it. There have been 80 special teams turnovers (fumbles on kickoff or punt returns, including successful onside kicks) in non-garbage possessions in 2020, an average of 0.22 per game; that's less than the average of 0.25 of such events per game from 2007 to 2019. There have been 0.12 special teams touchdowns (kickoff or punt returns) per game in 2020, also lower than the average over the previous 13 seasons (0.16 per game).
Field goal rates have been relatively consistent as well, and in fact appear to be a bit stronger this year than in the recent past. Kickers have connected on 73.1% of all non-garbage field goal attempts in 2020, consistent with field goal success rates since 2007, but the average attempt in 2020 has actually been from a slightly longer distance (1.1 yards). That isn't particularly significant, but over the course of thousands of attempts in a season, it is an indicator that overall, college kickers have been slightly more accurate than expected.
Sample size issues apply, of course -- fewer games, fewer attempts, fewer returns -- but the data so far does suggest that special teams reliability hasn't been a massive factor this season. When it does make a mark on a game outcome, special teams tend to get amplified. But in most games and for most teams, the value added or subtracted on special teams doesn't move the needle much. (Click here for field position and special teams ratings for all 130 teams).
2020 FEI Ratings (through Week 12)
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.