In one of the most remarkable individual performances of the 2020 season, Buffalo Bulls running back Jaret Patterson tallied 409 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in a 70-41 win over Kent State on Saturday. This came only 11 days after Patterson racked up 301 yards on the ground against Bowling Green, a two-game total of 710 yards rushing that crushed the previous FBS record of 668 set by Texas running back Ricky Williams in 1998 in the midst of his 2,124-yard Heisman Trophy-winning campaign. Remarkably, Patterson could have tacked on even more in both Buffalo games if he wasn't pulled out of action by his head coach; backup Kevin Marks Jr. tallied 187 yards and three touchdowns of his own on the ground in Buffalo's last two contests.
We tend to focus most of our attention on the Power 5 conferences and College Football Playoff contenders, and from this point in the season forward, that focus will only intensify. But let's celebrate the superlatives from the rest of the country this week, especially those that will garner little or no attention from the playoff selection committee down the stretch.
Buffalo's offense through four games has been supremely efficient. They rank No. 1 nationally in raw offensive efficiency, a measure of the offensive value generated (on touchdown drives and on drives that move into field goal-scoring range) per non-garbage offensive possession. They've scored a touchdown on 60.5% of offensive drives and have attempted only one field goal (a failed attempt at the end of the first half against Kent State). Buffalo is the only offense currently ranked in the top 10 in all of the raw offensive efficiency metrics I track -- points per drive (second), available yards percentage (sixth), yards per play (fourth), touchdown rate (second), first down rate (fifth), busted drive rate (fifth), and turnover rate (third).
The Bulls' MAC conference mate Western Michigan has been excellent and efficient on offense as well, besting Buffalo in offensive yards per play (third nationally) and ranking among the most consistently explosive teams in the country. The Broncos have earned at least 7 yards per play on 51.2% of their offensive non-garbage drives and at least 10 yards per play on 32.6% of their offensive drives, both marks good for fourth in the nation. Western Michigan is among only 13 teams to have recorded at least three plays this season that covered at least 70 yards; the other 12 teams to have achieved this feat have played at least seven games to date, while Western Michigan has played only four.
On the opposite side of the ball, Conference USA division foes Marshall and Florida Atlantic boast two of the most efficient defenses in the nation to date, each ranked behind only Wisconsin in points allowed per offensive drive. The Owls lead the country in defensive touchdown rate, allowing opponents to reach the end zone on only 7.5% of drives; the Thundering Herd rank third nationally allowing touchdowns on only 10.0% of opponent drives. In the Mountain West, San Diego State's defense has been smothering as well, allowing a paltry 31.4% of available yards (second-lowest rate nationally), 4.09 yards per play (first), and a 51.4% first down rate (first), meaning they're averaging a forced three-and-out or worse on nearly every other opponent possession.
Of the Group of Five teams mentioned so far, only Marshall has been ranked by the College Football Playoff selection committee, coming in at No. 21 in the most recent rankings. The committee has a history of underrating non-Power 5 schools in comparison to where our advanced metrics suggest they should be, and this year's ceiling still appears to be intact, though Cincinnati is pushing that ceiling a bit. The undefeated Bearcats rank No. 7 in the CFP rankings, the highest rank achieved by a Group of Five team in the seven-year history of the playoff. Cincinnati comes in at No. 10 in this week's FEI ratings, still somewhat held down by preseason projections which make up 22% of their overall score, and the Bearcats would rank a few spots higher in terms of achievement to date, a calculation of wins over what an average team would be expected to achieve against the same schedule.
BYU has been the most intriguing test case for the committee this year, dominating its opponents offensively and defensively at historic levels, but getting dinged by the committee for what is judged to be a too-substandard schedule strength. The Cougars have only one remaining opponent on the schedule -- San Diego State on December 12 -- and currently have the best season marks on record (2007 to present) in net points per drive (3.35), offensive points per drive (4.45), net available yards percentage (42.4%), offensive available yards percentage (74.2%), and net yards per play (4.33). A case can be made for BYU as the best non-Power 5 candidate ever to potentially challenge elite power programs, but they won't get the chance. That's not necessarily wrong, since a case can also be made that for all of their dominance, their pelts on the wall add up to a lesser season achievement than Cincinnati's. But it's frustrating that we have to parse efficiency, dominance, and achievement perceptions in the first place.
I recognize that my numbers are merely a tool, and that my numbers and others as tools can be applied to make or break these arguments in many ways. And I also recognize that I kind of secretly love the arguments, embedded as they are throughout the history of college football and particularly present every season around this time of year. And I certainly recognize that we can't simply wish for more games, more interconnectivity, more matchups between good-to-great teams, especially in this season above all others. But whether they get another mention in this column or not, I'm glad Jaret Patterson and everyone else flying a bit under the radar jumps up and grabs my attention from time to time as well.
2020 FEI Ratings (through Week 13)
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.