Alabama dominated Ohio State on Monday night to win the College Football Playoff National Championship Game by a final score of 52-24. The best college football program in the nation -- led by seven-time national championship-winning coach Nick Saban, schemed by Broyles Award-winner and offensive mastermind Steve Sarkisian, and featuring the Heisman Trophy winner (wide receiver DeVonta Smith), Davey O'Brien Award winner (quarterback Mac Jones), Doak Walker Award winner (running back Najee Harris), and Joe Moore Award winner (the Crimson Tide offensive line) -- went a perfect 13-0 on the season against a schedule that included 11 SEC opponents, plus Notre Dame and Ohio State, and made it look easy nearly every step of the way. The following chart shows the results of every Division I game played in 2020; most of Alabama's games are found high in the upper right.
Just as the LSU Tigers elevated the ceiling of offensive efficiency potential a year ago in their championship run, the Crimson Tide pushed that ceiling to new heights in 2020. They obliterated the "all-time" (since 2007) benchmarks in points per drive and available yards percentage, and scored a touchdown on a scorching 59.8% of their non-garbage offensive drives. Their recipe of elite talent, elite scheme, and elite execution was a marvel to witness and proved to be a near-impossible combination to defend. Ohio State's only stops in non-garbage time in the championship game came on a Jones fumble in the first quarter, another possession that started with less than 40 seconds left in the half that was thwarted in part due to a false start penalty in Ohio State territory, and a 15-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter that the Buckeyes were able to ultimately to hold to a field goal attempt near the goal line. Alabama was in complete control and scored touchdowns, almost effortlessly and often in big chunk plays, on each of their other seven non-garbage drives in the game.
In a season in which coronavirus disruptions impacted every program to some degree, some more dramatically than others, Alabama proved itself to be most well-equipped to face those challenges. The new hardware that will fill up trophy cases in Tuscaloosa and the remarkable statistical performances now in the record books are testaments to their achievement. But as tempting as it is to compare them with champions of the recent and distant past, it's very difficult to appropriately calibrate this season with any other year. There are no asterisks to apply to this championship, and in fact the Crimson Tide should probably get extra credit for navigating it so expertly. But the 2020 data, raw efficiency and opponent-adjusted alike, has translation problems that we'll be wrestling with throughout the offseason.
There is no question about Alabama's firm position at the top of the college football universe, but what do we make of the relative place of the other 129 FBS teams behind them? As with every other season wrap-up I've posted, the final FEI ratings below do not include any preseason projection weight and are based exclusively on data from this season. The ratings are admittedly wonky. No. 6 Buffalo, No. 7 Coastal Carolina, and No. 11 Ball State are not teams we would ever expect to see among college football's power programs, and it's striking to compare their finish with where they started, ranked 86th, 113th, and 104th respectively in my preseason projections back in September.
The on-field efficiency performances by several Group of 5 contenders were special in 2020, so there's definitely reason to see how they vaulted in the FEI ratings over the course of the year. But we simply didn't have anywhere close to the volume of interconnectivity in non-conference games that are needed for the FEI formula to make good sense of every team. The MAC played a grand total of two non-conference games, and won them both in bowls, against FEI No. 20 San Jose State and No. 35 Marshall. The Sun Belt went 15-15 in non-conference games, but 3-0 against the Big 12 in the regular season. The Big 12 went undefeated against every other FBS opponent they faced, including 4-0 in bowls against Power 5 opponents. The SEC went 7-2 in non-conference games, all bowls: 2-1 against the Big Ten, 0-1 against the Big 12, 3-0 against the ACC, and 2-0 against the AAC.
The SEC and MAC conferences had some similarly efficient teams with absolutely no direct, or first-order, or second-order (or third-order?) connections between them. Is it any wonder that FEI thinks Buffalo and Ball State were potentially better than Georgia and Florida? The output is only as good as its inputs, and we were denied some really critical inputs this season.
And then there's BYU, an absolute efficiency machine in its own right this season with a collection of high-percentile single-game performances bested only by Alabama. BYU's net drive efficiency peaks were higher than Alabama's, in fact, and the Cougars led the nation in season-long net drive efficiency despite playing several more close games including a loss to Coastal Carolina.
BYU's offense would have also set "all-time" (since 2007) records in points per drive and available yards percentage this season if Alabama hadn't done it themselves, and the Cougars paired it with an even more efficient defense. Their net drive yards per play (+4.10) -- calculated as the difference between offensive drive yards per play (8.49) and opponent offensive drive yards per play (4.39) -- did set an all-time mark, and was more than 1.1 drive yards per play better than the second-best mark in 2020, Alabama (2.96).
Unlike the Crimson Tide, which played every game against Power 5 opponents, BYU only faced Group of 5 teams. The opponent adjustments in the FEI ratings formula account for this to the degree that they can, but the Cougars still rate as a clear No. 2 in the final FEI ratings because those opponent adjustments were more modest in 2020 than ever before. The system only knows what it knows. Perhaps BYU might have also been crushed by Alabama if given the chance, just like pretty much everyone else. But they didn't play. Last year, the MAC went 1-9 against the Big Ten; this year they didn't play. Last year the Sun Belt went 2-5 against the SEC; this year they didn't play.
There are other ways to handle the lack of interconnectivity this season, perhaps by applying conference weights based on recent season performances to make reasonable adjustments and compensate for the games missing from the 2020 data set. I suspect that in my preparations for 2021 FEI projections this offseason I will likely take this approach, but I'll need to take some time to work with the data more and better understand it first.
I also think it's honest to present the 2020 final ratings as they are, wonkiness warts and all. Whether I believe in my heart that BYU would have been a formidable playoff contender or not; whether I think that Ball State is better than Georgia or not; whether I think that Arizona State's 2-2 record is comparable in any way, shape, or form to Florida's 8-4 and Texas A&M's 9-1 -- none of that really matters. College football in 2020 was weird. Alabama still dominated, Massachusetts was still terrible, but I'm glad the FEI ratings highlight the weirdness of everything in between.
I'm also grateful for the wonkiness because it invites me to scrutinize my numbers and their blind spots more than ever before. And I'm especially grateful to the players and teams that struggled and made sacrifices to play this season so that we had any college football data in the end to argue over at all.
2020 FEI Ratings (final)
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. Current FEI, OFEI, and DFEI ratings are based on opponent-adjusted results to date with no preseason projection weight.
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.
|20||San Jose State||7-1||.46||.48||37||.45||22||.81||30||.121||23||1.63||7||.89||66||2.34||66||4.30||63|