Both of the semifinal games in the 2020 College Football Playoff last week were runaway victories, just as most of the semifinal games have been since the playoff began in 2014. Nine of the 14 games played in semifinal matchups in the seven-year history of the format have been decided by at least 17 points, and only three games have been decided by a single score. Alabama overwhelmed Notre Dame from the jump in the Rose Bowl, then effortlessly cruised to a 31-14 victory over the Fighting Irish. Ohio State took control in the second quarter of the Sugar Bowl, ultimately running out to a 28-point second-half lead before closing out a 49-28 victory over Clemson.
Though neither game played out exactly as expected -- Notre Dame covered a 19-point spread, Clemson flopped as a seven-point favorite -- neither result was particularly shocking either, especially in the context of year-over-year program strength. Alabama and Ohio State had already distinguished themselves long before the season began as the nation's best two teams in terms of weighted five-year performance, the backbone of my preseason projections. Heading into this strange season, in fact, it was the only data I used in my 2020 preseason projections, and the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes were virtually tied at No. 1 in FEI heading into the year. The current FEI ratings following the bowls are the first I've published this season that are only a function of opponent-adjusted 2020 results and do not include any preseason projection weight, and Alabama and Ohio State still aren't too far off from where they were expected to be one, three, six, or 12 months ago.
Of course, these two programs have also been far and away the most exceptional programs for the entire 14-year span of the possession efficiency data set I maintain, 2007 to present. The core efficiency data I track for offenses and defenses is based on the scoring value gained and lost per drive adjusted for starting field position, detailed in my Game Splits data. Net drive efficiency is the difference between offensive and defensive drive efficiency, a metric designed to simply quantify how well a team executed on its drives while denying its opponent from doing the same.
Alabama has played 180 games against FBS opponents in the Nick Saban era (2007 to present), and they've had a positive net drive efficiency rating in 157 of them, a rate of 87.2%, best in the nation. Ohio State ranks second on that list, posting a positive net drive efficiency rating in 150 of its 178 games against FBS opponents (84.3%) in the span. The only other program that has had a positive net drive efficiency in over 80% of its games since 2007 is Boise State (140 out of 174 FBS games, 80.5%), though the vast majority of its games came against weaker opponents than the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes have faced in the span.
Alabama and Ohio State haven't just edged out opponents in net drive efficiency for more than a decade, they've racked up more dominant net drive efficiency margins than any other programs as well. Examining the results of each of the 10,000-plus FBS games played over the last 14 seasons, a net drive efficiency rating of at least 2.0 (equivalent to defeating an opponent by 24 points over the course of an average game with average starting field position) was a mark good enough to rank among the top 15% of all single-game net drive efficiency ratings results in my data set. Exactly half of Alabama's games since 2007, including its victory over Notre Dame in the semifinal and eight other 2020 Crimson Tide game results, exceeded this 85th-percentile net drive efficiency threshold. 38% of Ohio State's games since 2007, including its victory over Clemson in the semifinal and two other 2020 Buckeyes game results, eclipsed this mark.
Alabama heads into the title game matchup as a touchdown favorite over Ohio State primarily on the strength of its consistently efficient and dominant offense, led by exceptional talents at quarterback (Mac Jones), running back (Najee Harris), and receiver (Heisman-winning DeVonta Smith). Ohio State, led by a formidable trio of its own in quarterback Justin Fields, running back Trey Sermon, and wide receiver Chris Olave, proved its ceiling may be just as high as Alabama's in a one-game semifinal sample, though its overall body of work in 2020 (stunted by delays and disruptions outside of their control) was less stellar. When both of these offenses shine on Monday night, as they likely will, expect it to come in the form of big chunk plays and explosive drives.
Consider the chart below, which illustrates the relationship of drive yards per play and net points per drive in more than 200,000 possessions over the last 14 seasons.
Alabama's offense eclipsed the 5.7 yards per play mark on 77 of 112 (.688) non-garbage offensive drives this season and averaged 8.4 yards per play overall. 44 of the Crimson Tide's 66 non-garbage offensive touchdowns this season (.666) were scored on drives that averaged at least 9.3 yards per play. Ohio State's offense was similarly driven by explosive production, averaging 7.8 yards per play. 22 of the Buckeyes' 36 non-garbage offensive touchdowns (.611) were scored on drives that averaged at least 9.3 yards per play. Alabama led the nation averaging 3.7 explosive touchdown drives per game (defined here as touchdown drives that average at least 9.3 yards per play); Ohio State ranked fourth (3.1).
Explosive-drive touchdowns are more common than methodical-drive touchdowns against all defenses, but this has been especially true against the Buckeyes this year. Ohio State has only surrendered 18 non-garbage touchdowns on opponent offensive drives all season, but 13 of those touchdown drives averaged at least 9.3 yards per play. Only three teams -- LSU (80%), UAB (75%), and TCU (73%) -- yielded a higher ratio of explosive-to-non-explosive touchdowns this season. Alabama most often scores in chunk plays, and when Ohio State allows a score, it most often happens with chunk plays.
Alabama has yet to face an opponent that was able to deny its stars from doing their thing, and I expect they'll have another big performance in the championship game. Perhaps Ohio State can match them explosive drive for explosive drive, but the Crimson Tide have the more proven arsenal of weapons and the more resilient defense. I'm anticipating a shootout in Miami, but I ultimately expect that when the dust settles, Nick Saban will hoist his seventh national championship trophy, sixth as head coach of Alabama, third since the formation of the College Football Playoff, and first since DeVonta Smith streaked into the end zone to catch the championship-clinching 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime as a freshman in 2017. Big time players make big time plays, and this one promises to be full of them.
FEI Game Projection: Alabama by 6.8 points
2020 FEI Ratings (through Bowls)
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.
|21||San Jose State||7-1||.46||.48||37||.45||21||.81||30||.121||23||1.63||8||.85||69||2.31||67||4.30||62|