FEI Week 0: Special Victory For Illinois
The first did-you-see-that? highlight of the 2021 season was a booming 50-yard boot by Illinois punter Blake Hayes that sailed towards the sideline, struck down inside Nebraska 5-yard line, and expertly bounced out of bounds to pin the Huskers on their own 1-yard line. Two game possessions later, the first score of the 2021 season also originated from Hayes' foot, another heat-seeking blast that seemed destined to pin Nebraska deep but was instead fielded by returner Cam Taylor-Britt at the 2-yard line. Taylor-Britt's momentum carried him into the end zone, where he lost his footing and was immediately corralled before desperately throwing an illegal forward lateral out of bounds, incurring a safety and two points for the Illini.
— no context college football (@nocontextcfb) August 28, 2021
Hayes temporarily vaulted to the top of Week 0 Heisman Trophy watch lists on Twitter, and the delightful absurdity of college football nonsense was gloriously ushered back into our lives.
Neither Illinois nor Nebraska will be Big Ten contenders this year, and aside from rapidly accelerating Huskers head coach Scott Frost job instability speculation, the result of this game will probably not factor too heavily into the narrative of the season. Most of the game was unremarkable. In terms of offensive and defensive drive efficiency, game splits were fairly even—Illinois claimed a slight edge in available yards percentage, Nebraska a slight edge in yards per play. Neither offense shined, but special teams and defensive return values racked up by Illinois proved decisive in the 30-22 victory.
In what is now my 15th season contributing possession efficiency data and analysis here at Football Outsiders, I focus once again on deciphering the unit-level scoring contributions that lead to victory and defeat. I spent time this offseason building a complete record of game and possession splits for all 10,161 FBS games played since 2007. Team efficiency data ebbs and flows in a series of alternating possessions over the course of a game, primarily driven by offensive success in moving the ball downfield into scoring range or defensive success in thwarting such drives. Almost 97% of all game possessions are offensive drives, and offensive and defensive success rates over the course of a season are strongly correlated with team win percentages.
Special teams and defensive possessions include scores and turnovers that can significantly influence a single game outcome, but they are extracted from my offensive and defensive drive efficiency metrics because they are so rare and random. Having a great punter and punt team is good, but only marginally so compared to a great offense or defense. Having a great punt play at the right moment, however, can be huge. Similarly, a solid defense can reliably force a three-and-out, while an opportunistic one recovers a fumble and returns it for a touchdown, a play with a big impact on the game but little predictive value.
The punt-lateral-safety play is a unicorn with no predictive value, but possession splits for the game illustrate how uniquely valuable it was in the outcome of the game. It counts for two points on the scoreboard, but I record it as a 3.91-point swing in SRV (special teams and defensive return value) in my possession splits breakdown of the game. The play resulted not only in actual points on the board, but also in a forfeited possession by Nebraska. Possessions are valuable in and of themselves according to my methodology, and the results of possessions only add to or subtract from that inherent value. Illinois' defensive fumble return touchdown just before halftime is credited in part to the Illinois defense for forcing a three-and-out (1.39 points) in part to the return (3.42 points); the remainder of the seven points scored on the play are the inherent value of the possession itself.
Illinois' cumulative SRV over the course of the game, generated both from Nebraska failures and Illinois opportunism, added up to 10.5 total points—2.5 more points than Illinois' margin of victory in the game. Ten points in SRV value is a lot. Only 4.3% of FBS games played since 2007 featured a team totaling at least 10 points in SRV value, and those teams went on to win 76.9% of those games. Only 1.2% of all games since 2007 featured a team that earned at least 10 points in SRV value and won the game by less than 10 points. It only happened three times last season, including another Big Ten opening game: Indiana's thrilling win over Penn State in overtime.
Part of my motivation in publishing possession splits was to simply highlight some of the weirdest and wildest college football outcomes over the years and put them in context. We were blessed by Blake Hayes and Cam Taylor-Britt serving up a weird and wild moment to add to the pantheon right out of the gate in 2021. We'll hopefully be treated to many more in the weeks ahead.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 0)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each 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.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Click here for expanded ratings for all teams. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.