FEI Week 3: Tigers and Other Upset Specialists Seize the Day
Memphis punt returner Calvin Austin III scampered 94 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi State on a play that nearly everyone else in the stadium assumed had already been whistled dead before he even touched the ball. Most of the Memphis punt return team immediately drifted toward the sideline as soon as the ball left the punter's foot, as if a punt return of any kind was unplanned and unexpected. The Bulldogs punt unit certainly thought the play was over after batting it around near the goal line to avoid a touchback, finally touching it down at the 6-yard line. The back judge began to signal the play dead. But Austin darted in, scooped up the ball, and raced down the sideline to the end zone. Somehow, the play stood. Memphis took a 28-17 lead on the return, and hung on to win the game by a final score of 31-29.
College football provides at least a few bizarre did-you-see-that? events and outcomes every week, sometimes multiple times in a game. The punt return earned an apology from the SEC officiating office for not reviewing the inadvertent signal by the back judge, and also missing the fact that two Memphis players were wearing the same number on the play. However, more than just officiating gaffes doomed Mississippi State in the game. The Bulldogs rallied with two touchdowns over the last five minutes, but had failed two-point conversion attempts after both. They also gave up a 49-yard fumble return to the Memphis defense on the game's first possession.
Losing a game while dominating traditional boxscore measures can happen multiple times every week. Mississippi State pulled off a unique combination of winning each of the four game efficiency metrics I track in my game splits breakdown and still falling short in the end. Net drive efficiency, net points per drive, net available yards percentage, and net yards per play each measure the success of an offense maximizing its possessions and a defense denying its opponents from doing the same. Winning teams finish games with an edge in all four categories 72.3% of the time, and have an edge in at least three of these categories 88.2% of the time.
The Bulldogs claimed all four game efficiency measures against Memphis, but lost anyway, the first time this circumstance has happened in 2021. There were only five such games in 2020, including the infamous shoe-throwing, fog-ridden 37-34 victory by LSU over Florida, and, coincidentally, Mississippi State's 28-26 victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Memphis was one of several non-Power 5 teams to grab a victory over a Power 5 opponent this past weekend. Western Michigan stunned Pittsburgh 44-41 as a two-touchdown underdog, San Diego State edged out Utah in triple overtime, Fresno State outpaced UCLA 40-37, BYU picked up its third Pac-12 victory of the season with a win over Arizona State, and Cincinnati rallied to a victory over Indiana. Only the Bearcats were favored among those winners, and while none of these games registered as monumental in terms of national championship impact, they each were disruptive to the status quo.
It is still very early in the season, and though there have been some eyebrow-raising outcomes, overall the results to date have not been completely unpredictable or out of the ordinary. Power 5 teams have won 77.9% of games against non-Power 5 opponents so far, with an average margin of victory of 18.2 points. That is similar to the winning percentage of Power 5 vs. non-Power 5 opponents in regular season games over the last several seasons.
|Season||P5 Wins||P5 Losses||P5 Win %||P5 MOV|
We had very few Power 5 vs. non-Power 5 regular-season matchups last year, but the teams that seized those limited opportunities (Louisiana, Coastal Carolina, Liberty, et al.) each went on to big seasons and lofty team ratings. There are more proving ground opportunities ahead this season for non-Power 5 teams, especially for contenders such as Cincinnati and BYU that have multiple opportunities to pad the resume with Power 5 wins and grab national attention along the way. Whether those wins come with a few lucky breaks or whether teams take control and dominate, the opportunities have to be seized.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 3)
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.