This sounds dumb, I know, but here’s an important part of analyzing teams: We overreact to wins and losses. Obviously, the ultimate arbiter of a game is the final score, and we don’t award titles to the teams with the best metrics. But the final score is often really deceiving. Perhaps a fluke play happens. Was Auburn really better than Alabama in 2013? Perhaps the small sample size of one game allows for anomalies. Perhaps a team falls behind early due to something unforeseen, and the game plan gets thrown out the window, so a close loss turns into a blowout. The point is, what happens during the game often tells us more about a team than the final score.
Here’s a quick example of how small and/or unlikely things (stuff controlled by luck or not often repeatable) impact the outcome of a game from three different teams:
Washington has lost two games by a total of eight points, including one in overtime. In those two games, they’ve had 10 drives enter the red zone. Only two of them have resulted in touchdowns. Just one more apiece in each game, and they’re undefeated. Additionally, they’ve allowed Auburn and Oregon to combine to convert 18-of-36 third downs and 4-of-4 on fourth (which, given that a forth negates the missed third, equates to a 61.1 percent conversion rate). Add in the missed chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation against Oregon, and the 5-2 record says one thing, while the actual game performance suggests another.
A lot will be made of the LSU loss, but let’s consider that a.) LSU is an elite defense, b.) the game was in Baton Rouge, and c.) it’s the first time Georgia’s offense was held to less than 21 since 2016. Beyond that though, the real issue seemed to be play calling. In the first quarter, Georgia ran the ball 11 times for 69 yards and trailed 3-0. On its second drive of the third quarter, the Dawgs got the ball at their own 4 and threw three straight times, culminating with an INT. That interim stretch involved 22 plays, just seven of which were designed handoffs to the tailbacks. Meanwhile, the passing game in that stretch was 7-of-17 for 60 yards, an INT and two sacks, while the score went from 3-0 to 19-3. This game was bad, but I’m not sure it reflected who Georgia really is on offense. Or, maybe Georgia is still trying to figure out who it is on offense.
The loss to Arizona State came on the road, across the country, against a team with little film to work from. Michigan State also finished just 4-of-12 on third- and fourth-down tries. The loss to Northwestern was more baffling. They outgained the Wildcats 425-381 and held Northwestern to 8 yards on the ground, while also winning the turnover battle. In the last decade, Michigan State is one of just two teams to lose a game when winning the turnover margin, the yards margin and holding an opponent to less than 25 rushing yards. The other was Clemson’s baffling 2014 overtime loss to Florida State.
They’re undefeated, but it feels sort of like they’ve underperformed, right? Well, the QB whirlwind was one problem, particularly against Syracuse. The trip to Texas A&M was a game where the Aggies clearly had an upper hand in prep — Jimbo knew Clemson, Clemson didn’t know what Jimbo had planned with his new personnel. And then there’s this: The Tigers rank 18th in offensive efficiency (skewed by the Chase Brice game), 1st in defensive efficiency, but 108th in special teams efficiency. Even an average special teams performance this year would’ve made for a far more dominant look.
Clearly we undervalued Michigan State heading into the Penn State game. In this week’s polls, Washington and Georgia tumbled. This is because we use wins and losses to determine how good a team is. Again, that’s fine. That’s the point of the whole endeavor, right? But when we’re looking ahead to predict future results, or when we’re trying to parse teams with similar records, it’s probably better to ignore the outcome and focus on the input — especially in a sport with such small sample sizes as college football.
Anyway, on to our Week 7 tiered rankings
Tier 1: Poised for the Playoff (5)
Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas
Tier 2: Legit playoff threats (6)
Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, LSU, UCF, Oregon
Tier 3a: Can’t ignore due to record but limited evidence (5)
Iowa, Kentucky, USF, Cincinnati, NC State
Tier 3b: Good, but not real threats (7)
Florida, West Virginia, Washington, Penn State, Michigan State, Texas A&M, Wisconsin
Tier 4: Resume-builders (25)
App State, Fresno State, Utah, Duke, Mississippi State, Utah State, Syracuse, Washington State, Missouri, Iowa State, TCU, Colorado, Miami, Stanford, Purdue, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Houston, Texas Tech, Maryland, USC, Ole Miss, Baylor, San Diego State