A total of 773 games between FBS teams are in the books for the 2019 season, and only one remains. The College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night will feature the LSU Tigers against the Clemson Tigers in New Orleans, a matchup of the two of the three best teams in college football this year.
I don’t expect the winner of the championship game to vault ahead of Ohio State in the final FEI ratings next week, unless the champion tallies a completely lopsided victory in extremely efficient fashion. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 1 overall in FEI this week by a fairly comfortable margin, and are holding onto the best overall FEI rating on record since 2007. Ohio State’s offense rates better than all but six offenses since 2007 (including two this year), and its defense ranks among the best in the span as well. They join only 2013 Florida State and 2010 Boise State to rank in the top three nationally in both OFEI and DFEI in the same year. In their semifinal match-up with Clemson, the Buckeyes weren’t quite efficient enough on first-half scoring opportunities to blow the game open, and they allowed the Tigers to claw back and win.
In addition to quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s spectacular play, Clemson’s defense deserves a lot of credit for the victory and for its season-long position to contend for a second straight national championship. After falling behind 16-0 (and benefiting from a pair of dropped touchdown passes that limited two Ohio State drives to field goals), the Tigers held Ohio State’s explosive offense at bay for the remainder of the game. Ohio State’s next five possessions spanning the end of the second quarter and into the second half netted four punts, an interception, and only 57 drive yards. Clemson scored 21 points over five possessions in the same stretch to take the lead. Lawrence and company get most of the scoreboard credit for taking control, but according to FEI game splits, 8.3 points of that 21-point swing are credited to Clemson’s stifling defense denying the Buckeyes from taking advantage of their own possessions.
Clemson’s defense in 2019 doesn’t feature the NFL draft-headlining star power that its championship defense had last season, but statistically this year’s group hasn’t fallen off in any significant way. In fact, they’re possibly better. Heading into the national championship game, Clemson’s defense has a better touchdown rate in 2019 than 2018 (8.0% vs 10.8%), a better available yards percentage (26.4% vs 29.0%), and a better turnover rate (18.8% vs 12.1%), all against a similarly challenging set of opponent offenses according to FEI. In terms of opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency, Clemson’s defense currently ranks as the fourth-best since 2007 (behind only 2011 Alabama, 2011 LSU, and 2016 Alabama). They’ll need every bit of that disruptive playmaking against LSU.
Led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, the LSU Tigers offense has been firing on all cylinders all season, but especially over its last several games. In the SEC Championship Game against Georgia on December 7 and in the Peach Bowl against Oklahoma on December 28, LSU had a total of 17 non-garbage offensive possessions. Eleven of those 17 drives scored touchdowns, three netted field goal attempts, and only three resulted in punts. LSU’s complete dismantling of Oklahoma in their semifinal blowout victory ranks as the best single-game opponent-adjusted performance of the season (out of 1,546 performances on the year). Their dominant win over Georgia ranks No. 2 overall. LSU’s version of peaking has been terrifyingly efficient. LSU’s offense has earned 70.3% of available yards on the season, currently the second-best rate recorded since 2007, and they’ve eclipsed that mark in four of their last five games. In terms of yards per play single-game performances, LSU has recorded three of the best eight offensive games of the year.
I expect the strength-against-strength match-up between LSU’s offense and Clemson’s defense to be the key to the outcome of the national championship game. LSU was held to less than 7.0 yards per play only twice this season, against Auburn and Georgia. Only Ohio State managed to exceed 6.0 yards per play against Clemson’s defense this year. FEI gives the edge to Clemson’s defense coming up big again, just as they did against Alabama’s otherwise elite and seemingly unstoppable offense in last year’s title clash. LSU has proven itself more than capable against elite competition, and if their offense remains on fire, they could run away from Clemson in a way that Ohio State was unable to do so. My gut says they’ll settle back to mere mortality (and not rack up a third-straight 99th-percentile performance) and Clemson will seize the big moments once again.
2019 FEI Ratings (through bowls)
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency, representing the per possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Unadjusted possession efficiency (PE) is calculated as a function of offensive, defensive, and special teams game splits. Schedule strength is represented by each team’s average per possession opponent adjustment (OA). Opponent-adjusted offense ratings (OFEI), opponent-adjusted defense ratings (DFEI), and opponent-adjusted special teams ratings (SFEI) are calculated in a similar manner as overall FEI ratings. Team records against all FBS opponents (W-L) and against opponents ranked in the FEI top 10 (v10), top 20 (v20), top 30 (v30), top 40 (v40), and top 50 (v50) are also provided.
Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.