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College Football’s Usual Suspects Have Looked Shaky So Far. Are Playoff Spots Up For Grabs?

College football is, generously speaking, a predictably imbalanced product. Five teams1 have hoarded 22 of the 28 possible bids to the playoff since the tournament was introduced in 2014, with three of those teams having accounted for six of the past seven national titles. Alabama, a program that served as arguably the biggest brand in the sport for a century, has somehow gotten even better, outscoring its competition by a combined 4,439 points since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, parity was the word that launched a thousand grumbling college football columns. A cursory search will return dozens of eulogies written for it. But as summer turns to fall, ranked teams and standard bearers are falling like leaves, and for those who cover the sport, it’s a refreshing surprise that a surefire playoff field hasn’t transitioned from pencil to pen. 

More than half of the teams ranked in the AP preseason poll have already experienced losses, and according to ESPN Stats & Information Group, the 18 ranked teams that have lost through three weeks are the most in the poll’s history. Teams that entered the season ranked have gone a combined 52-23. Preseason ranked teams’ combined win percentage (.743), average team total efficiency (71.72) and betting cover rate (.414) are each the second lowest of any season in the playoff era, trailing only 2020 — a season truly unlike any other, when nonconference games weren’t held and nearly every program had significantly fewer practice opportunities.

Teams ranked early have stumbled more this season

Winning percentage, point and yard margin over opponents, total efficiency and cover percentage over the first three games for teams ranked in the preseason AP poll during the College Football Playoff era

Margin over opp.
Season Record Win% Points Yards Efficiency Cover%
2021 55-19 .743 1,059 7,706 71.72 .414
2020 52-23 .693 837 5,634 69.57 .373
2019 62-13 .827 1,780 13,033 78.16 .554
2018 61-14 .813 1,653 10,872 74.71 .480
2017 61-14 .813 1,460 10,839 73.30 .459
2016 58-17 .773 1,304 8,768 72.32 .414
2015 63-12 .840 1,522 10,759 72.76 .446
2014 64-11 .853 1,737 11,316 77.28 .521

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Last weekend alone saw each of the top three teams in the AP preseason poll — the Alabama Crimson Tide, Oklahoma Sooners and Clemson Tigers — win by only a combined 15 points after each entered its respective matchup as at least a 14-point favorite. 

Despite the Alabama Death Star’s narrow victory over No. 11 Florida, the team has accounted for nearly 40 percent of the money wagered at BetMGM on national title futures for a reason. But other consistent playoff contenders look more like teams desperate for answers than shoo-ins. By its own standards, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State are off to either the worst or second-worst starts to the season in the playoff era in scoring margin. The Tigers were outgained by Georgia Tech; the Irish were taken to the wire by both Florida State and Toledo; and the Buckeyes defense performed so poorly that coach Ryan Day has already wrested away the play-calling duties from his coordinator. The Oklahoma Sooners, who have already eked out as many one-score victories as they did all of last season, would be right there with their lofty peers in scoring margin if they hadn’t bludgeoned Western Carolina by 76 points.

Another way to evaluate team performance is by total efficiency, a schedule-adjusted metric presented on a 1-100 scale that takes into account per-play performance on offense, defense and special teams. If the playoff field were set today, and total efficiency were the system of entry, this season’s four-team field — made up of Georgia, Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi — would rank third-lowest since at least 2014 in its first three game average (93.3), and its highest-ranking team, Georgia (95.68), would also rank third-lowest of the high-water season performers. 

Those four are the only teams to exceed 90.0 in total efficiency, but three more2 are above 87.0. That total number is instructive; the 28 playoff participants since 2014 averaged a total efficiency of 87.3 through three games, and there are more teams this season right at or above that average than there were in all but two seasons of the playoff era. By that measure, this crop of the best teams looks normal.

But what has changed in the early goings of this season is the performance of the sport’s preeminent powers. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma aren’t quite peers, but they have collectively proven to be a cut above the rest of the sport since the playoff format was introduced. If we average those five teams’ performance at this point and compare it to the first three games of each season in the playoff era, we find that 2021 is well below the expectation. This season’s 76.69 average team efficiency for the five is the lowest of any season since at least 2014 — and a full 7.92 points below the teams’ average from 2014 through 2020. In every season since 2017, these programs have finished the year ranked in the top 15 in total efficiency, yet only Alabama currently sits there. With a loss already on their resumes, Clemson and Ohio State can’t afford another slip-up if they hope to reach the playoff again; ESPN’s odds peg each team’s playoff probability at less than 30 percent

But playoff teams don’t always peak in September. Notre Dame reached the playoff in 2020 and 2018 after posting an efficiency score lower than 70 through three games in each season, and Ohio State won the 2014 national title after a tepid 65.1. 

At least for now, that the status quo has been ruffled and the sport feels less predestined than it has in years is likely sufficient for most college football fans. There are five concurrent dynasties in the sport, and most are being challenged early on in 2021. The usual suspects might once again rise to the occasion, but the climb is getting steeper by the week. 

Footnotes

  1. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

  2. Florida, Iowa and Michigan State.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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