After five weeks of posting college football rankings, the most frequently asked question has been: How do you distinguish one unbeaten record from another? Let me start by telling you how the RPG system doesn’t do it. First, it doesn’t favor teams that look good on the field. Second, it doesn’t favor teams with a tradition or reputation or recent success. Third, it doesn’t use the traditional statistics: scores, yards gained and first downs. The RPG system doesn’t watch the games so it doesn’t favor fast play over slow play. The RPG system doesn’t remember which team won the title game last year. All of those inputs confuse and obfuscate and lead to ranking mistakes.
The RPG system only knows the numbers the teams produce. But the numbers that the RPG system monitors are not the numbers in the box score. A new set of statistics that measure how well a team plays the game, are used to grade the playing performances. The winning team always wins because it produces the higher grade, but unlike binary wins and losses, the winner doesn’t automatically get a 100 and the loser doesn’t automatically get a zero. For example, Alabama defeated Florida State 88.10 to 58.29, Oklahoma beat Ohio State 98.22 to 62.30, and TCU downed Oklahoma State 94.38 to 57.97. All winners received a ‘W’ and all losers received an ‘L’, but the wins and losses had different values based upon playing performances.
The numbers that the RPG system uses to calculate playing performance grades are far more detailed than box score statistics but more importantly, the RPG stats are deterministic while box score stats are not. That means the RPG stats have a cause-and-effect relationship with winning and losing while box score stats do not. It also means that RPG stats reveal how good a team is and box score stats do not.
As an example, let’s compare some RPG stats for three teams that are all unbeaten through five games. In the RPG rankings, Alabama is No. 1, Washington is No. 2, and Clemson is No. 5. The Clemson defense is considered by many people to be the best in the country, but other defenses are nearly as good. Through five games, Alabama has accumulated 12 takeaways, which include turnovers, blocked kicks and safeties, while surrendering NONE! By comparison, Washington has 13 takeaways and 6 giveaways and Clemson has just six takeaways and 5 giveaways. Clemson has yielded 0.62 points per opponent possession begun in opponent territory but Alabama and Washington are nearly equivalent at 0.67 and 0.69 respectively.
The difference between the teams is more glaring in the other two phases of the game. Clemson does have the second best RPG grade on defense (behind Michigan), but Alabama and Washington are far better on offense and on special teams. The most important of all statistics is how efficient a team is when taking possession of the ball in its own territory. By efficient, I mean how often do they score. 83% of all possessions begin on a team’s own side of the fifty yard line and over 70% of all points scored in college football games are scored on these long field possessions. It is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to beat a team that is more efficient on the long field possessions. Alabama has scored on an astounding 62.8% of its long field possessions while Washington has scored on an excellent 50% and Clemson has scored on a subpar 39% of its long field possessions.
Points are more easily scored when the offense starts a drive in enemy territory. In 5 games, Alabama has had 15 of these prized possessions while yielding only ONE. Washington has started in enemy territory 8 times while its opponents have begun 3 possessions in Husky territory. Clemson, on the other hand, has started just 4 times in enemy territory and allowed its opponents an equal number of easy drives. So far this year, Alabama has suffered only 6 three-and-outs while Washington has had 11 and Clemson 13. Alabama has stopped itself with turnovers, major penalties or sacks just 5 times, while Washington has stopped itself 12 times and Clemson 13 times. That leaves the times when the defense stops the offense without the help of an offensive mistake. Washington has never been stopped by the opposing defense while Alabama has been stopped 5 times and Clemson has been stopped 10 times.
These are the kinds of numbers that RPG uses to distinguish one perfect record from another. These are the numbers that tell us how good a team plays, not just how good its record looks. These numbers do not imply that Alabama or Washington would beat Clemson in a head-to-head battle. The numbers simply mean that Alabama and Washington have played better than Clemson so far this season. Unlike the polls that deal in conjecture, supposition, and fantasy, the RPG system measures how well a team has actually performed.