Hot Reads: How Efficient Does a Team Need to Be to Make the Playoff?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: How Efficient Does a Team Need to Be to Make the Playoff?

December 27, 2019

In terms of top-to-bottom quality this looks like the best College Football Playoff we've had yet. There are no throwaways here (looking at you in particular 2015 Michigan State). That doesn't guarantee that the games will be great––I'd be happier if key Sooners hadn't gotten themselves suspended and Justin Fields wasn't talking about being "85%"––but they might have the highest greatness potential as a pair of games.

How did those four teams get here? You're probably well aware of their paths to the Playoff at this point. We start talking about "paths" in the spring and then it's covered weekly in-season. But let's look at this from a slightly different perspective––efficiency.

How efficient does a team have to be to make the Playoff? I'm highlighting that one today because efficiency––as measured by success rate––is typically one of the replicable parts of the game because it is simply measuring how often a team "wins" each down by staying on schedule (or keeping at team off schedule when it comes to defense).

In a big-picture view, teams can be pretty good by being ultra-efficient on offense or defense, but Playoff teams tend to be both. Their success rate difference, on average, has been nearly 12 percentage points. To give you a sense of scale, Nebraska's success rate differential in 2019 was 0.5 percentage points. The Huskers' offense had a success rate of 41.9%, while the defense allowed a success rate of 41.4%––hence, 5-7 (though based on those numbers it probably should've been 6-6).

Below is a chart showing the average offensive and defensive success rates for the Playoff teams since 2014––and the differentials––along with those same numbers for this year's group. (Keep in mind that for the defensive stats being below the average is good.)


Let's look at this a little more closely by category…

OFFENSE: No Playoff team has had a higher offensive success rate than LSU does right now (54.5%). The previous high was Oklahoma's 53.2% in 2018. This year's Sooner team surpassed that, too, at 53.7%. Part of the reason I was mildly disappointed that LSU jumped Ohio State in the final rankings is that it set up an offense-offense matchup in the Peach Bowl and, relatively speaking, a defense-defense matchup in the Fiesta Bowl. Are we better off with Ohio State's defense against Oklahoma's offense and LSU's offense against Clemson's defense? I don't know, but that would've been my personal preference. (To be clear, Ohio State and Clemson are plenty capable of moving the ball––both ranked in the top 10 nationally in offensive success rate––but LSU and Oklahoma were one-two in those rankings.)

DEFENSE: Take the above stats soup and flip it. Mostly. Ohio State had the top defensive success rate in the country, Clemson ranked second. LSU, for all of the questions about its defense throughout the season, ranked in the top 10 here. The Tigers were still capable of winning on a solid majority of their defensive downs. Oklahoma, 30th nationally in defensive success rate, is running a distant fourth, which probably isn't great news for the Sooners. But it is a far cry better than last year. The 2018 Sooners, with a defensive success rate of 46.3%, are the still the least efficient defense to make the Playoff.

DIFFERENTIAL: Let's get down to the bottom line here. Whether a team emerges as one of the four best with a great offense and good-enough defense or vice versa, what matters is how much distance it's putting between itself and the opponent on a down-by-down basis. Remember, on average for Nebraska in 2019 there was virtually no difference (+0.5). The average Playoff team has engineered an 11.6 percentage-point edge between offensive and defensive success rate.

This year's teams, however, are all above that average. Drastically, so. The previous high for a Playoff team was 2018 Alabama with a 18.1 success rate differential. LSU (19.4) and Clemson (18.4) are both above that and Ohio State just a tenth of a percentage point off it (18.0). Oklahoma, even with its lowly-ranked defense (again, relatively speaking), is at a respectable 16.4.

Add it all up and we have the ingredients for a pair of great games.

The Grab Bag

  • Jacob Padilla is taking a position-by-position look back at the 2019 volleyball season. First up, outside hitters.
  • Speaking of season reviews, we’re taking a look back at football as well with our December feature stories from the magazine. Here, Erin Sorensen looks at Nebraska’s ongoing quest for leadership. (Premium)
  • Nebraska made hay in Florida this year in recruiting and Travis Fisher is a big reason why.

Today’s Song of Today

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.