Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Notes from a Chaotic Week 1 of College Football

September 21, 2020

My only real prediction for this 2020 college football season was chaos. That was back in late spring, when I was still pretty sure we’d have a full schedule, and I was only thinking about on-field chaos. The regular rhythm of preparation had already been disrupted by the cancellation of spring football and it seemed certain things would only get messier from there—canceled games, stop-and-start practice schedules, players opting out, a severely reduced home-field advantage and a weekly injury list with names in the double-digits.

It wasn’t a particularly bold prediction, but if Week 1 of this taped-together football season was any indication of what’s to come chaos may indeed reign.

Now, nine games is not a large enough sample size to make any sweeping claims about the state of football in 2020, but as I watched BYU deliver Navy its worst loss in 13 seasons under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, I grew curious enough to at least peek at the early returns. I wanted to know how close the consensus point spreads had come to predicting the actual outcome of the games.

Week 1s are always a bit noisy in that regard. You build some preseason power ratings based on the knowns and some conservative projections and let it rip, but there are always surprises the first time new teams play for real. Week 1 is also typically full of mismatches, soft openings if you will, which creates a lot of room for the spreads to be off. That’s all true under normal circumstances. This year you could add all of the uncertainty of the offseason to that.

Last year’s first full week of football included 84 games. The home team was favored by 15.9 points on average. Compare the actual margins in those games to the predicted margins via the spread and the average game was within 10.8 points of the line. For the average game with a predicted 16-point win you were looking at an actual margin between about five and 27 points. For a Week 1, I thought that number was pretty solid. I expected the range to be wider.

Over the first nine games of 2020, it was. The home team in last week’s slate, which included no such P5/G5 soft openings, was favored by an average of 9.2 points and the average result was only within 21 points of the consensus spread. BYU, a one-point favorite on the road at Navy, won by 49. Army was a 3.5-point favorite over Middle Tennessee, a program that has won at least seven games in four of the past five seasons, and shutout the Blue Raiders in a 42-0 win. And, while it wasn’t the biggest departure of the week from the line, perhaps the most surprising result was South Alabama winning 32-21 as a 12.5-point underdog at Southern Miss. Golden Eagles head coach Jay Hopson, in his fifth season with a 28-23 record, resigned on Monday, a move that would seem to be about more than just a season-opening loss though no additional details have yet emerged.

Of the first nine games of the 2020 season, just three were within a touchdown of the spread. Here are a few other random observations from Week 1:

The Option Is the Perfect Pandemic Offense

This was another of my working theories entering 2020, the thinking being that the option is based less on individual talent than your typical spread attack and thus better able to deal with fluctuating player availability. Also, all of the teams running the option have been doing it for years which seemed like an additional edge. I felt pretty good about this theory as Army rushed for 340 yards while attempting four passes, but then . . .

The Option Is Not the Perfect Pandemic Offense

. . . Navy played. The Midshipmen rushed for 119 yards on 39 carries (3.1 ypc), their lowest rushing total since November of 2018. Navy’s defense—which, when things are going well, might only be on the field for 25 minutes a game but was out there for 37 minutes against the Cougars—wasn’t any better, allowing 580 yards and 52 points. As plenty of people noted during Monday’s blowout, Navy’s approach to practicing through a pandemic included no live tackling. Was that the reason everything fell apart almost immediately for the Midshipmen? Maybe not on its own, but Niumatalolo owned it following the game.

What of Home-Field Advantage?

Normally you can give teams a two- or three-point advantage for playing at home. Some places are a probably a little greater than that, a few might be smaller, but as a rule of thumb three points is a good starting point. It’s still too early to know if that needs to be adjusted down for mostly empty stadiums, but it’s worth watching as the season progresses. Home teams went 6-3 straight up over the first week, 5-4 against the spread.

It’s Just Going to Be Like This

There were 24 games scheduled for the week ahead, including the start of play for Big 12 and ACC teams, but four have already been postponed due to COVID-19 complications: SMU at TCU, Tulsa at Oklahoma State, Marshall at ECU and FIU at UCF. In its announcement on the postponement, Tulsa noted that it had only been able to hold seven practices since the start of fall camp on Aug. 7.

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