At the end of the first quarter on Saturday in Dallas, the Oklahoma Sooners trailed the Texas Longhorns by a score of 28-7. Texas had connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game, added a pair of short-field touchdown drives, and connected on a 48-yard touchdown pass late in the quarter, combined with stifling defense that forced three Oklahoma three-and-outs in between. The Longhorns were thoroughly dominating the Sooners on both sides of the ball through nine possessions, holding an advantage of 10.5 yards per play and a commanding available yards percentage advantage (74% to 23%). The first 15 minutes do not decide the outcome of games, but this one was very nearly out of hand.
Oklahoma sat struggling quarterback Spencer Rattler and inserted freshman Caleb Williams to start the second quarter, facing a critical fourth-and-1 from its own 34-yard line. Williams took the snap, slipped out of a tackle to secure the first down, then exploded in a 66-yard sprint to the end zone to cut the lead to 28-14. He was unstoppable on the play, and the Sooners offense was nearly unstoppable for the remainder of the game, scoring on nine of its final 12 drives and outscoring Texas 48-20 over the final three quarters. Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks rolled up 217 yards on the ground and drove the final dagger through Texas’ heart on the last play from scrimmage, a 33-yard touchdown scamper on a direct snap to win the game with three seconds left.
Oklahoma’s epic 21-point comeback victory highlighted one of the wildest days in recent college football history. The Alabama Crimson Tide, unbeaten in 100 straight games against unranked opponents, lost to unranked Texas A&M after initially roaring back and overcoming an early multi-score deficit of their own. The Iowa Hawkeyes fell behind by 14 points to Penn State, then leveraged field position advantages and a smothering defense to gut out a 23-20 victory and remain undefeated. Ten teams won on Saturday after trailing by at least 10 points in the game, the most double-digit comeback victories in a single week in three seasons. The eventual winning teams trailed at some point in two-thirds of the weekend’s 51 FBS games, the highest percentage of comeback victories in a full regular season week of games since 2007.
As exciting as comeback victories can be for the victorious, and as demoralizing they can be for the teams that surrender them, there is nothing particularly meaningful about the comeback itself in my possession efficiency work. Had Oklahoma and Texas traded scores over four quarters more evenly rather than in streaks of scores, each team’s drive efficiency data would be the same. The Sooners topped the Longhorns by 0.24 points per drive, outgained them by 10.8% of available yards, and were very slightly edged out by 0.01 yards per play. Those final game efficiency measures are the inputs that drive my overall, offense, and defense team and unit ratings. The 21-point deficit and rally to victory is the colorful narrative version of a relatively straightforward data story as far as game efficiency is concerned.
The sequencing of drive data is not as relevant as the aggregate drive data. Momentum may feel like it plays a big part in game outcomes, but the results of any possession have little to do with the results of the possession that preceded it aside from the starting field position generated. However, I recognize that I am not capturing a significant data blind spot when key personnel changes catalyze the change in performance. Iowa rallied only after knocking out Penn State’s starting quarterback. Oklahoma’s offensive fireworks over the last three quarters were a direct result of a change at signal-caller. FEI is not capturing that level of detail.
What, if anything, do comebacks indicate in terms of forecasting team fortunes? The 28 teams that reached the College Football Playoff field since 2014 generally played with a lead and did not flirt with disaster in those seasons. On average, those teams had only 4.9 wins per season in which they trailed at any point in the game, and only 0.8 wins per season in which they trailed by at least 10 points. None of the national champions in that span needed a 21-point comeback victory to stay in the playoff chase. The 2010 Auburn Tigers are the only national champion since at least 2007 that had such a win.
Behind its new quarterback, will Oklahoma control more games from start to finish, or will they continue to live dangerously throughout the year? Regardless, the Sooners will need to be more efficient overall if they want to make a championship run. They rank 60th in net drive efficiency through five games and 12th overall in FEI despite being propped up somewhat by a lofty preseason projection. The season is still young, and Oklahoma has plenty of time to rally. The quarterback change that sparked the comeback against Texas may ignite a season-long possession efficiency comeback over the next two months, and it will need to if the Sooners expect to compete for the national title.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 6)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Expanded ratings for all teams include overall, offense, defense, and special teams efficiency ratings. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.