NCAA Bowl Season – Two juggernauts in the College Football Playoff each asserted their superiority in their respective New Year’s Eve semifinal matchups with opening-drive touchdown marches against outmatched opponents. Alabama pounded Cincinnati with 10 rushes and a single pass for a score on its statement first drive, while Georgia gashed Michigan a bit more through the air on its first possession. Both teams dominated the line of scrimmage, and both teams immediately demonstrated their daunting strength, power, and talent advantages. Early leads were almost effortlessly claimed by each squad, and a rematch date in the National Championship Game between the SEC conference champions and runners-up was secured.
The semifinal bowl games didn’t follow the same script after the opening drives, but neither game produced much drama either. Cincinnati moved the ball and got on the board with a field goal to answer the Crimson Tide and kept within two scores of Alabama until the fourth quarter. They acquitted themselves well as the playoff era’s first non-Power 5 participant, even if there was little hope throughout that they could actually come back to win. Meanwhile, Georgia scored on each of its first five drives and suffocated Michigan’s offense throughout the game, ferociously attacking and stamping out everything the Wolverines had game-planned for success.
We know scoring on the opening possession or taking an early lead is far from an insurmountable game state, but it is certainly better than not doing so. Since 2007, a touchdown was scored on the first game possession in 26.4% of all FBS-vs.-FBS games. The teams that scored those first-possession touchdowns went on to win 68.4% of those games. Teams that had a lead after a game’s first two possessions—that is, after each team had a possession opportunity to get on the board—won 71.3% of the time.
Comebacks happen all the time in college football, of course, and the 2021 bowl season was littered with them. More than half of all FBS-vs.-FBS games played since 2007 (51.2%, to be precise) featured a comeback victory of some kind, including 23 of 37 bowls this year. Most of those were relatively routine situations in which an early single-score deficit was overcome, but three of the major New Year’s Six bowls featured double-digit comebacks in the second half. Michigan State rallied from a 21-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl; Oklahoma State trailed Notre Dame by 21 points in the first half and 14 points at halftime before coming back to win the Fiesta Bowl; and Ohio State scored 27 second-half points to rally from a 14-point halftime deficit to Utah in the Rose Bowl.
There’s no reason to put too much stock into which team jumps out ahead in the National Championship Game on Monday night. Georgia took a 10-0 lead on the fifth possession of the SEC Championship Game, but Alabama took over from that point forward, muscling and streaking past the Bulldogs for a 41-24 victory to claim the conference crown and the No. 1 seed in the playoff. How much stock should we put in that particular game’s result as we look ahead to the rematch?
Monday will be the 55th instance since 2007 of two FBS teams meeting twice in the same season. Most of these rematch situations have been in conference championship games, but there have been several bowl games mixed in as well. The BCS Championship Game at the end of the 2011 season featured an Alabama-LSU rematch that ushered in the playoff era. Of all rematches to date, the same team won both games 29 times (53.7%). Regardless of the outcome of the first game, the team favored by closing lines (per covers.com) won 79.6% of the rematch games. Compare that number with closing-line accuracy in forecasting all game winners since 2007 (74.6%), or with closing-line accuracy in forecasting conference championship and bowl game winners in the same span (only 66.3%).
It stands to reason that oddsmakers would be a bit more accurate with forecasting rematches than with other games, as the data from the first game can be factored into setting the line along with all other relevant information. But the fact that Georgia, a 17-point loser to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, is favored (by three points as of this writing) in the rematch is particularly intriguing.
For what it’s worth, FEI agrees with Vegas that Georgia should win on Monday. The Bulldogs had a single aberrant result in that game, but otherwise have been an exceptionally strong team offensively and defensively in all other outings this season. In terms of the metrics I track, Georgia rates among the most efficient and dominant teams of the last 15 years. It’s perfectly reasonable to say they are the measurably superior team in the matchup. It’s also perfectly reasonable to think Nick Saban’s football machine in Tuscaloosa will overcome and possibly even dominate the supposed “measurably superior” team once again. The two best teams are playing, and regardless of which team hoists the trophy, the two best teams at their best should put on quite a show.
FEI Projection: Georgia 33, Alabama 25
2021 FEI Ratings (Pre-Championship)
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.