Is Florida State an Elite Football Team?

I think most folks would agree that the mood around Tomahawknation has been pretty sour ever since the NC State loss. Speaking for myself, I can say it was one of the most painful losses I can remember in my 25+ years of watching FSU football. I believed that this year FSU would have a truly ‘elite' team, and that a national championship was within reach. Unfortunately, it looks like that is probably not going to happen as of right now.

In the absence of anything better to talk about, I've seen a lot of conversations in the comments sections trying to pin just how good/bad/elite this team actually is. Also, there seem to be some pretty divergent opinions on the relative strength of the SEC - UF, UGA, and USCjr in particular. I love TN as much as the next guy, but one of my few gripes with the site is that the word ‘elite' gets thrown around far too often. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to try to define an appropriate benchmark for measuring how ‘elite' a team actually is with some of the stats available from and CFB Outsiders.

Now, this is all just my opinion since there are lots of ways that one could choose to define the barrier distinguishing an ‘elite' team from a merely ‘great' team. Since this is my article, however, I decided to use the following approach:

  • Look back through teams that finished in the Top 5 of the regular season BCS polls for the last five years
  • Note: I don't necessarily think the final BCS rankings always reflect the best teams in the country, but for the sake of argument if a program finishes in the top 5 at the end of the year, most of the country will probably think that the team is ‘elite' - after all, not everyone has access to blogs like TN
  • For each of these teams, determine how strong their offenses and defenses were by looking at data from CFB Outsiders
  • Note: I'm ignoring special teams and field position rankings because I'm trying to think more like the casual fan who looks at things like points scored, margin of victory, and maybe on a good day something like YPP
  • Based on this information, develop a methodology to determine how well a team must play according to the advanced stats to warrant an ‘elite' ranking

Pretty straightforward, and seems to me that it's a justifiable approach for measuring how highly regarded a team should be in the eyes of fans and the media. Based on that approach, here is the data that I collected:



Let's pause here for a couple of quick observations / comments:

  • Teams that I'm defining as elite (Top 5 in BCS polls) have the following characteristics:
  1. Average the 11th best offense in the country (FEI)
  2. Also average the 11th best defense in the country (FEI)
  3. Win games by an average of 22.1 points (includes all season-long games)
  4. Have an average of 3.36 games that are either lost, or won by less than 10 points (in other words, losses or close wins)
  • Based on the criteria above, FSU actually stacks up pretty well so far this year:
  1. 45th best offense in the country
  2. 4th best defense in the country
  3. Average margin of victory of 31.8 (obviously the schedule has been a bit weak to date)
  4. One loss but no ‘close wins'
  • Based on the data so far, here are a couple of my own observations
  1. People are overreacting to the NC State loss. Yes, it sucked. A lot. But this is still a very good (if not quite elite team)
  2. FSU is actually still blowing out its competition (admittedly with a weaker schedule) and is on pace to put up numbers that would go head-to-head with just about any team over the last half decade
  • In other words, the ‘close' games versus Miami and USF haven't actually been that close in a broader historical context
  • I personally think that people have gotten a little worked up over not beating the spread when FSU is favored by 14+ points. Maybe Vegas needs to reassess its projections based on FSU's style of play, but overall, FSU is still beating the crap out of teams this year on average.
  • For comparison's sake, here are some of the top teams in the country so far this year in average margin of victory:
  1. Alabama:32.7
  2. FSU: 31.8
  3. Oregon: 30.9
  4. Oklahoma: 29.3
  5. KSU: 26.7
  6. Mississippi St: 22.3
  7. Texas Tech: 21.3
  8. Florida: 18.0
  9. Clemson: 15.0

OK, enough of my commentary and back to the stats. I still contend that FSU is having a very solid (if not somewhat disappointing season), but does that mean that they are an ‘elite' team? How do they stack up relative to UF and some of the other SEC teams out there?

Plugging in some of the data from CFB Outsiders, here's an interesting graph that shows how teams are faring so far this year relative to what would be considered historically ‘elite' or merely ‘excellent' teams (note the logos shown are just for the current top 15 in the BCS rankings). Obviously, these numbers will change as the season goes on, but for now it should serve as a benchmark to show where FSU stands in the ‘elite' pecking order.


So, what does this tell us? Relative to teams that have historically finished in the BCS Top 5 (regular season), FSU is not playing at an ‘elite' level. The good news, though, is that neither is Florida. Or ‘Bama, for that matter. Oddly, the advanced stats seem to have a lot of love for the teams out in the flyover states. As Florida and ‘Bama advance to the meat of their schedules, convincing wins (hopefully not against FSU) may drive them towards the ‘elite' category as well. Oregon should have a chance, too, if it finishes strong.

As for FSU? This is a very good team with a truly ‘elite' defense, and an above average offense. Given the lack of balance, it is not an ‘elite' team, and with CT4's recent injury, its offense will probably deteriorate further as the season goes on. With all that said, I think an 11-win season is still within reach due to the weak schedule and a favorable home matchup with UF at the end of the year. Here's hoping that the defense can stay healthy and drag the rest of the team down the home stretch.

Let's try to enjoy the non-elite, yet potentially excellent/above-average team, that we have from here on out that may still win an ACC title and get to a BCS game. It's probably more fun than just complaining about Jimbo and/or the Refs for the rest of the year.

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