Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Dec 2014

SDA: Championship Week

by Chad Peltier

It's championship week in college football -- the last weekend of the year before we enter bowl season. Last week's set of rivalry games featured more teams with close F/+ rankings, but this week has just as many national ramifications.

Several borderline Playoff teams -- like Baylor and Ohio State -- need not only to win, but to win convincingly to have a shot to move up into the top four. The undefeated but fourth-ranked Seminoles face a stronger than expected Georgia Tech team that is strongest where the Seminoles are weakest -- running the ball. A win of any sort would force the committee to keep Florida State in the top four, but a loss would almost certainly drop them behind either Baylor or Ohio State if those teams win.

It's good to be at the top for Alabama and Oregon, who face overmatched opponents in their championship games -- except that Arizona already upset Oregon this season and Missouri is riding a six-game winning streak after being shut out by Georgia.

Baylor and Ohio State need style points; for everyone else; a win should be enough.

Pac-12 Championship: Arizona (+14.5) vs. Oregon -- 9 p.m. Friday (Fox)

Overall Arizona Oregon
Overall F/+ 28 2
Field Position Advantage 15 16
Offensive F/+ 26 1
Defensive F/+ 35 23
When Arizona has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 43 21
FEI 16 26
Rushing S&P+ 65 44
Passing S&P+ 69 38
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 44 3
FEI 25 3
Rushing S&P+ 33 3
Passing S&P+ 51 3

The lone mark on Oregon's otherwise-stellar resume is from their October 2 meeting with Rich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats. Now the two teams get to rematch for the Pac-12 Championship. For the Wildcats, it would be a crowning achievement for an already-overachieving team. For Oregon, revenge would be the next step towards the Playoff. Oregon already has victories over the 15th-, 20th-, 27th-, and 37th-ranked teams in the F/+, so a chance at revenge and to take down the 28th-ranked team would cap an excellent regular season. The only problem is that the Wildcats have still upset the Ducks in their past two meetings, and certainly have the ability to do so again.

The Ducks are undoubtedly weaker on defense than they are on offense, but Oregon still fields a top-25 defensive unit. The real weakness is in the Ducks' defensive line, which is 71st in Adjusted Line Yards and 89th in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Wildcats' offensive line isn't a world-beating unit (60th in Adjusted Line Yards), but it should be strong enough -- especially when freshman Nick Wilson is getting the ball -- that the Wildcats can run on the Ducks defense. Wilson has been a workhorse lately, averaging 24 carries over the last four games (he also ran for 7.1 yards per carry in his first meeting with Oregon). Fellow freshman Anu Solomon leads just the 69th-ranked passing offense (even though he's 14th in passing yards per game, at 285) and the offense tends to get bogged down in the red zone. The Wildcats are 83rd in red zone touchdown percentage (56.4 percent) despite their much better FEI ranking compared to Offensive S&P+. That difference likely goes back to their excellent turnover margin, which averages +.83 per game, or 14th overall.

Arizona limited Oregon to 24 points in their first meeting, but it would be surprising if the Ducks are held to that number this time around. Arizona's best chance is to force turnovers. The Wildcats are 25th in total takeaways, 22nd in Adjusted Line Yards, 16th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and 46th in Havoc Rate. A lot of that has to do with Scooby Wright III, who is third in the country in sacks, first in tackles for loss, and first in forced fumbles. If Oregon can't slow Scooby -- who forced the Marcus Mariota fumble that sealed the win for Arizona the first time -- then Arizona has a chance. But the Wildcats will have to play aggressively and hope for big defensive plays, because their success rate (72nd) and rushing and passing rankings will make it a long night for the defense otherwise.

F/+ outright pick: Oregon

SEC Championship: Alabama (-14.5) vs. Missouri -- 4 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Missouri Alabama
Overall F/+ 31 1
Field Position Advantage 74 97
Offensive F/+ 57 4
Defensive F/+ 14 3
When Missouri has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 65 2
FEI 55 4
Rushing S&P+ 56 1
Passing S&P+ 70 22
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 24 2
FEI 9 6
Rushing S&P+ 9 11
Passing S&P+ 18 4

Many speculated that the Missouri Tigers would drop one of their final two games to either Arkansas or Tennessee and send Georgia to the SEC championship game, but Gary Pinkel's Tigers turned in two strong defensive efforts to advance to the championship game for the second year in a row (and just their third in the SEC). In most years, a Missouri-Alabama faceoff would look like a low-scoring defensive battle, but not this year: Alabama scored 55 points in the Iron Bowl and the defense did just enough to hold off Nick Marshall in the red zone. If not for forcing five field goal attempts on seven Auburn red zone trips, then both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers might be 10-2, and neither would be guaranteed a spot in the Playoff with an SEC Championship. As it is, Missouri enters its second SEC Championship appearance as a heavy underdog, and rightfully so: Missouri lost to Indiana and was shutout by Georgia, and is ranked 30 spots below Alabama in the F/+ rankings. But Auburn and Ole Miss still have given the Tigers enough of a blueprint for beating the Tide that an upset isn't out of the question.

Alabama's key strengths are in run defense (first in Defensive Rushing S&P+) and passing offense (fourth in Passing S&P+). They're still top-25 in every other category -- besides field position, that is -- but it's clear that the Crimson Tide are less run-dominant on offense, more focused on big passing plays to Amari Cooper, but just as controlling of opposing run games. For instance, the Tide run on only 59 percent of standard downs (60th), are 31st in IsoPPP with 14 passing plays of 40-plus yards (9th), and still hold opponents to an average of under 93 total rushing yards per game.

However, the Rebels' Bo Wallace still passed for 251 yards (8.1 per attempt) and Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards last week. Alabama is 30th in Havoc Rate and 92nd in defending passing plays of 10-plus yards. Missouri's Maty Mauk has been inconsistent all year, throwing four interceptions against Georgia and only completing 33 percent of his passes against Florida, and then throwing for 265 yards and completing 60 percent of his passes against the 21st-ranked Arkansas Passing S&P+ defense. He will need to be on his game to take down the Tide. The Tigers have not been explosive on offense this year (87th in IsoPPP, 59th in Explosive Drives), but are remarkably solid in stringing together methodical drives (14th) with a decent third-down conversion percentage (44 percent, or 38th) and a solid red-zone touchdown percentage (65.8 percent, or 41st). The latter stat will be extremely important against a Tide defense that is allowing opposing touchdowns on fewer than 38 percent of red-zone trips (third, behind both Mississippi teams). If the Missouri offense can take advantage of a relatively weaker Alabama pass defense, convert third downs, not turn the ball over, and then reverse the season trend of Alabama's bend-but-don't-break red zone defense, then Missouri can make this a game.

The Tigers hang their hats on their defense, where they are ninth in rushing defense, 18th in passing defense, tenth in sacks, and 20th in Havoc Rate. The Tigers are aggressive on defense (see the Havoc Rate and sack rankings) and better per-drive than per-play. Like the Crimson Tide, the key will be in limiting Amari Cooper's big plays and playing stout red-zone defense. The Tigers should match up fairly well with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, but Cooper will absolutely be an issue for the Missouri secondary. One battle to watch out for is between the Missouri defensive line and the Alabama offensive line. While the Tide offensive line is fairly young (starting left tackle and true freshman Cam Robinson is likely the most talented lineman), they are third in Adjusted Sack Rate, so Shane Ray and Markus Golden will still have their work cut out for them. If the Crimson Tide can neutralize the Missouri pass rush, then Missouri's best chance of winning will be severely threatened.

F/+ outright pick: Alabama

Kansas State (+9) at Baylor -- 7:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Kansas State Baylor
Overall F/+ 18 11
Field Position Advantage 11 6
Offensive F/+ 24 14
Defensive F/+ 38 13
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 31 7
FEI 23 21
Rushing S&P+ 51 18
Passing S&P+ 28 40
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 30 12
FEI 37 12
Rushing S&P+ 19 26
Passing S&P+ 37 14

It's not really the de facto Big 12 championship rematch game between TCU and Baylor that we'd like to see, but it is Baylor's last opportunity to impress the Selection Committee before decision day (TCU, facing Iowa State, doesn't really get that chance). Only one game this week has teams with closer F/+ rankings (Florida State-Georgia Tech), so this will certainly feel like a championship game. While Baylor naysayers can point out a relatively light schedule with just Texas, TCU, and Oklahoma as major victories, they can't deny its opponent-adjusted statistical prowess. The Bears are top-15 overall in offense, defense, and in field position, outranking Kansas State most notably defensively.

The big question for Baylor's offense is whether quarterback Bryce Petty will be able to go after taking a hard, high hit in last week's game against Texas Tech and displaying mild concussion symptoms. Petty has said that he's good to go to lead the 14th-ranked F/+ offense against Kansas State. Baylor's offensive plan has usually revolved around passing on early downs (80th in standard downs run percentage), running on passing downs (32nd in passing downs run percentage), and hitting big plays (13th in IsoPPP) all while moving at breakneck speed (first in Adjusted Pace). The Kansas State defense is actually a good counter to this offense because it limits big plays (eighth in IsoPPP) and has tough, aggressive defensive backs (12th in DB Havoc Rate). While Kansas State does a good job of keeping opposing offenses in front of them to limit explosive plays, their pass defense is just 37th, suggesting that Petty might be able to methodically drive down the field with shorter passing plays (12th in Methodical Drives).

Both teams should find some room to pass on one another. Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters has passed for just 30 yards less than Petty, and with a higher completion percentage. He has also had less support in the run game, since he has the most rushing attempts on the team (averaging 3.7 yards per carry). It's actually surprising that the run game is ranked as highly as it is considering that the offensive line is 113th in Adjusted Line Yards and 84th in Adjusted Sack Rate. That likely means another unbalanced offensive game plan for the Wildcats, because the Baylor defensive line (sixth and 14th, respectively) should force Waters to throw early and often. If Waters doesn't have time to throw either -- with Shawn Oakman in his face, for instance -- then Baylor could run away with the big victory it is looking for.

F/+ outright pick: Baylor

ACC Championship: Florida State (-4) at Georgia Tech -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Georgia Tech Florida State
Overall F/+ 12 8
Field Position Advantage 12 94
Offensive F/+ 2 6
Defensive F/+ 52 19
When Georgia Tech has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 7 25
FEI 1 20
Rushing S&P+ 4 62
Passing S&P+ 6 61
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 62 25
FEI 48 7
Rushing S&P+ 99 17
Passing S&P+ 76 7

Not many would have expected that the defending national champions would be only four-point favorites in the ACC Championship against a team that went 7-5 last season and was projected at 45th in F/+ during the preseason. Now the two teams are the closest-ranked schools playing each other this week at 12th and eighth in the F/+. Both teams have top-ten offenses, but Florida State's defense looks to be much more efficient than Georgia Tech's. While both offenses have the statistical advantage here, you get the sense that the Seminoles defense could get more stops than their Yellow Jackets counterparts.

Georgia Tech's best chance to win the ACC will be in maximizing drive efficiency, controlling the clock and field position, and running the ball straight through the Seminoles defense. The Yellow Jackets should find running room on a lackluster run defense (fourth, compared to Florida State's 62nd), and they are the best in the country in drive efficiency. That is because they lead the country in third-down conversion percentage (57.4 percent) and success rate, and are top ten in turnover margin (+11). Since the Yellow Jackets convert third downs, run efficiently on every opponent they face (second in First Down rate at 82 percent), and don't turn the ball over, they will attempt to just keep Jameis Winston and that second-half comeback offense off the field. Winston's worst nightmare should be a 13-minute Georgia Tech drive in the third or fourth quarter.

Winston hasn't shaken his turnover bug recently, throwing for another four interceptions against Florida. The Yellow Jackets defense, however, is nowhere close to Florida's in terms of defensive back support or havoc rates. The Yellow Jackets are actually 123rd in Success Rate and saved by their explosive play defense (25th in IsoPPP) and solid Defensive Back Havoc Rate (31st). Now that the Seminoles have found Dalvin Cook, some of the load can come off of Winston (the Seminoles are 110th and 102nd in standard and passing downs run percentage, respectively). Given the talent differential between the Seminoles offense and Georgia Tech defense, the primary goal should just be to limit turnovers, which would play into Georgia Tech's ball control goals. It's evident that Florida State can manage late-game explosive scores, so a conservative, game-management plan should be sufficient in the ACC Championship Game.

F/+ outright pick: Florida State

Big Ten Championship: Wisconsin (-4) at Ohio State -- 8:17 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Ohio State Wisconsin
Overall F/+ 3 13
Field Position Advantage 3 75
Offensive F/+ 5 16
Defensive F/+ 15 11
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 1 14
FEI 11 14
Rushing S&P+ 1 27
Passing S&P+ 2 23
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 10 13
FEI 18 21
Rushing S&P+ 56 9
Passing S&P+ 11 42

The Big Ten Championship takes on an entirely different look with J.T. Barrett's injury last week against Michigan. Instead of a matchup between Heisman contenders, the Buckeyes now turn to the preseason third string quarterback Cardale Jones. Jones is a redshirt sophomore who has just 17 pass attempts this season. The Badgers are healthy and feature Melvin Gordon, who is ready to exploit a questionable Buckeyes run defense.

In fact, apart from the Virginia Tech fiasco when Barrett was still getting comfortable behind center, the Buckeyes' primary weakness has been in run defense. Hiring co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash in the offseason has paid dividends, with the pass defense improving to 11th overall, but the run defense is similar to last season's at 56th. The Buckeyes are ranked in the 50s and 60s in opponent runs of 10-plus and 20-plus yards, and they have allowed more than 175 rushing yards to Navy, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Indiana -- all top-40 rushing offenses. However, Wisconsin's lone conference loss was to Northwestern, and Melvin Gordon still had 259 rushing yards on 9.6 yards per carry in that game. The Badgers lost because of their -4 turnover margin. So the Buckeyes can allow a lot of rushing yards, assuming that not all of Gordon's explosive runs end in touchdowns, the rushing success rate isn't over 60 percent, and the defense can force turnovers like the Wildcats did. The Buckeyes are tenth in Havoc Rate and 23rd in turnovers gained, so expect the secondary to be aggressive whenever Joel Stave has to pass. The defense will absolutely need as many turnovers as it can manage, because the Buckeyes defensive line is ranked 67th in Adjusted Line Yards, while the big Badgers offensive line is 16th in the same category. If the Badgers can control the line of scrimmage, then there might be little the Buckeyes can do to stop the Badgers offense.

On the bright side for Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense is one of the best in the country. Wisconsin's defense is solid all the way around, but the Buckeye offense is only outmanned in one category: Adjusted Sack Rate. The key will be to keep Cardale Jones from needing to win the game by himself. Jones doesn't have Barrett's strengths in decision-making, reads (passing or running), or accuracy, so the key will be for Jones to not have to shoulder the load. That can be done by decreasing the number of read-based runs, giving running back Ezekiel Elliot and H-Back Jalin Marshall more carries, and by making good decision in the Buckeyes' standard screen and short-passing game. While the offense is geared more towards efficiency than explosiveness (third in Success Rate and 25th in IsoPPP) Ohio State is also known to make good use of play-action passes for explosive plays, particularly to Devin Smith. The Badgers are solid defending explosive plays at 31st in IsoPPP, but Jones does have a very strong arm to try and create those big plays through the air. The Buckeyes will need to stay on schedule and the team's success will largely rest on the offensive line (first in Adjusted Line Yards) so Jones doesn't need to stage any comeback drives or win the game with his arm.

F/+ outright pick: Ohio State

(Ed. Note: 8:17 p.m. is the official listed game time. The Big Ten needs to seriously get over itself. -- Aaron Schatz)

Oklahoma State (+20) at Oklahoma -- 3:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Overall Oklahoma State Oklahoma
Overall F/+ 75 10
Field Position Advantage 79 23
Offensive F/+ 81 7
Defensive F/+ 79 33
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 80 19
FEI 86 44
Rushing S&P+ 93 11
Passing S&P+ 47 24
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 67 6
FEI 86 12
Rushing S&P+ 57 2
Passing S&P+ 59 12

Oklahoma State-Oklahoma may not have the national-level consequences as the other games this week, but their last two meetings were decided in the games' final minutes, so we can expect an exciting game this time around too. However, the big question marks for both teams are at quarterback. Oklahoma's Trevor Knight will miss another game with a spine injury, putting Cody Thomas (13-of-33 for 172 yards) in his third start. The Cowboys are just as uncertain at quarterback, with coach Mike Gundy not revealing whether Daxx Garman or Mason Rudolph will earn the start this week.

Regardless of who Oklahoma has behind center, they definitely have Samaje Perine, who ran for an FBS-record 427 rushing yards in his last game (Oklahoma had a bye last week). For the Sooners, it all starts with the offensive line, which is ranked fourth in Adjusted Line Yards and second in Adjusted Sack Rate. That offensive line deserves Perine's record as much as he does, and they'll look to close out their regular season by winning the trench battle against the Cowboys' 94th-ranked defensive line in Adjusted Line Yards. Oklahoma State is in the middle of the pack in both rushing and passing efficiency, but it's the rushing inefficiency that should worry most Cowboys fans. The Cowboys are 123rd in turnovers gained with just 11 on the season and have an opponent third-down conversion rate of 40.7 percent, but they are fairly stout in the red zone, only allowing touchdowns on 52.4 percent of red-zone opportunities (24th). The lack of turnovers is the main concern for the Cowboys, because without turnovers or excellent field position (where they rank 79th), the Sooners can run Perine for the entire game.

The Cowboys offense isn't up to typical Oklahoma State standards this season, largely due to inefficient quarterback play. Garman is said to be dealing with concussion symptoms, but true freshman Rudolph provided an offensive spark that the Cowboys had lacked in his first start last week against Baylor (13-of-25 for 281 yards and two interceptions). If Rudolph can move the offense like he did last week, then that should take some pressure off of the 93rd-ranked rushing offense and the 65th-ranked offensive line in Adjusted Line Yards. The Sooners again look to control the trenches on defense, ranking ninth in Adjusted Line Yards and 41st in Front Seven Havoc Rate. The Sooners' big weakness on defense is against explosive plays, where they are 70th in IsoPPP and the Cowboys are 34th -- the best chance for the Cowboys might be to concentrate on big plays to keep it close in the fourth quarter.

F/+ outright pick: Oklahoma

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 14

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Arizona 14.5 Oregon Oregon Oregon
Missouri 14.5 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Kansas State 9 Baylor Baylor Baylor
Georgia Tech 4 Florida State Florida State Georgia Tech
Ohio State 4 Wisconsin Ohio State Ohio State
Oklahoma State 20 Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma

Record last week outright: 10-4
Record last week against the spread: 7-7
Season record outright: 95-45
Season record against the spread: 67-76

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 04 Dec 2014

2 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2014, 9:42pm by Sid

Comments

1
by big10freak :: Fri, 12/05/2014 - 6:26pm

Wisconsin's starting center is hurt as is the backup guard who allowed one of the starting guards to take over center duties when needed. (All courtesy of ankle twists at the bottom of MN/WI pileups toward the end of the game last weekend. Thanks Gophers!)

So that leaves the possibility of a guy who has not played in a Big Ten game starting at center for the Badgers.

Given OSU's d-line that does not bode well for Wisky.

2
by Sid :: Sat, 12/06/2014 - 9:42pm

"Winston's worst nightmare should be a 13-minute Georgia Tech drive in the third or fourth quarter."

Yeah, well, 13 minute drives are pretty damn rare.