Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Dec 2015

SDA: Conference Championships and Chaos

by Chad Peltier

Not only is it conference championship week and the final week of college football's regular season, but it's also a chance for chaos in the playoff race. The first two games at noon are exciting matchups in Texas that are admittedly without any playoff ramifications. But beginning at 4 p.m. EST, the day will get crazy with consecutive (and conflicting) conference championship games.

If the week goes without upsets, then the only change in the College Football Playoff top four will be Michigan State snagging Iowa's fourth spot. But there's a lot of potential for chaos due to upsets, especially if Clemson and/or Alabama loses. As many as eight teams are theoretically still in the playoff hunt. Oklahoma and the Iowa-Michigan State winner are near-locks. Clemson would be a lock with a win, as would Alabama. But North Carolina would get some consideration with an ACC Championship, despite their schedule, due to their one season-opening loss to South Carolina. Stanford could also get a look with a win over USC, as they have one of the strongest resumes full of quality wins despite two losses. And Ohio State certainly has a (long) shot if we reach a critical mass of upsets.

AAC Championship: Temple (+7) at Houston -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

This may not be the most anticipated championship game this weekend, but it should definitely be high on your list. The storyline is pretty simple: two-loss, defense-led Temple is up against Houston's excellent offense. Since this is strength-on-strength, will the banged-up Greg Ward Jr. be healthy enough to have a big day against the Owls, or can Temple shut down the Houston run game and force the Cougars to pass? While the American Conference Championship doesn't have the stakes of the other conference championship games because it lacks any playoff ramifications, this could be one of the closest games of the week.

Overall Houston Temple
F/+ 32 33
When Houston has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 31 11
FEI 24 20
Success Rate 29 10
IsoPPP 36 99
Rushing S&P+ 51 24
Passing S&P+ 52 20
When Temple has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 68 73
FEI 31 68
Success Rate 56 92
IsoPPP 57 35
Rushing S&P+ 48 96
Passing S&P+ 78 70

It's easy to bill this as a Houston offense vs. Temple defense matchup, but not all of the advanced stats support that view. Yes, almost every metric has the Owls as a top-25 defense (11th in defensive S&P+, 24th in rushing S&P+, 20th in passing S&P+, and 20th in defensive FEI), but Houston's rankings vary considerably. At 31st in offensive S&P+, 24th in offensive FEI, 51st in rushing S&P+, and 54th in passing S&P+, Houston's offensive rankings are all over the map. The reason for that is simple: while Houston may not be the most efficient per-play offense running the ball, or the most explosive per play when passing, they are top-five in finishing drives (averaging 5.7 points per scoring opportunity, fourth) and in turnover margin (+15, second overall). That's another reason why their drive efficiency numbers are better than their per-play efficiency -- Houston creates more opportunities with more turnovers and takes advantage of those opportunities with a strong red zone offense. It's no coincidence that they went minus-4 in turnover margin in their only loss of the season to Connecticut. While Temple doesn't have as solid of a turnover margin (30th, plus-6), they are nearly as good as Houston at finishing drives on defense, allowing an average of 3.8 points per scoring opportunity (16th). So that will mean that big plays on the ground (and within Temple's 40-yard line) should be the thing to watch for Houston, as they are much more explosive on the ground (22nd) than efficient (53rd) and Temple's primary defensive weakness is allowing explosive runs (114th in rushing IsoPPP). Houston averages 5.84 rushing yards per carry between their opponents' 40- and 21-yard lines, with 22 runs of 10-plus yards.

But don't let that matchup distract you from the steadily improving P.J. Walker. Walker doesn't average a high yards per attempt (6.5), nor is he particularly efficient (56.8 percent completion rate, 70th in passing success rate), but he's decently explosive (43rd in passing IsoPPP) between leading receivers Robby Anderson and Ventell Bryant. Houston's defensive weakness is allowing explosive pass plays (74th in passing IsoPPP, allowing 115th-best 50 passes of 20-plus yards). It's telling that Walker and Temple are much better on passing downs than on standard downs (34th in S&P+ to 110th) and compared to regular passing S&P+ (70th), suggesting that Walker does an excellent job situationally.

Watch for:

  • Houston has only lost when they went minus-4 in turnover margin against Connecticut. So is hanging on to the ball the only thing the Cougars need to worry about?
  • Will P.J. Walker continue his excellent passing on third down, where he's even more efficient than he seems to be throwing on standard downs?

F/+ Outright Pick: Temple

Texas (+20.5) at Baylor -- 12 p.m. (ESPN3)

Overall Baylor Texas
F/+ 7 82
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 1 78
FEI 9 42
Success Rate 10 108
IsoPPP 5 13
Rushing S&P+ 52 69
Passing S&P+ 6 37
When Texas has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 53 83
FEI 27 107
Success Rate 35 85
IsoPPP 42 30
Rushing S&P+ 12 46
Passing S&P+ 27 116

The Longhorns and Bears have one of the few non-conference championships games this week, and while it's most likely the end of Texas' season either way (there's the off chance that a win against Baylor would put the Longhorns up for consideration as a 5-7 bowl team), Baylor has a lot of motivation outside of the in-state rivalry. The Bears will be bound for the Sugar Bowl, likely against Ole Miss, with a win over Texas as they have beaten Oklahoma State and TCU for the Big 12 tiebreaker. So not only is Baylor the better team according to almost every statistical measure, but they certainly seem to have more motivation.

However, there's clearly an issue at quarterback for Baylor as sophomore Chris Johnson got his first start in place of both Jarrett Stidham and Seth Russell in last week's loss to TCU. Johnson was just 7-of-24 for 62 yards -- a far cry away from the passing totals that either previous starting quarterback put up in Art Briles' system. And while the Longhorns have allowed teams like TCU and Texas Tech to average more than 9.5 yards per pass, they have been decent against most other offenses on their Big 12 schedule. The key question will be whether an extra week of practice for Johnson will make a difference, because Baylor's offense certainly fits the profile of teams that have had success through the air against Texas. Shock Linwood could get more work this week if the Bears shift to the ground game -- which has been an issue for Texas all season, since they rank 69th in rushing S&P+ and 117th in rushing success rate. Junior running back Devin Chafin got most of the work last week against TCU, but Baylor has three running backs who could take advantage of the Texas defense.

It's not usually wise to bet on the Texas offense, but they'll have two targets on the Baylor defense: big plays through the air and a steady run game. The problem is that leading rusher D'Onta Foreman will not play against Baylor, while co-starter Jonathan Gray is day-to-day with a foot injury. While Jerrod Heard has been cleared to practice, Tyrone Swoopes will get the start. That's a serious blow for the Texas run game that could have found some holes in Baylor's 50th-ranked rushing success rate defense. So can Swoopes or Heard connect with Daje Johnson or John Burt (who average a 68 percent catch rate and 18.2 yards per catch, respectively) enough to hit big plays on Baylor's defense? Without a complementary run game, that's a fairly tall order. The lone bit of good news is that freshman Chris Warren, who got his first extensive work last week against Texas Tech when he ran for 276 yards on 11 yards per carry, will start in place of Gray and Foreman.

Watch for:

  • Can freshman Texas running back Chris Warren follow up this stellar first performance (where he ran for 276 yards last week) with another against the 50th-ranked Baylor rushing success rate defense?
  • Will third-string Baylor quarterback Chris Johnson be improved in his second week starting after last week's disastrous performance? Or will the Bears rely on the ground game against the 69th-ranked rushing S&P+ Texas defense?

F/+ Outright Pick: Baylor

SEC Championship: Florida (+18) vs. Alabama -- 4 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Florida Alabama
F/+ 18 1
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 58 1
FEI 61 3
Success Rate 88 2
IsoPPP 96 1
Rushing S&P+ 87 1
Passing S&P+ 39 1
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 5 28
FEI 8 31
Success Rate 4 36
IsoPPP 60 78
Rushing S&P+ 4 13
Passing S&P+ 7 35

Most national commentators and analysts aren't giving the 10-2 Florida Gators any chance in the SEC Championship Game. That's understandable -- the Gators didn't score any points on offense versus the ninth-ranked defensive S&P+ Seminoles last week, while the top-overall defensive S&P+ Crimson Tide have only allowed two opponents (Ole Miss and Texas A&M) to score more than 17 points in a game this season. So what will Florida have to do to have a chance at the playoff-shaking upset?

First, the good news is that for as good as Alabama's defense has been, Florida's has been nearly as strong. With one of the best cornerback tandems in the country and an aggressive, havoc-creating defensive line (fifth in overall havoc rate), the Gators are the second-best defense in the SEC and certainly have a chance to make the Crimson Tide one-dimensional on the ground. Jake Coker has been fine as a game manager of the 35th-ranked passing S&P+ offense (56th in passing success rate), but the Gators own the seventh-ranked passing S&P+ defense. The challenge is that Derrick Henry has shown himself capable of owning a game all by himself, as his nearly 300 yards and 46 carries last week demonstrate. Unless Henry is still tired from doing double-duty against Auburn, he'll be needed to score on the Florida defense that still ranks fourth in rushing S&P+. The key for Henry will be getting past the second level. Expect a lot of negative plays from the seventh-ranked stuff rate Florida run defense, but big plays are possible as well (79th in rushing IsoPPP).

Second, the Gators have to win the battles for turnovers (they're currently 11th, plus-10) and field position (seventh and first in offensive and defensive average starting field position). If the Gators' special teams and defense can put the ineffective offense in scoring opportunities, then they'll have at least a chance, especially if the Gators can recreate the five-turnover performance that Ole Miss used to upset the Tide at the beginning of the season.

Third, the Gators have to lock up the Tide in the red zone. Alabama is 28th in overall offensive S&P+, but just 60th in finishing drives, averaging only 4.9 points per trip inside their opponents' 40-yard line. The Gators' excellent defense has had its own issues in the red zone, falling to 44th in finishing drives.

Finally, the Gators will need to create some explosive plays on the Tide's 70th-ranked IsoPPP defense. Their best bet is through the air with big throws to Antonio Callaway. Callaway averages more than 19 yards per catch and is the only obvious threat against the Alabama defense. Even though Kirby Smart may have half of his mind in Athens, Ga., the Crimson Tide defense is too well-coached and talented to be susceptible to anything but big plays and short fields versus the Florida offense.

Watch for:

  • Can Derrick Henry take the Alabama offense on his shoulders once again? The Gators defense only seems vulnerable to explosive runs, so can Henry deliver after a 46-carry performance last week?
  • Will Florida's special teams and turnovers provide its offense with enough short fields and scoring opportunities to have a chance?

Pac-12 Championship: USC (+4.5) at Stanford -- 7:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall USC Stanford
F/+ 16 10
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 15 56
FEI 13 61
Success Rate 31 66
IsoPPP 43 91
Rushing S&P+ 41 50
Passing S&P+ 31 65
When Stanford has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 49 7
FEI 29 5
Success Rate 75 2
IsoPPP 73 97
Rushing S&P+ 26 24
Passing S&P+ 45 7

The Pac-12 champion probably won't get a playoff bid, especially if the Trojans find a way to get the upset. Stanford has an outside shot, particularly if either Clemson or Alabama lose: it would be conference champions, something the committee especially values, and would have wins over USC (twice), UCLA, and Notre Dame, and would have dominated in most of its wins. The two losses certainly hurt, but there's some evidence from last year that quality wins matter more to the playoff selection committee than losses. With four losses, the Trojans aren't going to the playoff, but they are more or less auditioning for newly promoted head coach Clay Helton.

In the first game between these two schools in mid-September, Kevin Hogan was deadly efficient, throwing for more than 275 yards, and the offense as a whole had incredible drive efficiency. Aside from two punts, the Cardinal scored on every possession, averaging 5.9 points per scoring opportunity. The Trojans defense looked lost as Stanford converted 67 percent of its third downs and averaged 11.6 yards per pass. Those trends have held up: Stanford continues to be excellent passing, at seventh in passing S&P+ and 28th on passing downs, while USC is mediocre in pass defense (45th in passing S&P+). Interestingly, the Cardinal appear to be one of the best offenses against USC on passing downs, as the Trojans were 27th in passing downs S&P+ and third overall defensively on third downs S&P+. So the game plan probably won't change very much for Stanford offensively: expect efficient passing from Kevin Hogan and efficient running from Christian McCaffrey. One thing to note is that the Trojans rarely stuff opposing runs (95th in stuff rate), while Christian McCaffrey rarely gets tackled in the backfield (16th in stuff rate, 35th in opportunity rate). It will be up to the Trojans defense to create negative plays and turnovers, though they are fairly proficient at that -- they are plus-13 in turnover margin while Stanford is minus-1.

The Stanford defense hasn't been its usual hard-hitting, efficient self this season, ranking 50th in rushing S&P+, 65th in passing S&P+, and 61st in overall defensive FEI. The Cardinal have won more with offense than defense this season, and that's where the Trojans have a lot of opportunity. Though the offensive line allows a lot of sacks (83rd in adjusted sack rate), Cody Kessler protects the football (six interceptions) and relies on his top receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who has nearly a third of the team's targets in the receiving game and more than a third of the total receiving yards with nearly 18 yards per catch. The question is whether Ronnie Harris will be healthy, as he easily leads the team with ten pass breakups and will be needed to cover Smith-Schuster if available. The other thing to watch is for how explosive especially Ronald Jones II can be on the ground. Averaging a respectable 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity, he is the most explosive Trojan and can really take advantage of a Stanford run defense that is 122nd in rushing IsoPPP.

Watch for:

  • The turnover margin might determine the outcome of the game, and the Trojans are sixth in the country at plus-13 while Stanford is minus-1 on the year.
  • We might see a lot of big runs from the Trojans, as Ronald Jones averages more than 7 highlight yards per opportunity and the Cardinal is one of the worst defenses at containing explosive running plays.
  • Also look out for how healthy Stanford's secondary is, as they'll need to be in top shape versus the clear No. 1 receiver in Smith-Schuster.

F+ Outright Pick: Stanford

Big Ten Championship: Michigan State (-3.5) vs. Iowa -- 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Michigan State Iowa
F/+ 8 24
When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 26 27
FEI 21 36
Success Rate 49 30
IsoPPP 66 8
Rushing S&P+ 109 11
Passing S&P+ 27 56
When Iowa has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 18 47
FEI 21 30
Success Rate 59 40
IsoPPP 38 63
Rushing S&P+ 30 35
Passing S&P+ 8 41

The Big Ten champions are almost assuredly guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff this year. At fourth and fifth, the Hawkeyes and Spartans have just a single loss between them and are poised to likely claim the fourth spot in the playoff rankings, barring major upsets by North Carolina or Florida. These are both scrappy teams led by over-performing quarterbacks and strong defenses. So who has the edge? Going by most analysts and the Vegas books, Michigan State is favored following its win over Ohio State and other quality wins over Michigan and Oregon. Iowa's best win of the year might be over Northwestern, though the Wisconsin slugfest or win over Pitt might be close seconds. But no matter which way you look at it, even though Iowa is undefeated, Michigan State certainly looks like the better team.

Michigan State is likely going to be one-dimensional on offense, but Connor Cook is still good enough of that it may not matter. The Hawkeyes are 11th in the rushing S&P+ defensive rankings, limiting big plays even if they rarely create negative plays (97th in stuff rate). The Spartans are also surprisingly inefficient running the ball (109th in rushing S&P+) with freshman L.J. Scott as the most consistent and explosive threat. The Spartans offense has consisted mainly of strong passing from Connor Cook, who leads the 27th-ranked passing S&P+ attack. Cook rarely turns the ball over (just four interceptions) and distributes the ball well between No. 1 target Aaron Burbridge (35.6 percent target rate, 15 yards per catch) and Macgarrett Kings Jr. and R.J. Shelton. While Iowa's defense has been solid, they have certainly been tested for the last month, allowing four games with at least 20 points to the likes of Purdue, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The issue is through the air, where they're 56th in passing S&P+ (Minnesota in particular averaged nearly 11 yards per pass attempt and a 71.4 percent completion rate). Connor Cook should be excited about this matchup.

But Iowa might be able to match scores based on the strength of its run game. Yes, there are parallels between C.J. Beathard and Connor Cook (Beathard also rarely throws interceptions, but doesn't have a clear top target like Aaron Burbridge), but the Iowa offense is much more balanced than Michigan State's due to its strong rushing attack. Senior running back Jordan Canzeri is the leader, with a 35.2 percent opportunity rate and 5.5 yards per carry, but almost everyone they have rotated through (four guys have at least 60 rushing attempts) has been fairly successful. The Hawkeyes are rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (28th in stuff rate) even though they're not all that great at getting to the next level (92nd in team opportunity rate). Especially considering Michigan State's defense, which allows a fairly consistent run game (30th in rushing S&P+ to eighth in passing S&P+), the Hawkeyes will likely be fairly balanced offensively.

Watch for:

  • The Spartans defense has been worse against the run, but bucked the trend by completely shutting down Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State's offense. Can they also limit the Hawkeyes' stable of running backs?
  • Who will win the quarterback dual -- C.J. Beathard or Connor Cook? Is Cook healthy enough to take advantage of an Iowa secondary that is ranked just 56th in passing S&P+?

F/+ Outright Pick: Michigan State

ACC Championship: Clemson (-4.5) at North Carolina -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall North Carolina Clemson
F/+ 19 2
When North Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 19 6
FEI 14 7
Success Rate 17 3
IsoPPP 4 111
Rushing S&P+ 17 15
Passing S&P+ 24 3
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 63 11
FEI 54 15
Success Rate 94 13
IsoPPP 2 41
Rushing S&P+ 109 28
Passing S&P+ 66 4

Clemson is just one of two undefeated teams in the country, with wins over Notre Dame and Florida State -- so they're an easy lock in the ACC Championship Game, right? Well, not necessarily. Vegas has the Tigers as five-point favorites, and many are guessing that if there is a big-time upset this weekend, it could come from Marquise Williams and the Tar Heels.

North Carolina's offense is led by the two-headed rushing monster of Elijah Hood and Marquise Williams, while four receivers have more than 400 yards and at least 40 targets. Larry Fedora's offense is about as good as Clemson has faced this season -- in fact, only Notre Dame is really in the same ballpark. The Tar Heels are 24th in passing S&P+ because of Williams' underrated throwing ability and multitude of receivers, but they're even better on the ground at 17th overall. Both Williams and Hood average almost a 47 percent opportunity rate, which is 23rd in the country as a team, and the line is seventh overall in adjusted line yards and eighth in stuff rate. This should be an intense battle on the ground as few defenses get stops behind the line as often as Clemson (30.3 percent of the time, or second overall), and the Tigers are fourth in adjusted line yards on defense and 12th in opportunity rate. But the big weakness is that the Tigers can allow big plays on the ground -- they're second-worst in rushing IsoPPP, though that has hardly affected their opponent-adjusted ranking of 15th overall in rushing defense. So what will hold up? The opponent adjusted rankings or the overall explosive run defense ranking?

First-year North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has done an excellent job with the Tar Heels defense, but there is a big difference between the advanced stats and overall scoring defense. In scoring defense, North Carolina is tied for 19th, allowing an average of 20.8 points per game. But according to the advanced stats, North Carolina is 63rd overall in defensive S&P+, 54th in defensive FEI, 109th in rushing S&P+, and 66th in passing S&P+. The Tar Heels are good, but they're clearly worse than the box scores indicate. Deshaun Watson should have a field day against North Carolina's pass and rush defense. Watson leads the fourth-ranked passing S&P+ offense, rarely takes sacks (fifth in adjusted sack rate) and throws to a deep receiving corps with four players with more than 400 receiving yards. With Carolina's offense also strong and Clemson's defense relatively untested despite the rankings, this could theoretically turn in to a shootout.

Watch for:

  • Can North Carolina run on Clemson with Elijah Hood and Marquise Williams? Is that enough to turn it in to a shootout?
  • Is Deshaun Watson too good for North Carolina's mediocre pass defense and will he expose the Tar Heels?

F/+ Outright Pick: Clemson

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 14

Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
at Houston 7 Temple Temple Temple
at Baylor 20.5 Texas Baylor Baylor
Alabama 17.5 Florida Alabama Florida
Stanford 4.5 USC Stanford USC
Michigan State 3.5 Iowa Michigan State Michigan State
Clemson 5 North Carolina Clemson Clemson

Picks against the spread last week: 3-6
Picks straight up last week: 6-4

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 03 Dec 2015

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