Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Dec 2015

OFI: The Stage is Set

by Chad Peltier

The regular season is all wrapped up and the bowl games are set, with Alabama and Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl and Clemson and Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl (in a rematch of last year's Citrus Bowl). There wasn't much drama on the season's final Saturday, as the only upset of the day came from Texas upending a quarterback-less Baylor, and the projected College Football Playoff four advanced.

Picking the field this year was easy. Sure, some potentially deserving teams like Stanford, Ohio State, and Notre Dame were left out, but that's how college football works: the regular season -- and really, every single game of the regular season -- matters. You can argue that it's wrong that it's better to lose a crazy upset than to lose a close big game (i.e., it was better for Ohio State to lose to Virginia Tech and beat Michigan State last year, and better for Oklahoma to lose to Texas than one of their last conference games, or better for Michigan State to lose to Nebraska than Ohio State), but otherwise the four-team playoff seems to be working as intended.

We'll preview all of the bowl games in depth with future Seventh Day Adventure columns, but we've got some quality matchups in the playoff semifinals and the New Year's Six bowl games. The Derrick Henry-led Crimson Tide will have to face a Michigan State defense that has gotten better throughout the season and shut down Ezekiel Elliott. Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield should get some opportunities for big plays against Clemson, but Deshaun Watson is just fine creating his own explosive plays as well in what should be an exciting, high-scoring matchup. Ohio State may have missed the playoffs by a last-second field goal, but a matchup with Notre Dame is the perfect consolation -- Will Fuller versus the elite Ohio State secondary and Ezekiel Elliott versus a banged-up Notre Dame front will keep this one at the top of must-watch games. Then, can Houston pick up another win over an ACC team in Tom Herman's first year as they take on an underrated Florida State? This is an excellent bowl season with a number of highly anticipated games.

TOEDRAGS

  • So how good was Derrick Henry's performance against Florida? The presumptive Heisman favorite entering the weekend took another 44 carries against the fifth-ranked rushing S&P+ defense for a total of 189 yards. No, 4.3 yards per carry isn't an incredibly impressive average even if the total yardage is significant, but it did push Henry over Herschel Walker's SEC single-season rushing record. The advanced stats have Henry at a 50 percent rushing success rate and a 30 percent opportunity rate, with only two explosive carries. These numbers certainly aren't bad, but indicate that Henry was most effective in short-yardage situations due to the high success rate and lower opportunity rate. In the four plays where the Crimson Tide had 2 yards or less to go, Henry picked up the first down in every situation. Amazingly, he got the ball on only three third downs, converting two of those. It was a solid, unflashy performance for the Alabama workhorse -- but it might not have been enough to lock up the Heisman.

  • There are some who argue that Alabama should have taken the top spot in the final playoff rankings because of its dominance. But outside of a dominating defensive effort where Florida only scored a single touchdown on a 46-yard pass in the fourth quarter, Alabama was inefficient on offense. In 14 drives, the Tide had four three-and-outs, a fumble, and a missed field goal and only created six scoring opportunities (43 percent of drives). Of course, this did come against the fifth-overall S&P+ defense. The Gators offense is 61st in S&P+ and 98th in points per game, so it's not terribly surprising that Alabama was able to hold them to a single fourth-quarter touchdown. All in all, the Crimson Tide looked about how you would have expected them to look -- the offense was fine, if reliant on Derrick Henry, and the defense dominated a poor Florida offense. Michigan State will offer a much better quarterback in Connor Cook, with a worse (but still good) Spartans defense.
  • Michigan State won the Big Ten Championship thanks to an incredible 22-play drive that covered 82 yards in 9:04. The Spartans had a rushing success rate of 65 percent and went 2-of-5 passing on the drive for a 59 percent overall success rate. But what's more remarkable is that the Spartans were 5-of-6 on third downs when they were just 5-of-14 the rest of the game. The Spartans had six scoring opportunities besides their game-winning drive, but managed just nine points, or 1.5 points per scoring opportunity. The Hawkeyes were better finishing drives on defense than they had been the rest of the season, as they averaged 4.23 points per scoring opportunity (33rd) and were 41st in third-down defense S&P+ on the season. So overall, the Hawkeyes outplayed their season trends on third down and preventing scores after Michigan State had created a scoring opportunity, but the Spartans came up big when they had to, reversing a 36 percent third-down conversion rate to an 83 percent conversion rate on that drive. That final drive was more indicative of the Spartans' play on third down this year than their performance in the rest of the game; they are the seventh-ranked offense in third downs S&P+.
  • Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan only needed 12 pass attempts to beat the Trojans, as Christian McCaffrey controlled almost all facets of the game for the Cardinal. The thing was that Hogan was explosive when he did pass, averaging 12 yards per attempt compared to Cody Kessler's 5 yards per attempt. Hogan had a 50 percent passing success rate, but had three passes of more than 15 yards and five passes go for first downs. Overall Stanford was 7-for-13 on third downs, allowing them to control the clock and limit the Trojans' opportunities. In the second half, when Stanford was up just 13-3, Stanford only had four possessions and chewed up clock while scoring on three of those drives.
  • Clemson allowed the ACC Championship to be closer than it might have been otherwise by allowing 14 points off of turnovers -- one touchdown after a fake punt and one following an interception. But the Tigers were incredibly explosive on offense, with both Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson picking up 30-plus-yard runs, with five total explosive runs between them and three explosive passes. Oklahoma's defense is 77th in rushing IsoPPP, so this explosive rushing attack could give the Sooners some trouble in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

HONOR ROLL

  • Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford. Christian McCaffrey probably made the biggest leap in the Heisman standings this week with 32 carries for 207 rushing yards, a team-high 105 receiving yards, an 11-yard touchdown pass, and 78 percent of Stanford's total yards. McCaffrey is now second in total rushing yards in the country behind Derrick Henry.
  • Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. Deshaun Watson wasn't perfect, but he threw for 289 yards, ran for 131, and averaged 6.9 yards per pass against North Carolina's improved defense. The quarterback Heisman race is neck-and-neck between Watson and Baker Mayfield, though I'd give the slight edge to Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey at this point.
  • Lynx Hawthorne, WR, Baylor. Lynx Hawthorne was forced in to the game against Texas as a quarterback after Chris Johnson went down. He threw two interceptions to start and only averaged 2.9 yards per pass afterwards, but Hawthorne ran for an average 6.6 yards per carry in Baylor's forced single-wing attack as a quarterback-less offense.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 07 Dec 2015

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