Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Nov 2016

OFI: Contenders Separate Themselves

by Chad Peltier

The College Football Playoff race is fairly well defined at this point. Six primary undefeated or one-loss contenders are left: Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Clemson, Louisville, and Washington. Five of those six throttled their opponents by 39 or more points last weekend. Alabama, the only one of the six not to score more than 50 points, won a slugfest with LSU and is running out of regular-season games that it could lose. It's clear that these contenders piled on the points in the hopes of impressing the College Football Playoff Committee, despite the (probably false) notion that the committee doesn't care about margin of victory when they make their rankings. Assuming all of those six win out -- except for Ohio State and Michigan, who will face each other in The Game for a likely playoff spot -- then Louisville looks like the odd man out.

TOEDRAGS

  • Before the Crimson Tide played the Tigers (either of them), most analysts thought that either LSU or Auburn had the best shot of knocking off Alabama during the regular season. S&P+ gave Alabama just a 64 percent chance of winning against LSU. And for three scoreless quarters, we got 2016's best impression of the overtime classic 9-6 defensive struggle between these top programs in 2011. But the 2016 edition is best seen as a knockoff version of that classic game. In 2011, Alabama and LSU had the second and third-ranked S&P+ passing offenses, but this year they were 32nd and 59th, respectively. So while both defenses played incredible games -- Alabama averaged just two points per scoring opportunity, while LSU only had a single scoring opportunity and averaged just a 23 percent success rate -- those standout defensive numbers have to be filtered through the quality of the offenses (and the quarterbacks, in particular).

    Alabama's ten-point fourth quarter (when the Crimson Tide had three of their five scoring opportunities) was fueled by two things: depth and Jalen Hurts' feet. The first scoring drive of the game was a 90-yard, six-minute fight down the field where Hurts and running back Bo Scarbrough eventually wore away at the LSU defensive front. Prior to that scoring drive (which ended the third quarter), Alabama had run with a 29 percent success rate. During and after that drive into the fourth quarter, the Tide had a 62 percent rushing success rate, including three explosive runs. On the critical touchdown drive, Bo Scarbrough had five carries for 23 yards, which doesn't sound like a lot, but he had two runs of 8-plus yards that would be among the biggest gains of the day. Hurts had three carries for 35 yards, including the improbable touchdown scramble on third-and-9 that is typifies Nick Saban's offensive evolution under Lane Kiffin. That speaks to both Hurts' ability on the ground and the fact that eventually the Tide's offensive line was able to outlast the LSU defensive front.

    While the story of the game can be more or less summarized by those two fourth-quarter scoring drives, it would be a disservice to the Alabama defense to not mention that it is impressive any time you can hold Leonard Fournette to 2.1 yards per carry -- no matter who his quarterback is.

  • The Aggies exited the playoff conversation almost as quickly as they entered it. Just days after the College Football Selection Committee surprisingly listed Texas A&M as the fourth-ranked team in the country over Washington, Louisville, and Ohio State, the Aggies lost to an unranked Mississippi State team that has losses to South Alabama and Kentucky on its record. The Aggies lost in surprising fashion, and might have lost even if Trevor Knight hadn't left the game with an injury. The Aggies lost the yards per play, scoring opportunities, and success rate battles, primarily because of their inability to run the ball or stop the run. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw two interceptions, but he also had 182 rushing yards to complement Aeris Williams' 140 rushing yards as the Bulldogs compiled 365 total rushing yards on an Aggies defense that has now dropped to 95th in rushing S&P+.

    The Aggies drop opens the door for undefeated Washington to likely reenter the playoff top-four, with Ohio State and Louisville right behind.

  • This one was entirely unexpected. It was yet another ranked matchup for the volatile Ohio State Buckeyes, and four straight disappointing showings for the Buckeyes offense dampened expectations for the primetime matchup with the Cornhuskers. But for as volatile as the Buckeyes have been this season (tenth-most volatile in the country according to the S&P+), they showed what kind of ceiling they're capable of with a complete demolition of Nebraska. Ohio State had the second-best FEI single-game opponent-adjusted efficiency rating of the season, as well as the largest S&P+ success rate margin of the week (plus-33 percent).

    Part of this incredible 62-3 score was due to Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. getting injured (after a scare where he was immobilized and rushed to the hospital, he later returned to the sideline). But Ohio State also saw an offensive resurgence to go along with its two defensive scores. The offensive game plan was clearly pass-heavy, with J.T. Barrett throwing 38 times for nearly 300 yards and a 63 percent success rate. That improvement in passing success rate is notable both for the improvement relative to struggles in recent weeks as well as Nebraska's pass defense, which was 24th in passing S&P+. But the Ohio State coaching staff clearly realized that the Huskers' defensive strength was in their safeties and in containing explosive passes (where they ranked fifth in passing IsoPPP before the game), and focused on mostly shorter passes in the 7- to 10-yard range. But the run game's efficiency also improved to a 52 percent success rate, with four explosive runs. As a result, Ohio State scored on every single offensive possession of the game until the final run-out-the-clock drive of the fourth quarter after the starters had been pulled.

    With that kind of ceiling and its current ranking, Ohio State seems well positioned for the College Football Playoff, assuming it can win what should be a top-five matchup against Michigan. But the Buckeyes actually need some help to get to the Big Ten Championship even with a win over the Wolverines: they would either need another Penn State loss during the regular season (but the Nittany Lions only have Indiana, Rutgers, and Michigan State left on the schedule), or Michigan not to lose (with Iowa as the Wolverines' notable opponent) before The Game at the end of November. If all three end the season with one loss, then Ohio State would head to the Big Ten Championship game (where a rematch with Wisconsin would be likely).

  • #NovemBert is a time-honored tradition at this point, as SB Nation and The Solid Verbal have chronicled. While many doubted whether the Razorbacks could equal the momentum they have had in previous Novembers, Bret Bielema's Arkansas team managed to dominate the Gators on both sides of the ball. After a season of defensive dominance, Florida wasn't able to stop either the power rushing attack from Rawleigh Williams III (who only finished with a 36 percent rushing success rate) or Austin Allen's passing. And the Florida offense did about as expected -- manage only a field goal of its own, just three scoring opportunities, and so an average of just one point per scoring opportunity since the Gators' only touchdown was a pick-six. Arkansas is now 6-3 overall, but Florida still sits on top of the dismal SEC East with a 4-2 conference record.

HONOR ROLL

  • Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami. Miami snapped a four-game losing streak with a win over Pitt, thanks in large part to quarterback Brad Kaaya. Kaaya threw for 356 yards with a 68 percent completion rate and five total touchdowns as the Hurricanes created scoring opportunities on two-thirds of their offensive possessions.
  • D'Onta Foreman, RB, Texas. Who would have thought the national leader in rushing yards per game would come from Texas? D'Onta Foreman ran for an astounding 341 yards on 33 attempts. Sure, it was against Texas Tech's mostly non-existent defense, but he completely carried the load for the Longhorns to pull them above a .500 record for the year.
  • Kyle Hicks, RB, TCU. A week after totaling 15 yards on four carries in a loss to Texas Tech, TCU running back Kyle Hicks ran for 192 yards and five touchdowns to put down Baylor in a blowout win.
  • Wilton Speight, QB, Michigan. Michigan's Wilton Speight seems to be playing better each week. Sure, his competition may not be elite, but you have to admire his efficiency in the 59-3 win over Maryland as Speight threw for 362 yards and only missed on five of 24 passes.
  • Honorable mentions go to Penn State's Saquon Barkley, who recorded 167 rushing yards and a 44-yard touchdown catch in the win over Iowa, as well as USC's Ronald Jones II, who ran for 171 yards against Oregon as he shouldered the load for the second straight week.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Sidney Jones, DB, Washington. Washington's defense ranks 11th in passing S&P+ and is a big reason for the Huskies' success this season. Against Cal, defensive back Sidney Jones picked off Davis Webb twice, including one in the end zone, which helped limit the Golden Bears to just 3.86 points per scoring opportunity.
  • Rodrigo Blankenship, K, Georgia. It has not been a banner year for the Bulldogs or their special teams, which rank 122nd in special teams S&P+, but Rodrigo Blankenship is coming on strong as Georgia's kicker after replacing William Ham. He was frequently used against Kentucky, connecting on all four field goals, including the game-winner and two 40-plus-yard attempts.

    Posted by: Chad Peltier on 07 Nov 2016

    2 comments, Last at 08 Nov 2016, 12:15pm by Mr Shush

Comments

1
by Mr Shush :: Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:53am

I watch very little college football these days, but I happened to be in a bar that was showing TCU's game against West Virginia a couple of weeks back, and was very impressed indeed by what I saw of Hicks. Seriously impressive lateral agility - reminded me a bit of LeSean McCoy. Just a few plays in one game, and I'm no expert, but he looked like an NFL talent to me.

2
by Mr Shush :: Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:15pm

Delete repeat.