Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Nov 2017

OFI: Calm Before Rivalry Week Storm

by Chad Peltier

Think of this week's poor matchups as the calm before the post-Thanksgiving storm. There was only one matchup of ranked teams this week, and even that game included then-24th Michigan against undefeated Wisconsin.

And that Big Ten matchup was as predictable as could be: S&P+ projected a 28-18 Wisconsin win, and we got a 24-10 Badgers win with both teams following script. With two top-ten defenses (Wisconsin is top-ranked and Michigan is eighth in the S&P+), it's no surprise that neither offense found much success, with 29 percent and 26 percent success rates, respectively. The Badgers just managed two more scoring drives than the Wolverines and benefitted from Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters' unfortunate injury. Peters gave the Wolverines a fighting chance, because their run game was completely stopped up by the Badgers' defense -- Chris Evans and Karan Higdon combined for 18 carries for 45 yards -- and John O'Korn went 2-of-8 for 19 yards in relief. If the Michigan run game comes up empty, the Wolverines are pretty much just left throwing to former top receiver recruit Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had a 48-yard catch.

The Badgers' offense was similarly inefficient outside of freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who added 19 carries for 132 yards, including a 52-yarder. This, combined with Ohio State's win over Illinois (where the Buckeyes went up 38-0 with more than five minutes left in the second quarter), means that the Buckeyes and Badgers will see each other in two weeks for the Big Ten championship game -- a game that is certain to cause some controversy for the Playoff Selection Committee.

Pretty much everyone else stuck to the script too. Alabama, Clemson, and Auburn blew out their sacrificial cupcakes (Mercer, Citadel, and Louisiana-Monroe). Ohio State and Georgia took down overmatched conference opponents (Illinois and Kentucky) with ease. Miami played another conference opponent close, but still pulled out the win to reach 10-0.

In fact, the only notable upset was Kansas State knocking off Oklahoma State 45-40 -- and even that doesn't seem all that crazy in retrospect. But it was statistically improbable. Oklahoma State ran 22 more plays than the Wildcats, had nearly 100 more total yards, had one more scoring opportunity, and had a higher success rate by 8 percent, but still needed a 20-point fourth quarter just to get close to knocking off Kansas State. It's not like the Wildcats have such an amazing offense, either -- they rank 56th in the S&P+ behind their typical mix of heavy quarterback running. Seriously, three of their top five runners are quarterbacks, and the Wildcats are tenth in standard downs run rate, running on an astounding 74 percent of standard downs. This week's quarterback was freshman Skylar Thompson, the third quarterback that Kansas State has used this season. He was efficient, going 10-of-13 for 204 yards without an interception, while leading his team in rushing with 17 carries for 93 yards. The Cowboys tried to claw their way back in to the game in the fourth quarter as the Wildcats kicked a field goal, punted twice on seven total plays, and lost a fumble on their own 39-yard line, but the Cowboys' final drive ended in four straight incompletions.

The L.A. rivalry between USC and UCLA was closer than expected, with Josh Rosen posting the better stat line (32-of-52 for 421 yards, 8.1 yards per attempt, one interception) than Sam Darnold (17-of-28 for 264 yards, 9.4 yards per attempt, and one interception) in the battle for top quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, but the Trojans solidified their place at the top of the Pac-12 with the win. But Darnold actually was more efficient on the day, posting a 55 percent passing success rate compared to Rosen's 41 percent. And in the end, big plays, turnovers, and special teams made the difference, as the Trojans returned a punt for a touchdown and their first score of the game, while UCLA lost a fumble and an interception, and also missed a field goal. The end result: Jim Mora out as UCLA's head coach.

The final notable game of the week: Miami's also-typical close win over the Virginia Cavaliers. Virginia is a surprising 6-5 in Bronco Mendenhall's second year, and while the Cavaliers aren't excellent at any one thing, their defense is decent (49th in the S&P+), and senior quarterback Kurt Benkert has done an admirable job without a ton of talent around him. Against Miami's defense that completely shut down Notre Dame a week ago, Benkert had a 43 percent passing success rate (better than Miami's Malik Rosier's) with 384 total passing yards on 10.4 per attempt. He completed explosive passes (15-plus yards) to seven different receivers (and another receiver had a 14-yarder). But Miami's insane turnover streak continued, as Virginia lost both of its fumbles. The Hurricanes lead the country in turnover margin, averaging 5.1 point per game in turnover luck. And they needed it, too, as Virginia had a higher offensive success rate and averaged more than 0.75 yards per play more than the Hurricanes. Miami now has a 79 percent win probability versus Pitt this coming week before a showdown with Clemson for the ACC championship.

TOEDRAGS

  • Overall, this weekend did little to change the wide variety of possible playoff outcomes that are still on the table. Depending on the results of the Iron Bowl next week, the SEC championship game, the Big Ten championship Game (assuming Ohio State beats Michigan next week), TCU's ability to win out, and a number of other less important results over the next two weeks, we still have roughly ten teams with at least some shot of the playoff.

    The ACC and SEC each have some possibility of getting two teams in: Miami and Clemson from the ACC, and Georgia, Alabama, and/or Auburn from the SEC. The ACC scenario is relatively straightforward -- Clemson wins out, handing Miami their first loss in the ACC title game. Clemson would be a lock in that scenario, and Miami would have a chance as a one-loss team depending how things shake out in the other conferences. The SEC can make things really messy, especially if either Auburn wins the Iron Bowl or if Georgia wins the SEC championship. If Georgia wins the SEC championship over Alabama, then the Crimson Tide would have a decent argument for inclusion, particularly if Ohio State beats Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. But if Auburn wins the Iron Bowl and beats Georgia for the second time, then they're almost assuredly a lock for the playoff, while Alabama could pull a 2016 Ohio State and get in despite not playing in the SEC title game.

  • With 151 yards against Kentucky, Nick Chubb crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, becoming the second Georgia running back and fourth SEC running back to have three 1,000-yard seasons. And he had a career day running against Kentucky, too -- 10.1 yards per carry, a 73 percent opportunity rate (!), 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity, and a 55-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, demonstrating how Chubb just gets stronger as the games go on.

HONOR ROLL

  • Stanley Morgan Jr., WR, Nebraska. Penn State's pass defense is 11th in S&P+, but receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. continued his excellent year with a 78 percent catch rate for 185 yards, averaging 26.4 yards per catch. After falling behind 10-42 at halftime, Nebraska scored 34 second-half points behind quarterback Tanner Lee's 26-of-41, 399-yard day. At first glance you'd think Tanner Lee deserves the award here, but he ended with a 25 percent passing success rate, and an eight percent success rate on passing downs.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. We listed his accomplishments above, but it's worth emphasizing again how insane a 73 percent opportunity rate is to go along with 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity. That's being explosive while consistently generating big-play opportunities through ruthless efficiency. Oh, and Chubb's only season as a Bulldog where he didn't get 1,000 yards was in 2015, when he had 747 through only six games and 92 attempts before injury cut short a potentially Heisman-level year. His first 1,000-yard season as a freshman came when he backed up an injured Todd Gurley -- with 1,547 rushing yards.

LOWSMAN TROPHY

  • Jaquan Johnson, DB, Miami. One of the team's two interception leaders (with four) and noted Turnover Chain-wearer, Johnson added a 30-yard pick-six, a sack, and a team-leading nine tackles to win this week's Lowsman Trophy. Miami seems to play with fire every week by relying on turnovers to win close games, but it's hard to argue with the results on the way to ten wins so far!

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 20 Nov 2017

6 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2017, 3:51pm by horn

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 11/20/2017 - 5:13pm

If Auburn wins out and Clemson loses to Miami, who gets in?

Would a 2-loss Auburn get in at the expense of a 2-loss Clemson team who beat Auburn head to head?

I can envision a fascinating scenario where Auburn, Miami, OSU, and Oklahoma win out.

Who joins Miami in the semis? 1-loss Alabama? 1-loss Wisconsin? Which of the various 2-loss teams (Auburn, Georgia, Clemson, OSU, Oklahoma, ND, Penn State, and possibly Washington/USC)? If complete chaos happens, could UCF sneak into the field with wins over Memphis and a ranked USF?

UCF has a sneakily decent record. They handed Memphis their only loss and spanked Maryland on the road, back when Maryland was healthy.

The last time a good UCF team was disrespected it spanked 11-1 Big 12 champ Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

Such a fun mixture. Clemson beat Auburn beat Georgia beat ND beat USC. Oklahoma beat OSU beat Wisconsin. (But Wisconsin's win over Iowa gives them lineal wins over OSU directly and Oklahoma via Iowa State)

2
by ssereb :: Mon, 11/20/2017 - 7:04pm

Assuming that all the eventual non-Pac-12 conference champions win out, I think there's a solid case for just putting in the conference champions. Maybe you put in the ACC or SEC runner-up if the Big 10 champion is Ohio State and the runner-up team is Miami or Alabama. I'm not sure head-to-head results like Clemson-Auburn should outweigh conference titles, especially if those head-to-head results came early in the season.

4
by RickD :: Tue, 11/21/2017 - 3:17am

I would find it very hard to justify snubbing a major conference to put in two teams from a different conference, esp. if the 2nd team already has two losses. That's just not going to happen.

The following teams need to win their conference titles to make the playoff: Auburn, Clemson, and Ohio State.

Alabama is the only team I could see losing a game and still making the playoff, though given their weak out of conference schedule I would discourage such a thing. (Great job beating Mercer!)

3
by RickD :: Tue, 11/21/2017 - 3:14am

If Auburn wins out, Auburn gets in. The SEC champion is in.

There are often "head-to-head" arguments where team X beats team Y who beats team Z who beats team X. Those don't really matter. The regular season isn't a single elimination tournament. If Auburn can beat Alabama and Georgia twice, they deserve to be in.

If Clemson cannot beat Miami, they don't deserve to be in. Not at the expense of Miami or Auburn or Wisconsin or Oklahoma.

5
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 11/21/2017 - 9:12am

Clemson vs Auburn vs Oklahoma would be a fascinating argument, because the teams' profiles are so similar.

Each has a premier win (Clemson beat Auburn; Auburn beat Alabama; Oklahoma beat Ohio State). Each has a shaky loss (Clemson lost to Syracuse; Auburn lost to LSU; Oklahoma lost to Iowa State's backup QB).

Do you take the 2-loss SEC champ or the 2-loss defending national champion?

6
by horn :: Wed, 11/22/2017 - 3:51pm

Every great team relies on turnovers, Saban's boys have been doing it forever.

You make it sound like having a strip sack-fumble in back to back games is luck or a bad thing when it's neither. It's skill.

Reading the QB's eyes and stepping into the passing lane -- especially when the DC specifically called out that pattern - is not luck, it's tremendous skill by the player and coach.

I can see future editions of OFI now....Miami created turnovers against Clemson and was lucky to win....created turnovers against Oklahoma with sacks and was lucky to win....picked off Jalen Hurts 4 times and was lucky to win...