Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week

Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week
Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ian Boyd

Rivalry Week didn't carry too many shocks, only disappointment for some blue-blood programs such as Michigan and USC. The Trojans had been surging behind freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and had hopes of getting into the Pac-12 title game if Colorado lost. Instead, the Buffaloes took down Utah and earned a bout with Washington in that game, with a possible playoff berth in the balance.

The weekend's biggest and best game was Round 2 of the Jim Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer series in the long and storied rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State. The Buckeyes just barely managed to rally and move past the Wolverines thanks to the running of their quarterback, J.T. Barrett, who dominated the game from the fourth quarter on. The game was also marked by a few controversial officiating calls that drew the ire of Harbaugh, but the big question now is whether Ohio State and/or Michigan will be included in the playoff even though neither program won the Big 10. Ohio State seems safely in, but the Wolverines' future is very cloudy.

In the SEC, LSU crushed Texas A&M, which was beat up heading into the game and unable to handle Tigers running back Derrius Guice, who ran the ball 37 times for 285 yards and four scores. Auburn gave Alabama a fight by predictably managing to hold down the Tide's option rushing attack but it was done in by Alabama wideout ArDarius Stewart (10 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown) and its own inability to move the ball on the Crimson Tide defense. Florida had already locked down the SEC East division and didn't have anything left for Florida State.

Alabama and Clemson seem safely in the playoff whether they win or lose their conference titles, but the third and fourth spots could be held by Washington, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Colorado, or even Oklahoma State depending on how things go down this week. Here are the big games of Championship Week that will determine how the playoff chips will fall.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Colorado vs. Washington (-7.5) at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California -- 9 p.m. Friday (FOX)

Overall Colorado Washington F/+ 12 5 When Colorado has the ball Offense Defense FEI 40 5 S&P+ 34 12 IsoPPP+ 54 4 Rushing S&P+ 82 6 Passing S&P+ 20 15 When Washington has the ball Defense Offense FEI 4 3 S&P+ 10 4 IsoPPP+ 15 4 Rushing S&P+ 19 29 Passing S&P+ 10 2

The Washington Huskies' playoff hopes took a big hit when they went up against a blue-blood program in USC in front of a home crowd in Seattle three weeks ago and were thoroughly beaten. That was the big test for whether or not their surging team was capable of competing at the highest level and they failed it.

However, if they win over Colorado in this game and finish the year as a one-loss Pac-12 champion, it will be hard for the committee to keep them out. The Huskies are currently in the top four heading into this contest, and their resume can improve considerably with a win. Colorado might even have an outside shot itself if chaos were to reign in Championship Week and somehow eliminate the other top contenders.

This game also has high stakes just in the possibility of Washington's first conference title since it was the Pac-10 in 2000, or Colorado's first ever Pac-12 title and first conference title since it won the Big 8 in 1991. The most intriguing matchup in this one pits the Buffaloes' defense against the Washington offense, but the decisive matchup might be the Colorado offense against the Washington defense. The Huskies are very good on both sides of the ball, but the Buffaloes have struggled all year to make major headway against great defenses and have tended to rely heavily on their own.

Colorado runs an option-heavy rushing attack that has often relied upon quarterback Sefo Liufau's legs. He has carried the ball 17 times or more in each of the Buffaloes' last five games, but gone over 100 rushing yards just once (against Washington State) while averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. The Huskies have faced other option running games this year, but nothing quite as sturdy as Colorado's attack nor paired with anything as good as Colorado's defense. Washington will be hoping to get Colorado behind the chains so that Liufau's small but often steady gains on the ground will force punts rather than long, sustained drives that protect the Buffalo defense.

That defense tends to game-plan very well for every opponent, perhaps by virtue of Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre's background as a former defensive coach, and the presence of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was once a head coach. There's a lot of game-planning experience between those two, and it shows up every Saturday. They typically shift around their 3-4 defense to take away an opponent's right arm and look to absorb whatever they can throw with their left, with the belief it won't hurt them with touchdowns. They forced four field goal attempts from Utah last week and turned the Utes over on four other drives. If not for a defensive score by Utah on a fumble return, the game would have been a commanding Colorado victory.

Washington is a run-centric offense, but quarterback Jake Browning tends to shred teams that load up to stop the rushing attack. If Colorado can attack Washington's running game without yielding big gains outside from play-action or missed tackles on perimeter throws, the Buffaloes could stick around and pull the upset and clear up (or perhaps muddy) the waters for the committee heading into Saturday's action.

Watch for:

  • Can Washington block Colorado's big defensive line and force the Buffaloes to get more aggressive to stop the run?
  • How much does Colorado have to rely on quarterback Sefo Liufau running the ball?
  • Can either of these teams win in a fashion that would impressive the committee?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington

Temple at Navy (-3) -- 12 p.m. Saturday (ABC)

Overall Temple Navy F/+ 28 44 When Temple has the ball Offense Defense FEI 39 122 S&P+ 68 105 IsoPPP+ 34 109 Rushing S&P+ 64 63 Passing S&P+ 34 123 When Navy has the ball Defense Offense FEI 44 1 S&P+ 9 15 IsoPPP+ 17 17 Rushing S&P+ 42 3 Passing S&P+ 13 16

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Navy is 9-2 despite playing atrocious defense for a reason: its own offense is uniquely difficult for everyone, and as efficient as any we have seen in recent memory -- seriously. Under head coach Ken Niumatololo, they run a flexbone offense, which is a triple-option system keyed by quarterback Will Worth, who has 258 carries for 1,181 yards on the year. The design of the offense is to pound the ball between the tackles with Worth or fullback Chris High in order to set up the defense to get beat on the edge by the option pitch to speedsters Dishan Romine or Toneo Gulley.

Navy attacks opponents with different formations, reads, and plays than any other offense, and is consequently a bear to prepare for. Most teams that don't spend parts of their spring and fall camps (or their bowl practices) prepping for the system tend to get abused by its complexities. Temple has prepared for a similar style of offense this season -- the Owls had to face it from Army in Week 1, but they were abused for 329 rushing yards in a 28-13 defeat.

Temple plays good defense, but its system is designed to attack conventional, modern offenses and not service academy option ball. If the Owls haven't adjusted and worked out the kinks in the option strategy they used in Week 1, they could be another victim of Navy's unique stylings. It's possible that they haven't, because they play in different divisions and wouldn't have necessarily known to prepare for this game as a primary obstacle to a conference title.

Another possibility for a Temple victory would be to simply outscore Navy, preferably through the air so as to put pressure on the Midshipmen to match them by throwing it rather than marching down the field with methodical drives keyed by fullback dives. The problem here is that Temple runs more of a run-centric offense itself, and quarterback Phillip Walker has 12 interceptions on the year already. The Owls would much rather win a slow, defensive game -- but they would be at a decisive disadvantage here due to Navy's unique offense.

This should be a good "styles make fights" game, with the winner taking the American Athletic Conference. It would also make for an interesting cap in the feather of Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and perhaps make more programs wonder if they could gain an advantage over the other teams in their conference by hiring him to install his flexbone offense at their schools.

Watch for:

  • Is Temple prepared for the complexity of fitting its run defense assignments against the Navy triple-option offense?
  • Can Navy control the game with its rushing attack and protect its own dismal defense from getting run over by Temple?
  • Will Temple seek to outscore and pressure Navy by throwing the ball early and often, or hope to out-slug the Midshipmen with its own solid rushing attack?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Temple

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (-11) -- 12:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oklahoma State Oklahoma F/+ 22 14 When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense FEI 31 57 S&P+ 11 62 IsoPPP+ 40 60 Rushing S&P+ 70 40 Passing S&P+ 36 48 When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense FEI 48 4 S&P+ 66 1 IsoPPP+ 75 1 Rushing S&P+ 75 21 Passing S&P+ 78 1

Starting in the year 2017, the Big 12 will have a conference title game that pairs the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the conference to play in Dallas to determine the conference champion. There's some sense to it, given that the league's round robin schedule could mean that the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 could be "who got to play the head-to-head matchup at home?" That would have been the case in 2014, when Baylor and TCU both finished 8-1, with Baylor owning the head-to-head victory, but that win coming at home and by only three points.

In 2016, that conference title game would feature a rematch of this week's game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which fortunes have conspired to make the de facto Big 12 championship game for the year. If Oklahoma wins this game, its playoff resume would be an undefeated Big 12 season and acknowledgement that losses against Houston and Ohio State earlier in the year didn't feature a fully healthy Dede Westbrook, a receiver who has been getting some Heisman consideration with his 1,354 receiving yards. Oklahoma State's playoff resume would be a 10-2 season; a Big 12 title; a controversial loss to Central Michigan, when the Chippewas were improperly awarded a final play and won on a Hail Mary/lateral; and another loss against Baylor, before the Bears' epic collapse down the stretch.

Oklahoma's resume would be much stronger if it can defeat the Cowboys at home and lock down the Big 12 crown. This game seems almost certain to be a high-scoring shootout given that neither team's defense is ranked very high, while both offenses have been lighting up opponents all season long.

The Oklahoma State offense has really been coming alive over the last several weeks, as the Cowboys run game has become increasingly effective thanks to a gelling offensive line and the emergence of freshman running back Justice Hill. By combining quarterback Mason Rudolph's ability to make quick reads and throws to the perimeter; explosive receivers Jalen McCleskey and James Washington; and the improving rushing attack with run/pass options, Oklahoma State has built a deadly offense.

The Sooners' normal plan would be to keep their linebackers in the box, bring either outside linebacker off the edge, and then drop a safety down to play man coverage on the Cowboys' threats at wideout. This makes the game a contest of whether Rudolph can beat Oklahoma's defensive backs often enough to light up the scoreboard. The problem with that plan is that much of the Big 12 has been able to do exactly that and light up Oklahoma's defensive backs, and no one else in the league (save perhaps for Texas Tech) has a quarterback as good as Rudolph. An alternative plan would be to mix blitzes with Cover-2 and hope to stop Cowboys drives either with negative plays or in the red zone.

The Cowboys have their hands full as well, as the Sooners offense is absolutely loaded with threats. Besides the aforementioned Westbrook, the Sooners have two great running backs in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who should both be healthy heading into this game after a big win over West Virginia and then a bye week. Oklahoma State is better situated to handle this then most Big 12 defenses thanks to a very good defensive tackle tandem and lots of experience at all three linebacker positions and both safety spots. However, the Cowboys are still overmatched.

Where the Cowboys are vulnerable, like Oklahoma, is outside at cornerback, where they can be attacked. They have made strides shoring this up by mixing in more Tampa-2 coverage that plays their safeties over the top of both corners, but at the expense of making them more vulnerable to the run game. Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer is good at mixing and matching his calls to shore up his own defense's weaknesses, or to attack tendencies in his opponent -- it's possible that with an extra week to prepare he'll have his veteran Oklahoma State defense in position to survive against the Sooners.

The biggest X-factor may be Baker Mayfield, who is great throwing the ball in Oklahoma's own RPO plays and play-action tosses, but can also scramble or keep the ball on run options. Mayfield's playmaking could be the difference that puts Oklahoma over the top.

Watch for:

  • Can Oklahoma pressure Mason Rudolph and muck up his reads?
  • How does Oklahoma State protect its cornerbacks and also stop Oklahoma's run game?
  • Who makes more off-schedule plays, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield or Oklahoma State signal-caller Mason Rudolph?
  • Which team is more efficient in the red zone? Both teams will likely reach it frequently.

S&P Outright Pick: Oklahoma

Alabama (-24) vs. Florida at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia -- 4 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama Florida F/+ 1 24 When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense FEI 19 8 S&P+ 7 7 IsoPPP+ 14 5 Rushing S&P+ 6 9 Passing S&P+ 30 7 When Florida has the ball Defense Offense FEI 1 104 S&P+ 2 96 IsoPPP+ 1 102 Rushing S&P+ 1 102 Passing S&P+ 2 86

There's little hope of Florida managing to do what no one else in the SEC has been able to do and topple the Crimson Tide. Alabama's defense is playing at a historic level, and the Florida offense is an easy mark. The biggest issue for the Gators is the matchup between their own offensive line and the Alabama defensive line. Between outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson and defensive end Jonathan Allen, the Tide have a monstrous front that can create major problems in the pass-rush without even blitzing. They're still stout against the run as well, and inside linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Ronnie Harrison are big, active players in their run defense.

Florida's hope has to come from its own defense shutting down the Alabama offense AND getting turnovers that lead to short fields, if not immediate scores. Auburn was able to pick off Alabama's freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts twice, both coming on passing downs after run-down stops by the Tigers defense. Naturally Auburn played things pretty aggressively up front and tried to actively involve the outside linebackers and defensive backs on the perimeter to keep the ball contained inside, where its defensive tackles could deal with it. Other than the two interceptions, Alabama dealt with it quite well by ripping the Tigers up pretty badly on the perimeter.

Florida struggled with a less potent version of this offense against Tennessee earlier in the year and will need to have a more disciplined effort here to avoid getting burned by Alabama's screens, sweeps, and constraint plays. The Gators are generally a team that looks to play sound, base defense to make stops, but in order to get after Jalen Hurts and avoid playing cat-and-mouse with Lane Kiffin, they may instead need to attack Alabama with a variety of blitzes intended to confuse Hurts' reads and help cause turnovers.

Another slight ray of hope for Florida is that while Alabama is not really given to succumbing to distractions or complacency, the Tide players are probably aware that they can afford to lose this game and still make the playoff. So how much does it mean to them to be crowned champions over the SEC West AND the SEC East? Enough to avoid complacency? Would that even matter against the Gators?

Watch for:

  • Is Florida aggressive in coming after Jalen Hurts with blitzes, or does it try to make stops on first down playing base defense?
  • Does Alabama hold anything back in terms of offensive creativity? How much is it willing to run their quarterback?
  • Can Florida's offense do anything at all against the Alabama defense?

S&P Outright Pick: Alabama

Clemson (-10) vs Virginia Tech at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson Virginia Tech F/+ 4 20 When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense FEI 12 19 S&P+ 8 16 IsoPPP+ 26 14 Rushing S&P+ 32 37 Passing S&P+ 9 6 When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense FEI 10 63 S&P+ 6 58 IsoPPP+ 13 85 Rushing S&P+ 28 94 Passing S&P+ 4 51

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These are two of the more aggressive defenses in the country facing off in this game, along with two of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks. Virginia Tech has always been aggressive under defensive coordinator Bud Foster, while Clemson makes a habit of game-planning most opponents with a load of blitzes under defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson hasn't had quite the season he did in 2015, but he has also had nearly 100 fewer carries then he finished 2015 with, and you know the Tigers will really unleash his athleticism in the running game more regularly now that it's the postseason. In their three postseason games last year, Watson carried the ball 68 times. So far this year Watson has thrown for 3,626 yards (8.0 yards per pass) with 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, while rushing for another 444 yards and four touchdowns.

Meanwhile, his counterpart in this game, Jerod Evans, has thrown for 3,045 yards (8.6 yards per pass) with 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions, while adding another 713 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Evans has fit like a glove in Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente's offensive designs, and allowed a big first season for the Hokies under the new regime.

Evans is throwing a to diverse and skilled collection of receivers in addition to leading the way for the Hokies run game, and disrupting him will be the main challenge for the Clemson defense. If Evans outplays Watson in this game, that could mean a Virginia Tech ACC championship and might even lead to questions about whether Clemson will be included in the playoff. The Tigers will try to handle this offensive attack with a variety of edge blitzes designed to flush Evans into the waiting arms of linebacker Ben Boulware or free safety Van Smith, who are first and second on the team in tackles and typically patrol the middle of the field.

On the other side, Virginia Tech typically likes to handle spread attacks like the Clemson offense with their patented "Cover-2 robber" coverage that plays the corners as two deep zone defenders and uses the free safety like a deeply aligned, Tampa-2 middle linebacker to insert himself in the middle of the field or against the run as needed. The Hokies have a very solid secondary this season after rebuilding from a weaker 2015 defensive performance, and heavier utilization of their classic "robber" coverage is a big part of their formula. Watson has been vulnerable to throwing interceptions this year and the Hokies' "robber" coverage is good for doing exactly that, picking off passes with either the "robber" safety or the corners playing deep halves of the field.

If Watson can avoid confusion against this unique defense, Clemson should be the superior team on the field.

Watch for:

  • Can Virginia Tech's offensive line block the Clemson blitzes, or will it be buried by the pressure?
  • How well does Deshaun Watson navigate Virginia Tech's veteran secondary?
  • Which quarterback has the bigger impact on this game with his running ability?
  • Is Clemson in the playoff if it loses this contest?

S&P Outright Pick: Clemson

Wisconsin (-2.5) vs Penn State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana -- 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Wisconsin Penn State F/+ 7 10 When Wisconsin has the ball Offense Defense FEI 42 27 S&P+ 54 11 IsoPPP+ 39 28 Rushing S&P+ 53 18 Passing S&P+ 12 28 When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense FEI 3 26 S&P+ 3 30 IsoPPP+ 6 10 Rushing S&P+ 17 73 Passing S&P+ 9 3

This is one of the more intriguing games of the weekend, in part because no one is quite sure what the implications will be from either a Wisconsin or Penn State victory. Currently the playoff rankings have Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington in the field heading into the final weekend. Michigan comes in fifth, while Wisconsin and Penn State are sixth and seventh respectively. After Saturday, one of these two teams will have two new features to their resume: a victory over the other, and the Big 10 championship trophy.

Presumably, one of these teams would then jump Michigan and perhaps jump into the top four, depending on whether Clemson and Washington both win and how the committee weighs the Huskies only having one loss vs. lacking the same quality of wins that the Big 10 champion will be able to boast. Michigan fans even hold out hope that they'll stay ahead of the Big 10 champion by virtue of having head-to-head wins over both of these teams. As we saw in Round 1 of the playoff back in 2014, though, a blowout victory by one of these teams could swing things hard in its own direction.

Blowout wins are hard to come by though, against either Penn State or Wisconsin, because of the quality of defense these teams play. The Badgers have been enjoying outstanding linebacker play all season, despite remarkably not having their full complement of linebackers healthy for much of the year. They lost star inside linebacker Jack Cichy a few weeks ago, but returned star outside linebacker Vince Biegel to once again play across from T.J. Watt (yes, younger brother of J.J.).

The Badgers have also had inside linebacker T.J. Edwards healthy all year, and he has consequently led the team in tackles while also adding three sacks and two interceptions. Their secondary is filled with veterans, and every starting defensive back has at least three interceptions on the year. The Badgers are stout inside, they bring a lot of pressure on the edges, and their defensive backs excel sitting back in zone and breaking on throws that were hurried by their star pass-rushers up front.

Penn State has been doing its work on offense this year with a play-action passing game -- which could run into two problems against the Badgers. The first is that star running back Saquon Barkley was dinged up last Saturday against Michigan State, and he will be running up against a very good Wisconsin defensive front, so it may be hard for Penn State to create windows down the field with play-action from the threat of its run game. The other problem is that Wisconsin's secondary is very good at playing deep zone and preventing receivers from getting behind its coverage, hence its high rankings in IsoPPP and passing S&P.

The only thing holding Wisconsin back from blowing away most of its opponents has been a plodding offense that just lost quarterback Alex Hornibrook with a head injury last Saturday and will turn back to senior Bart Houston. That hurts, as the Badgers passing game was one of the better features of the offense with its ability to punish teams with play-action for loading up to stop their running game. In particular, they're quite good at hitting tight end Troy Fumagali when teams lose track of him releasing downfield.

Penn State has a very good defense in its own right that carried the day against Ohio State when it stuffed the Buckeyes running game and then repeatedly sacked J.T. Barrett. In particular, the Nittany Lions have a deep rotation of long, physical defensive ends that could make life tough for Wisconsin if they can't get Corey Clement going in the running game. The overall matchups in this game favor Wisconsin, but the Badgers have a tendency to allow opponents to hang around, and the Nittany Lions have a habit of pulling games out by landing a few big plays in the passing game.

Watch for:

  • Can Penn State's Trace McSorley land some deep throws in the passing game against the Badgers' vaunted pass defense?
  • Which sturdy Big 10 defense can create the most opportunities for its own offense?
  • One way that Wisconsin often generates game-changing, explosive plays is with its jet sweeps. If the Badgers land one of those, it could be the difference in a defensive battle.
  • Will a convincing win by either team vault them into the playoff?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Wisconsin


Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Washington 7.5 Colorado Washington Washington
Navy 3 Temple Temple Temple
Oklahoma 11 Oklahoma State Oklahoma Oklahoma
Alabama 24 Florida Alabama Florida
Clemson 10 Virginia Tech Clemson Clemson
Wisconsin 2.5 Penn State Wisconsin Penn State

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 31-47


3 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2016, 6:19pm

#1 by big10freak // Dec 02, 2016 - 6:58am

Penn State looks to have the edge on special teams. Wisconsin's kicker is in his first year kicking field goals at any level and has been ok but PSU's guy is very, very good. Wisconsin coverage units have been mostly solid but every so often when a breakdown happens it erupts into a big return.

Points: 0

#2 by tony.chavez79@… // Dec 02, 2016 - 1:53pm

Correction: Colorado last won a conference championship in the Big XII in 2001.

Points: 0

#3 by techvet // Dec 02, 2016 - 6:19pm

Alex Hornibrook is currently listed as "questionable" so he hasn't been ruled out.

Points: 0

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