Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week
by Ian Boyd
Week 13 proved both shocking and entertaining. Ohio State not only upset their biggest rival, but they made Michigan look out of date and overmatched in a historic 62-39 blowout. Texas A&M finally overcame LSU in their season-ending series, utilizing a last-second touchdown pass that then forced seven overtimes before the Aggies finally came out ahead. USC couldn't quite pull off a win against Notre Dame, but rather than costing head coach Clay Helton his job, instead it cost most of his assistants their positions. The Fighting Irish are now locked into the playoff.
Elsewhere, Washington continued its domination over Washington State and ruined the chances of a Cougars Playoff bid or Heisman Trophy for quarterback Gardner Minshew. Alabama predictably obliterated Auburn. Finally, Oklahoma's de facto semifinal against West Virginia was an exciting 59-56 shootout that has now set the stage for a historic Red River Rematch between the Sooners and the Texas Longhorns.
This week we have the conference championship games and a dozen different scenarios for how the playoff could work out depending on the outcomes.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah vs. Washington at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California -- Friday, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Utah (9-3)||Washington (9-3)||F/+||16||9||S&P+ rating||15||16.9||Special teams S&P+||7||115||When Utah has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||44||13||S&P+||34||8||IsoPPP+||74||4||Rushing S&P+||20||10||Passing S&P+||43||22||When Washington has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||30||28||S&P+||24||30||IsoPPP+||67||42||Rushing S&P+||11||34||Passing S&P+||45||17|
After they lost quarterback Tyler Huntley for the year, Utah seemed fairly vulnerable this season. They had to plug in true freshman Jason Shelley, a 5-foot-11 athlete from Texas who looks like half the starters in the AAC, yet have been thriving ever since with three consecutive wins since he assumed sole command of the job. They'll be relying on the speedy freshman to win their first ever Pac-12 championship.
This came after Utah had already lost starting running back Zack Moss for the year, just after he notched a 1,000-yard rushing season. They're now leaning on hard running junior Armand Shyne and lots of double-tight end sets to try to get double teams and angles for their zone-read rushing attack. Despite hiring Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington, the Utes have remained a run-centric team under head coach Kyle Whittingham, and have always relied on defense and special teams as their main strategies for creating advantages against opponents. While the special teams have been good once again, the defense has slipped some in recent years as spread offenses have started to catch up some with Whittingham's preferences for single-high coverage and zone blitzes.
This game is a rematch of an earlier contest that Washington won 21-7. The Huskies relied on their proven formula of running the ball behind their own multiple, tight end-heavy run game while their defense squelched the efforts of first team Huntley and Moss. The Utes simply couldn't find any passing lanes as their RPO attack faced matchup coverage underneath. The brilliant Huskies secondary took away the deep routes, and there simply weren't any clean angles to move the football. They ran the ball with some success but not well enough to get points on the board. They'll need to either lean in more with the run game in this contest or else find some schemes to push the ball down the field on Washington's pass defense. Given the inexperience and athleticism of Shelley, they'll probably opt for the former and allow both him and Shyne to get up to 20 carries in an effort to win a low-scoring grind.
Washington has losses to Auburn, Cal, and Oregon that seem certain to keep them out of the Playoff picture, but they haven't gotten so big-time under head coach Chris Petersen that a Pac-12 title would be meaningless. The subsequent trip to the Rose Bowl would offer them a chance to finally pick up a big win over a rival blue-blood program, perhaps Ohio State. A win like that would be worth a ton to their resume for the Playoff next season, when they retool with some younger players on offense.
- Can Utah stay in this game by running read plays with their freshman quarterback all night?
- Ball security -- neither offense is explosive enough to overcome multiple turnovers.
- Can Washington build some momentum heading into a Rose Bowl, or will Utah finally claim a Pac-12 title?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington
Big-12 Championship Game: Texas vs. Oklahoma (-8) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas -- Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Texas (9-3)||Oklahoma (11-1)||F/+||28||4||S&P+ rating||7.4||22.9||Special teams S&P+||55||32||When Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||27||94||S&P+||38||84||IsoPPP+||112||54||Rushing S&P+||99||48||Passing S&P+||41||89||When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||45||1||S&P+||50||1||IsoPPP+||44||1||Rushing S&P+||59||1||Passing S&P+||53||2|
Save for the SEC title game, the Red River Rematch is probably the most anticipated contest of the weekend. Oklahoma's resume has been deemed stronger than Ohio State's through the regular season, and the two programs' championship games offer Ohio State the chance to beat up a weaker Big 10 West team while Oklahoma could avenge their sole loss of the season. It seems clear enough that with a victory, Oklahoma will be back in the Playoff for the third time in four years since they brought Lincoln Riley in, first to coach their offense and then the whole program.
The only problem that Riley has really had in his time at Oklahoma has come from Tom Herman, who beat the Sooners as the Houston head coach in the 2016 season opener. Then last year Texas came back from a 20-0 deficit to build a 24-23 lead before falling 29-24. Oklahoma was a 7.5-point favorite in that contest. This year Oklahoma was again a seven-point favorite but got down 45-24 before scoring 21 points in seven minutes in the fourth quarter to tie things up, only to watch Texas use up most of the remaining clock to drive down the field and kick the winning field goal. Riley is now 1-2 against Tom Herman and 0-3 against the spread.
Herman has tormented the Oklahoma defense with dual-threat quarterbacks while bringing a more tough and physical team that was able to impose its will against the ultra-speedy and athletic Sooners. Herman's quarterback Sam Ehlinger is playing with a sprained right shoulder, but has been lighting up recent opponents. In his two contests against the Sooners, Ehlinger ran the ball 22 times for 110 yards as a freshman and then 19 times for 72 yards (all before removing sack yardage) and three touchdowns in this year's contest.
This game will also center around Texas trying to settle this game between the trenches and the hash marks. Oklahoma has game-changing speed on the perimeter, especially when Heisman candidate quarterback Kyler Murray (853 rushing yards) breaks contain and gets loose on the edge. Their offensive line is one of the more athletic units in the country, and wide receiver Marquise Brown gives them another track star (along with Murray) who can score at any moment. However, while they run the ball as well as anyone in the country, they don't have a particularly physical style and are down to their third-string running back (freshman Kennedy Brooks) after injuries robbed them of Rodney Anderson and reduced Trey Sermon. If the Longhorns can gang up on the run and contain Oklahoma's speed with their dime defensive package, they have a chance to get more stops against this defense than Oklahoma State or West Virginia could manage when they both came up just short.
Oklahoma needs to score lots of points in this game because their own defense has really let them down this season. They rank 109th nationally in third-down defense, yielding conversions on 44 percent of those plays, and they were giving up third downs at a rate of 61 percent in their last three contests with Oklahoma State, Kansas, and West Virginia. They have taken on some injuries here as well and are now relying on a pair of true freshman safeties when they get into a nickel package. The defensive line and linebackers have also looked worn down in recent games, generating inconsistent push and often springing leaks in the run game. Texas will have to balance a desire to get after the Sooners on the perimeter with the practical value of pounding away in the middle of the field and hoping to control the ball and wear out Oklahoma over the course of a four-quarter game.
The biggest question in this game is whether Oklahoma's late flurry of points in the fourth quarter of Round 1 are indicative of more to come as Murray and the Sooners avenge their loss with a punishing performance on offense, or if Texas was simply guilty of taking their feet off the gas with a three-touchdown lead and is capable of repeating their performance.
- Will Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger have a healthy enough shoulder to maintain his high level of play and run the ball 10 or more times?
- Can Texas' defense keep Kyler Murray and his blazing speed at check?
- In what could be a high-paced shootout, which team protects the ball and makes plays on special teams?
- Styles make fights -- will Texas' bruising style control the game in the trenches or will Oklahoma's speed blow them away?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma
AAC Championship Game: Memphis vs. Central Florida (-3) at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Florida -- Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Memphis (8-4)||Central Florida (11-0)||F/+||41||6||S&P+ rating||12.9||20||Special teams S&P+||14||19||When Memphis has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||31||26||S&P+||10||29||IsoPPP+||15||16||Rushing S&P+||4||34||Passing S&P+||63||28||When Central Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||96||4||S&P+||67||7||IsoPPP+||86||28||Rushing S&P+||44||45||Passing S&P+||86||9|
This could be a really fascinating game on a number of levels. Should Texas, Northwestern, and Alabama win this weekend, and Central Florida win this one in convincing fashion, the committee will face a lot of scrutiny if they leave the Knights out. Especially if Alabama defeats Georgia by a decisive margin. Another factor here is the margin by which Central Florida would hypothetically beat Memphis. The Knights' star quarterback McKenzie Milton shattered his leg pretty early in their rivalry game against South Florida and is out for the season. That could be a reason for the committee to give when leaving out an undefeated Central Florida team -- UNLESS they surge to a blowout victory with his replacement. One final intriguing factor here is that Central Florida won a non-conference game against Pittsburgh 45-14, and the Pitt Panthers have a shot at beating Clemson and winning the ACC title later on Saturday night. At any rate, no one should expect the committee to give a G5 program like Central Florida a chance at the Playoff, but the circumstances of the denial could make for a fascinating offseason of talking points and expansion discussion.
In the meantime, the Knights face the very real problem of overcoming Memphis without Milton, particularly considering that Memphis lost this matchup only 31-30 in a rainy home game earlier in the season while Milton was healthy.
Without Milton, the Knights turn to big freshman Darriel Mack Jr. at quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Virginian only completed 5-of-14 passes for 81 yards when pressed into duty against South Florida, but did run the ball 10 times for 51 yards and managed the expansion of a 10-0 lead into a 38-10 blowout victory. With a week of first-team reps at quarterback, he could be in for a breakout performance, but the Knights will undoubtedly lean on running backs Greg McRae, Adrian Killins Jr., and Taj McGowan. McRae is the leader of the pack with 895 rushing yards at 9.0 yards per carry and eight touchdowns. First-year head coach Josh Heupel has the Knights embracing extra wide receiver splits while pounding off tackle with split zone and counter runs that have blown massive holes through opposing defensive fronts.
The Memphis offense is also keyed by a spectacular run game, led by running backs Darrell Henderson (1,699 yards at 8.6 yards per carry with 19 touchdowns) and Patrick Taylor Jr. (895 yards at 5.4 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns). They like to get tight ends on the field from shotgun spread sets that add width to the defensive front. From there they will run zone schemes or pull tackles to lead on iso plays, all while their quarterback executes RPOs and play-action off the runs for easy yardage and explosive plays. Memphis ran the ball 52 times for 281 yards and three touchdowns in their last round with Central Florida while successfully limiting the Knights' ground game and forcing Milton to beat them with 296 passing yards at 10.1 yards per attempt.
Central Florida has played great, sound defense this season thanks in large part to the tackling ability and run support of their safeties. Last go-round, they barely made enough tackles against the run to stop the Tigers rushing attack; in a Round 2, while protecting a freshman quarterback, they're going to need a stronger effort.
- Two very different approaches to the modern spread run game.
- How will freshman Central Florida quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. handle the pressure of replacing McKenzie Milton?
- Can the Central Florida defense limit the Memphis run game?
- With a win and a lot of help, could Central Florida find a way into the Playoff?
S&P Outright Pick: Central Florida
SEC Championship Game: Alabama (-13) vs. Georgia at Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia -- Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Alabama (12-0)||Georgia (11-1)||F/+||1||2||S&P+ rating||30.4||27.1||Special teams S&P+||92||10||When Alabama has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||2||9||S&P+||2||14||IsoPPP+||3||2||Rushing S&P+||7||50||Passing S&P+||1||3||When Georgia has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||1||3||S&P+||6||3||IsoPPP+||3||9||Rushing S&P+||7||6||Passing S&P+||1||4|
For the last year, Georgia has been setting themselves up as THE team that can finally dethrone Alabama in the SEC. They came very close a year ago, missing them in the regular season and SEC title game before meeting them in the national championship game. These are two of the strongest programs in the country, with Kirby Smart bringing an approach to roster building and program management to Georgia that he learned over multiple seasons with Nick Saban. The Bulldogs nearly overthrew Alabama last year, but then the Tide inserted freshman Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and overcame a 20-7 deficit to win the national championship in overtime.
Alabama hasn't really been tested since they inserted Tagovailoa at quarterback and this year have overwhelmed opponents with Tagovailoa's ability to spread the ball around to a cast of speedy wide receivers and tight ends. Auburn was merely the most recent victim, as Tagovailoa threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns with five different targets getting 50 yards or more. The central challenge of playing Alabama this season is that they can legitimately flood the field with receivers who need to be bracketed, and then they can just throw the ball at your worst defender.
Even against LSU, they were able to find weak spots to attack in the passing game, it's a tough draw trying to match up with their passing game, and the Alabama offensive line is similarly devoid of matchup issues for opposing pass rushes. Georgia has played great pass defense this year, often leaning on senior Deandre Baker to hold up on an island while their talented safety tandem of J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte shade help elsewhere. If Baker can lock down one side of the field, then Georgia will have a head-start on defending the Alabama passing game, but they will still need to win another matchup or to find a consistent pass rush to get across the finish line. The worst part is that in a team's various schematics for handling the Tide passing game, they can't afford to vacate the box or risk getting run over by Alabama's still-potent run game.
Another way Georgia could approach this game is to try and outscore Alabama by lighting up the young Tide defense with their own powerful offense. Much like last year, the Bulldogs have had a powerful one-two punch with their two main running backs, this time rolling with D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield. This year's tandem has combined for 272 carries that have produced 1,858 yards at 6.8 yards per carry with 25 rushing touchdowns. While Smart returned talented starting quarterback Jake Fromm this year, Georgia has maintained a culture and approach on offense geared around pounding the ball downhill with the inside zone play.
That approach failed a year ago when Alabama had Da'Ron Payne sitting in the A-gaps, but the Tide are smaller up front this season, and Georgia is a year older and better across their interior offensive line. They may also mix in more passing this season to get after an Alabama secondary that could be more vulnerable than that of a year ago.
- Georgia's mauling offensive line against the exceptionally talented Alabama defensive line.
- Can Georgia hold up athletically against Tua Tagovailoa and the Alabama passing attack?
- Does Georgia have the firepower to keep pace with Alabama in a shootout?
- Is the committee going to be willing to leave one of these teams out of the playoff if other teams lose?
S&P Outright Pick: Alabama
ACC Championship Game: Clemson (-27.5) vs. Pittsburgh at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina -- Saturday, 8 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Clemson (12-0)||Pittsburgh (7-5)||F/+||3||52||S&P+ rating||27.7||2.5||Special teams S&P+||88||50||When Clemson has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||8||77||S&P+||6||66||IsoPPP+||35||100||Rushing S&P+||9||65||Passing S&P+||25||70||When Pittsburgh has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||4||35||S&P+||1||51||IsoPPP+||12||17||Rushing S&P+||1||12||Passing S&P+||9||87|
This contest is a first for 2018, as Clemson and Pittsburgh did not square off in the regular season. They famously faced each other back in 2016 when the Panthers won a shootout that proved to be the only loss of the season for the Tigers, who would go on to shut out Ohio State and then come out ahead in a shootout with Alabama. This year's Pitt team is pretty different from the one that took down Clemson two years ago. Offensive coach Matt Canada is gone, and the Panthers are now more of a true pro-style offense with sophomore Kenny Pickett occasionally mixing in some West Coast passing while they pound the ball to running backs Qadree Ollison (1,134 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns) and Darrin Hall (935 yards, 7.6 yards per carry, nine touchdowns).
Pitt has a really physical team on both sides of the ball with a downhill, power run game and a hard-nosed defense that is now in their fourth year of head coach Pat Narduzzi's scheme. They've had problems executing this scheme against all of the spread offenses now in vogue, but their pass defense has been much improved this year thanks to growth in their secondary.
Clemson has been obliterating their ACC slate this season, though, and are incurring bigger Vegas spreads then even Alabama most weeks. Their defense has been overwhelming against most opponents, with size and athleticism across the defensive line that limits how teams can attack them, and then a defensive backfield that has gelled over the course of the season after replacing multiple starters from 2017.
That defensive line is the big concern for Pitt, which has seen Pickett sacked 28 times this year for a sack rate of 9.5 percent. They can't really afford to get behind the chains against Clemson, and Pickett's passing attempts need to come off play-action rather than on third down while trying to pick up first downs against the Clemson blitz package.
The other side of the ball has to be intimidating for Pitt, but there may be some opportunities here. Trevor Lawrence has been very effective this season, but if the Panthers can stop the Clemson run game and put the contest on his shoulders, he might make some freshman mistakes that make the game interesting. In general, Lawrence is pretty difficult to turn over because he's highly accurate and has big receivers fighting for the ball, and Pittsburgh doesn't always do very much to disguise their coverages. However, Lawrence will sometimes look to force the ball and rely on his arm strength and accuracy, so there could be opportunities for Pitt if they can pressure him into making iffy decisions.
In either event, it'll be very interesting to see how the Clemson run game fares against the Panthers defense. Narduzzi is known around the country for allowing his defense to get numbers into the box to stop the run even against wide open, spread offenses. Their M.O. is to dare teams to beat them throwing against press coverage, even when they've lacked the cornerbacks to pull it off. If Clemson can't find running room and then Lawrence and the receivers struggle to find passing windows against aggressive coverage, this gets interesting.
- Can Pat Narduzzi's aggressive defense stop the Clemson run game and force them to pass?
- How will Pitt's physical run game fare against Clemson's elite defensive line?
- Can Clemson lose this game and still gain admittance to the Playoff?
S&P Outright Pick: Clemson
Big 10 Championship Game: Northwestern vs. Ohio State (-14) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana -- Saturday, 8 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Northwestern (8-4)||Ohio State (11-1)||F/+||48||8||S&P+ rating||-0.6||19.6||Special teams S&P+||125||29||When Northwestern has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||83||42||S&P+||27||37||IsoPPP+||39||85||Rushing S&P+||72||52||Passing S&P+||25||30||When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||22||5||S&P+||3||55||IsoPPP+||7||30||Rushing S&P+||16||87||Passing S&P+||8||59|
This is going to be a tough one for Northwestern. You have to wonder if they're just "happy to be here" given how they played this season, their 8-4 finish, and West division title. Their S&P+ margin was negative, and their actual point margin this season was only +24 points. The closest team to Ohio State they faced this season was probably Notre Dame. The Wildcats also played Michigan, losing 20-17 on some late drives by Shea Patterson, but haven't faced anyone with the offensive firepower or spread skill athletes of Ohio State save for Notre Dame. The Irish beat them 31-21 with quarterback Ian Book throwing for 343 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 56 yards and another score.
The Wildcats prefer to play a base 4-3 defense and try to move their safeties around to account for spread sets from opponents. They're better off playing zone with physical defenders than Michigan was trying to play man coverage from nickel sets against the Buckeyes, but the problems trying to cover up these receivers won't go away just from playing zone defense.
Ohio State will look to punish their safeties over the top by flooding the deep zones with their speedy wideouts, as Notre Dame did earlier in the year, and push the pace so that the game is played in the 30s or higher, with each team gaining double-digit possessions. Northwestern may not have an answer for that due to a lack of explosiveness from their own offense.
However, the Wildcats have been more of a spread offense than Michigan, and Ohio State has been pretty bad on defense against spread offenses this year. Wide receiver Flynn Nagel will be counted on to attack the Buckeyes secondary, and with 746 receiving yards on the year he's more of a "best available" weapon than a tool ideally suited for carving up this opponent. Their concern on offense in this game will be the Ohio State pass rush. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has thrown 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions this season, and has been sacked 28 times for a sack rate of 6 percent. The Michigan pass rush did a lot of that damage, inflicting six sacks, and Ohio State defensive ends Jonathon Cooper and Chase Young have started to come on as the season has progressed.
Ohio State has spent their entire season having to overcome issues with their run game and terrible defensive mistakes by outscoring Big 10 opponents with a potent, spread passing game. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins has repeatedly risen to the challenge and is now at 4,081 passing yards on the year at 9.0 yards per attempt with 42 touchdowns to seven interceptions. That formula would probably be enough to put them over the top against Northwestern, but the Ohio State red zone run game and overall defense may be ready to turn a corner after smashing Michigan and entering postseason play. More than anything, this game may be indicative of what kind of focus and discipline Ohio State may be capable of now that their season's goals are in clear view.
- How will Northwestern's defense match up against Ohio State's spread passing game?
- Can Northwestern exploit issues that Ohio State's defense showed against other spread offenses?
- What does Ohio State need to do in order to impress the Playoff committee?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
S&P+ PICKS: Championship Week
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ Pick
Against the Spread
| Ian's Pick
Against the Spread
|Central Florida||3||Memphis||Central Florida||Central Florida||Memphis|
|Ohio State||14||Northwestern||Ohio State||Ohio State||Ohio State|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 42-36
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 45-32