Cincinnati Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder

Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week

Championship week is here in college football! There were a lot of questions on whether the sport would be able to mitigate COVID-19 effectively enough to arrive at a point where the season could be successfully concluded with championships. The achievement of (most) leagues in arriving at this point and managing to honor all the sacrifices that allowed this season to happen should be lauded. Many will assign an asterisk to the 2020 season, but for the players and coaches that fought to make it happen, it's rewarding to conclude the seasons with championships to help communicate the meaning of what they played for.

There should be a playoff slate as well, which means that a lot of these games have additional meaning beyond simply awarding titles for the season college football scraped together. Much of the intrigue is around the Clemson vs. Notre Dame ACC final, since both teams are currently in the top four of the playoff rankings. If Notre Dame beats Clemson again, will the Tigers be left out and the next team (Texas A&M?) included? There's also Ohio State, who have been helped in by a change in the Big Ten rules allow them to compete with Northwestern for the title despite missing multiple games due to COVID-related issues. Currently the Buckeyes are fourth in the playoff rankings and seem likely to be included should they beat the Wildcats for another Big Ten title.

The No. 1 team is undefeated Alabama, which still has to beat Florida for the SEC championship. The Gators dropped a game against LSU to conclude their season and are now sixth in the playoff rankings ahead of Iowa State and Cincinnati, both of whom are playing for conference championships this week. Finally, there's the question of whether USC could sneak in with a commanding win over Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. The Trojans, like the Buckeyes, are 5-0. Playoff intrigue is real and the matchups for conference titles pretty compelling.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon at USC (-3) at Los Angeles Memorial Stadium in Los Angeles, California -- Friday, 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oregon (3-2) USC (5-0)
F/+ 21 15
FEI 22 17
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 22 23
SP+ 18 36
IsoPPP+ 34 94
Rushing success rate 8 40
Passing success rate 9 50
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 48 19
SP+ 31 9
IsoPPP+ 22 66
Rushing success rate 90 31
Passing success rate 64 24

Last weekend the Oregon Ducks were scheduled to face Washington with a chance to win and fight their way back to the Pac-12 title game, which they won last season in a blowout against Utah. A rash of cases of COVID at Washington derailed the game, though, meaning that the Huskies were going to the title game because they were 3-1 while Oregon was 3-2. Were, that is. The same issue will also keep Washington from playing in the Pac-12 title one week later so the Ducks are in by default.

USC had to beat UCLA to stay ahead of Colorado and potentially hold off the also undefeated Buffaloes for the top spot in the South division. They just barely managed to do so thanks to five second-half touchdown drives to erase a 21-10 halftime deficit in a 43-38 victory. The Trojans were able to bring a fairly balanced attack to bear down the stretch, mixing their normal Air Raid passing attack with Kedon Slovis (344 passing yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions) with 26 carries for their two main backs that produced 115 yards and a score.

The Ducks stumbled down the stretch into this title game, losing to the rival Beavers on the road in the fog of Corvallis and then dropping the follow-up game against Cal when they dropped the ball on two fourth-quarter drives. Oregon's team is unquestionably talented, though, and their power-option run game will benefit from a week off for lead back C.J. Verdell and the extra week of practice to help redshirt freshman Tyler Shough.

The battle between Oregon's power-option run game and the Trojans defense is one of the key areas where this game is likely to be decided. Beyond the importance of those schemes for Oregon's offense, USC has shown a vulnerability to them against both UCLA and Arizona State. USC's defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has an approach to defending the spread run game which can yield boom-or-bust results depending on whether his run blitzes properly contain the ball or not. When the edge is set properly, his pressure can totally stymie run-based offenses and force them into quick punts, but when they don't, the consequence is getting totally gashed. Oregon's Travis Dye is important here as a lighter speed back who could inflict serious damage on the Trojans if they lose their way. Watch also for Oregon's quarterback RPOs in which Tyler Shough pulls the ball on zone-read and can either run off tackle or throw the ball out to the tight end running to the flat based on how the defender on the edge responds.

On the other side of the ball, this game is big one for the Oregon secondary and pass rush squaring off against Slovis and the Trojans Air Raid. USC has a lot of options in the passing game and diverse skill sets to try and check. It's hard to just double a top receiver (if you did, it'd be Amon-Ra St. Brown) because both outside receivers are viable targets, St. Brown moves around, and inside receivers Drake London and Bru McCoy are also difficult matchups. Oregon likes to match up in sub-packages and get the right defensive backs on receivers with corresponding athletic traits in order to degrade the offense's ability to find consistent advantages.

The Ducks have been able to keep opponents in front of them and limit back-breaking explosive gains, but they have occasionally had to do so by yielding the sort of space to receivers that USC will happily gobble up all night. Slovis has thrown 212 passes in five games, or 42.4 passes per game, and is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt. That's the mark of a signal-caller and passing game that is happy working the ball down the field throwing adjustable routes underneath, not a team using the passing game to hit home runs set up by the running game and play-action or RPOs. How Oregon fares against this sort of passing attack is the other major factor for this one.

USC is currently just 13th nationally in the playoff rankings, but you wonder what happens on a chaotic weekend in which multiple teams ahead of them lose and the Trojans hypothetically obliterate Oregon by multiple scores.

Watch for:

  • USC's pressuring defense trying to handle all of the threats in Oregon's power-option offense.
  • Can the Ducks handle Kedon Slovis and the USC Air Raid passing attack?
  • Does USC have any chance at a playoff bid or did everyone write off the Pac-12 months ago?

FEI Outright Pick: USC by 4.7

Big Ten Championship Game: Northwestern vs. Ohio State (-20.5) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana -- Saturday 12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Northwestern (6-1) Ohio State (5-0)
F/+ 26 2
FEI 20 2
When Northwestern has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 71 15
SP+ 99 10
IsoPPP+ 115 116
Rushing success rate 117 9
Passing success rate 60 46
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 2 2
SP+ 2 2
IsoPPP+ 12 33
Rushing success rate 37 27
Passing success rate 3 3

This game is very simple from a playoff perspective. The committee has made clear that if Ohio State wins all of the games they play, however few that may be, they'll be invited to participate. To Ohio State's great advantage, the Big Ten has not offered them a great deal of resistance yet, and Michigan wasn't even able to field a team to play the Buckeyes in their famous rivalry game. Northwestern might be the toughest team they have played all season, pending how the Wildcats match up against Ohio State relative to the Hoosiers, who gave the Buckeyes their only scare of the season.

Northwestern is a fitting matchup. They have taken on the mantle of being the new Michigan State of the conference in recent seasons -- meaning that they always have good, physical defenses with experienced linebackers who slow your offense down and drag you into a low-efficiency mud fight in which their quarterback may or may not make enough throws to win. The quarterback this year is Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey and he has made all of his 1,218 passing yards count in their victories while averaging only 5.8 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns to six interceptions.

The Northwestern run game is exceptionally plodding. Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson lead the way for their run game aside from Ramsey's modest contributions and have a combined 139 carries for 485 yards at 3.5 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns. This changed dramatically, though, in the season finale against Illinois when the Wildcats went with a youth movement in the backfield and gave the start to freshman Cam Porter while spelling him with redshirt freshman Evan Hull. The offense exploded and those two had a combined 37 carries for 291 yards at 7.9 yards per carry with three touchdowns. If Northwestern has a real running game in this matchup, it's a game-changer. Porter has special quickness and can win the corner or turn downhill if defenses over pursue; at 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, he has fantastic power and change of direction.

The expectation, though, is that Ohio State will blow the Wildcats away. Ohio State's main claim to fame on offense is a dominant offensive line, two elite wide receivers in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, and then a quarterback in Justin Fields who combines a big arm with scrambling ability from the pocket. If you can't handle that passing attack, particularly on play-action or in empty formations from which Fields can scramble, then the Buckeyes will just overpower you and light up the scoreboard.

The actual Ohio State run game is solid but not nearly as terrifying as a year ago when they were propelling J.K. Dobbins to 2,003 rushing yards. Master Teague and Trey Sermon are both big power backs with a combined 142 carries for 770 yards at 5.4 yards per carry with seven rushing touchdowns. A normal approach would be to try and overplay the passing game and force the Buckeyes to earn their way down the field with the run game, but this isn't Northwestern's M.O.

Northwestern's defensive scheme shines when they control the stem of the slot receiver's route with outside linebacker Chris Bergin, bracket the slot over the top with a safety, and play man coverage on the boundary with cornerback Greg Newsome so safety J.R. Pace can drop down and help veteran inside linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher outnumber the run game. Pace is a 210-pound thumper, which isn't really the sort of player you need to handle this Buckeyes offense. His deployment also puts a lot of pressure on Newsome to check Olave one-on-one. (Wilson will get bracketed as an inside receiver.)

Ohio State's defense is vulnerable, and if the Wildcats can run the ball with Porter they'll be able to score some, but if they need to score in the 30s to win it's probably not going to happen. The Buckeyes still have Shaun Wade outside at cornerback locking down the top target. The Ohio State pass rush went over a cliff without Chase Young coming off the edge, but they have caused big problems for opponents with defensive tackle Tommy Togiai, who leads the team with three sacks in five games.

Northwestern will come into this game hoping to run the ball and hit some throws at the chains on third down so they can run clock, keep the score down, and stay within range playing bend-don't-break defense so a turnover or special teams play can give them a chance to win the game.

Watch for:

  • Did Northwestern find a running game against Illinois that will give them a fighting chance against Ohio State?
  • Will the Wildcats' veteran linebackers help them against Justin Fields throwing to Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave?
  • Can Northwestern pick up turnovers or big special teams plays that can even out the talent differential?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 13.6

Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma (-5) vs. Iowa State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma (7-2) Iowa State (8-2)
F/+ 6 11
FEI 7 14
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 11 16
SP+ 4 11
IsoPPP+ 18 69
Rushing success rate 42 20
Passing success rate 14 43
When Iowa State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 22 12
SP+ 21 14
IsoPPP+ 98 72
Rushing success rate 19 16
Passing success rate 7 21

Oklahoma vs. Iowa State has been the most compelling matchup in the Big 12 over the last few seasons. The Cyclones handed Oklahoma their only loss in 2017, beating the Sooners 38-31 while unveiling their 3-3-5 "flyover defense" for the greater college football viewing public. In 2018 the Sooners edged them out 38-28 before Iowa State would turn to freshman quarterback Brock "Pump Fake" Purdy. The 2019 matchup concluded with the Cyclones narrowly missing a two-point conversion attempt (arguably due to uncalled pass interference) and losing 42-41. In 2020 these teams met earlier in the year and Iowa State defeated them 37-30 in a game with a lot of back and forth.

Iowa State challenges the Sooners in two key ways. First, their "flyover defense," which plays three deep safeties before the snap before shifting into a variety of coverages, makes it hard for the Sooners to identify and connect on the play-action deep shots that often subdue their other opponents. Iowa State tends to play a lot of Cover-2 or Cover-3 with deep zone defenders and then five defenders underneath flooding the passing windows; it's hard to land deep throws. Kyler Murray beat them by scrambling for time and finding running lanes or open receivers, but Oklahoma's current quarterback Spencer Rattler is much slower than Murray, and the Iowa State pass rush is improved with JaQuan Bailey (seven sacks) and Will McDonald (8.5 sacks) making their three-man rush much more credible.

The second problem is on the other side of the ball. Iowa State has big receivers and big tight ends, and Oklahoma has small cornerbacks and safeties. The Cyclones' tight ends have forced some defensive holding and pass interference calls on the overmatched Sooners defensive backs while also helping Iowa State run the ball with star running back Breece Hall. The Cyclones lead back had 18 carries for 110 yards in 2019 and earlier this season had 28 carries for 139 yards and two scores against Oklahoma. Purdy has also tortured the Sooners over these two games with six total touchdown passes and an uncountable number of thwarted sacks he evaded with his quickness and trademark move. It's almost as though the Cyclones were designed in a secret lab out in rural Iowa to bedevil Lincoln Riley's Oklahoma Sooners.

The advantages that Oklahoma tends to bring into Big 12 games are marginalized by Iowa State's tactics or specific personnel. The Sooners have been blistering opponents with their pass rush since defensive end Ronnie Perkins came back from a suspension that begun in 2019. Iowa State is a difficult team to pass rush, though, even for the Sooners, who did successfully get defenders into the backfield on multiple occasions in Round 1 of this matchup. For starters, the offensive tackles for Iowa State, Sean Foster and Jake Remsburg, are 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-6 and difficult to get around quickly. For another, the Cyclones often use tight end Dylan Soehner to help protect Purdy; Soehner adds an extra 6-foot-6, 270-pound body on the perimeter for defensive ends to work around. Finally, Purdy is a master at evading pass-rushers, buying time, and finding throwing windows or scrambling lanes when the play breaks down. In Round 1 the Sooners hurried Purdy six times, sacked him once, and broke up six passes, but still couldn't stop him from throwing for 300 yards at 8.3 yards per attempt with two touchdowns to one interception.

If Oklahoma can't beat the Cyclones passing game before it starts with their pass rush, Iowa State has actually improved throwing the ball over the course of the year as new receivers such as Xavier Hutchinson (50 catches, 612 yards, four touchdowns) and Sean Shaw (6-foot-6) have become more comfortable.

The heavyweight contest in this game is between Oklahoma's power running game and the Cyclones defensive front. Iowa State's defense is weighted to the field this season with strong safety Greg Eisworth and then strongside linebacker Mike Rose who plays underneath him. Rose leads the team with 81 tackles, with 10 tackles for loss and four interceptions. He moves around, occasionally bringing some force to the wide perimeter and often playing just outside the box and adding his physical presence to stuff the run game. Oklahoma caught the Cyclones a few times with play-action shots to star slot receiver Marvin Mims running vertical on Eisworth when he was isolated against a post route. Rattler also threw the game-deciding interception trying to find Charleston Rambo on the same concept and failing to see the weakside safety coming over to poach the post.

If you can't burn the Cyclones over the top, and most cannot, then you have to earn your way down the field. Oklahoma has the offensive line and weapons to do this, but whether or not the redshirt freshman Rattler can read the defense and execute well enough to pull it off is the big question mark. It'd be easier for the Sooners if Riley catches the Cyclones a couple of times on deep shots and Rattler can connect on them. Oklahoma has game-planned the Big 12 title game very well over the last three years, winning the contest every season. The Cyclones want this to be a tough, close game in which the team with better decision-making at quarterback gets the win.

Watch for:

  • Can Oklahoma effectively pressure Brock "Pump Fake" Purdy and hamstring the Iowa State offense with negative plays?
  • Iowa State running the football with star running back Breece Hall behind three different tight ends on the edge against a small Oklahoma secondary.
  • Which quarterback is able to make the best decisions and guide his team best in a title bout that could go the distance?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 3.1

ACC Championship Game: Clemson (-10.5) vs. Notre Dame at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina -- 4 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson (9-1) Notre Dame (10-0)
F/+ 3 5
FEI 4 5
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 8 10
SP+ 5 9
IsoPPP+ 30 72
Rushing success rate 33 10
Passing success rate 10 25
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 1 9
SP+ 6 10
IsoPPP+ 91 50
Rushing success rate 4 22
Passing success rate 8 17

Round 1 of this game was probably the best of the entire college football season. Notre Dame defended their home field with a late touchdown drive to force overtime, then overcame the Tigers in the second overtime. The trick of it was that Clemson was missing Trevor Lawrence due to COVID, and while he had already recovered and was on the sideline, he had not finished the full COVID protocol and was thus unavailable. The Tigers turned to true freshman and former 5-star recruit, D.J. Uigalelei, who made a very game effort throwing for 439 yards at 10 yards per attempt with two touchdowns, an interception, and a rushing touchdown.

Uigalelei is a very promising player, but he's not Trevor Lawrence, and this game won't be in South Bend under the raised arms of "Touchdown Jesus." This time the Fighting Irish will have to take Clemson's best shot on a neutral field.

One of the main reasons Notre Dame came out ahead in this game the first time, and why they are undefeated on the year, was their superiority over the Tigers in the trenches. The Irish starting offensive line (and running back Kyren Williams) helped keep quarterback Ian Book clean in the pocket, and Williams ran for 140 yards at 6.1 yards per carry with three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Irish nose tackle Kurt Hinish controlled the A-gaps and helped hold Travis Etienne to 18 carries for 28 yards at 1.6 yards per carry with one score. In the middle of the field, the Tigers had to turn to Jake Venables (defensive coordinator Brent's son) at middle linebackerdue to an injury to starter James Skalski. Now Venables is injured and Skalski is expected back; if he's limited or aggravates the injury, the Tigers will be down to their third-string middle linebacker.

These are all issues for the Tigers in avoiding another slog in which the Irish have the means to control the game in the box, but then there's Trevor Lawrence. Clemson typically wins games like this against other top-flight programs by taking the battles out to space and winning with wide receiver play or throwing to Etienne. Uigalelei filled in admirably here but Lawrence brings greater precision and the ability to read the defenses at a higher level, which could either inflict even more damage or else open up lanes for Etienne. The rest of the Clemson defense is also healthier than in Round 1 and will have nose tackle Tyler Davis back to help avoid another thumping up front from the Irish run game.

Notre Dame's confidence in this game will come from an improved passing game utilizing outside deep threat Javon McKinley, chains-moving transfer Ben Skowronek, and freshman tight end Michael "Baby Gronk" Mayer, who had five catches for 67 yards in Round 1. The Irish were shuffling some guys in and out earlier in the year and really started to hit their stride as a passing game with the victory over Clemson, since which they have grown in confidence and remained effective. Book has thrown seven of his 15 touchdowns in the three games since the big Irish victory.

A few big areas to watch will be how Clemson addresses Mayer and then whether the return of Skalski leads Brent Venables to dial up more pressures on the Irish offensive front or if they back off and play more coverage. Blitzing this line and senior quarterback is a questionable strategy, but at 6-foot-0 and 240 pounds, Skalski brings some extra force when he blitzes interior gaps that could help free up the Clemson ends and stymie Notre Dame's run game. If Skalski can have an impact blowing up blocking schemes as a run blitzer, it could change the equation and help the Tigers apply more pressure on Book than he's accustomed to facing. If not, the Irish are not typically a particularly explosive team, so the risk/reward of blitzing them says it's worth the risk more often than not.

Watch for:

  • How much difference is made by Trevor Lawrence manning the helm for the Tigers rather than talented freshman D.J. Uigalelei?
  • Can Clemson's athleticism in space overcome Notre Dame's size and experience in the trenches?
  • Will Clemson be able to blitz the experienced Fighing Irish more effectively this time?

FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 3.4

SEC Championship Game: Alabama (-17) vs. Florida at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia -- 8 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama (10-0) Florida (8-2)
F/+ 1 8
FEI 1 12
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 1 44
SP+ 1 22
IsoPPP+ 9 37
Rushing success rate 4 63
Passing success rate 2 44
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 11 6
SP+ 7 6
IsoPPP+ 76 11
Rushing success rate 15 71
Passing success rate 21 4

One of the interesting debates in the college football world is which Alabama offensive player this season should win the Heisman Trophy. The common perception is quarterback Mac Jones will win the award. The Crimson Tide passer has thrown for 3,321 yards at 11.7 yards per attempt with 27 touchdowns to three interceptions, devastating numbers that speak to the heart of how Alabama is simply crushing teams this season throwing the ball over the top. The other candidate is wide receiver Devonta Smith, who was having a great season before his counterpart Jaylen Waddle went down but is now the primary recipient of those deep lobs. Smith has 83 catches now for 1,327 yards and 15 touchdowns; he has been nearly uncoverable for opposing teams this season.

In truth, the greatest credit should go to the Alabama offensive line, which routinely gives Jones sparkling clean pockets from which to sit back and wait for double moves and slower developing combinations to free up Smith down the field. The Heisman Trophy won't be awarded to an offensive lineman and it'd be hard to pick just one, although you'd obviously start with left tackle Alex Leatherwood. I'd pick Devonta Smith; the majority of voters will probably pick Jones. Florida's defensive staff is going to have to make a precise calculation with much greater stakes as they determine the best way to hold the Tide under 40 points.

Two weeks ago in this column I suggested the right path for LSU to defend Alabama would be to bracket Devonta Smith and take him out of the game. LSU actually employed that approach early but arguably took it too far. They kept a safety over Smith but also shadowed him with future NFL cornerback Derek Stingley. The Crimson Tide burned the Tigers elsewhere until LSU adjusted and gave Smith less attention, leading to him catching eight balls for 231 yards and three touchdowns, often on slot fade routes where he could get isolated on the nickel corner without a safety.

Florida could follow that blueprint as well but make the standard Bill Belichik adjustment in which they use their best cornerback (Kaiir Elam) to shadow the second-most dangerous Tide receiver (John Metchie III) while bracketing Smith. The trick with this strategy is you have to devote one safety wholly to Smith and forego safety help on the other receivers, because you need the other safety to stop the Tide run game with Najee Harris. As you can see on the numbers above, Florida's run defense isn't stopping Harris without bringing a safety into the box. If the Gators can't work out how to bracket Smith wherever he goes, an alternative would be to play Cover-2 the whole game and hope the Tide can't outscore the Florida offense by running the ball.

The blueprint would be a better strategy because that extra safety could also be used to bring five-man pressures; you don't want to give Jones six seconds to throw every snap like so many other teams have done.

This title bout could get interesting if the Gators defense can figure something out to at least slow the Tide, because Kyle Trask and the Florida passing game are also legitimately very good. Trask has thrown 3,717 yards at 10.1 yards per attempt with 40 touchdowns to five interceptions. Their main weapon is tight end Kyle Pitts, for whom opposing teams simply don't have an answer. Alabama will try to check him with safeties Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle, which opens up opportunities for the Gators to throw outside to Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes. Alabama's weak spot for years has been their cornerback play; teams who can attack them outside have been able to land damage. Without several big plays throwing outside, Florida probably won't be able to hang with Alabama.

Watch for:

  • How does Florida approach the problem of stopping Mac Jones throwing deep to Devonta Smith on play-action?
  • Florida's receivers against the Alabama cornerbacks, a battle the Gators need to win big.
  • If the Gators play bend-don't-break, will Tide running back Najee Harris break them?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 17.6

AAC Championship Game: Tulsa at Cincinnati (-14.5) -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Tulsa (6-1) Cincinnati (8-0)
F/+ 38 9
FEI 36 11
When Tulsa has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 89 3
SP+ 74 5
IsoPPP+ 51 13
Rushing success rate 94 12
Passing success rate 63 4
When Cincinnati has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 9 37
SP+ 26 23
IsoPPP+ 8 43
Rushing success rate 17 78
Passing success rate 17 6

These teams almost had to play twice in a row, but the first matchup was cancelled due to COVID issues and now the Bearcats will only have to defeat the Golden Hurricane once in order to secure their first AAC Championship of Luke Fickell's career. It has been a great year for Cincinnati, but they are only ninth in the playoff ranking despite their 8-0 record and it's pretty clear the committee has no intention of including a Group of 5 team.

The playoff is a financial boondoggle and given all the losses from COVID to athletic departments, it doesn't take a wild conspiracy theory to conclude the committee will want to choose teams that create maximum ratings and money. Ohio State's inclusion despite only playing six games (after this weekend) falls into the same category. But Cincinnati can still play for their first ever AAC championship, and it's silly to regard these Group of 5 seasons as meaningless if they don't carry national stakes. Another fun idea would be for undefeated Cincinnati to schedule a postseason game against undefeated Coastal Carolina and declare the winner the National Champion. Why not? Who's going to stop them?

First, Cincy needs to beat the Golden Hurricane, which is eminently feasible. Tulsa has been carried this season by their defense, which opened the year by knocking Oklahoma State's starting quarterback out of the game and holding the explosive Cowboys to one touchdown in a 16-7 Tulsa loss. They're surrendering only 19.9 points per game on the year thanks to a pair of big cornerbacks in Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV, both of whom are 6-foot-2.

This is of uncertain value in beating the Bearcats, whose leading receiver is tight end Josh Whyle with 24 catches for 291 yards and five touchdowns. The main mode of moving the ball for Cincinnati is inside zone, often from 12 personnel and typically with either one or two lead blockers for a quarterback option or else quick pass option outside to help clear space for the downhill run. Quarterback Desmond Ridder has 67 carries for 526 yards at 7.9 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns, and his success as a runner often gives them their explosive element to the offense. Gerrid Doaks is the main inside runner with 137 carries for 660 yards at 4.8 yards per carry with seven touchdowns; his numbers have picked up over the year after a slow start.

Tulsa's interior defense is less their strong suit, so how well they'd react to being spread out by multiple tight end sets and then filling creases hit by Doaks is hard to discern. Their best players inside are edge rusher Zaven Collins (who will spend his day trying to muddy zone-option reads for Ridder), middle linebacker Justin Wright, and safety Kendarin Ray. Those latter two will need to have a good day fitting inside runs against Doaks in order to keep the score manageable in this game and give their offense a shot.

The other side of this matchup is uglier for Tulsa. Cincinnati has played outstanding defense this year and relied a lot on man coverage from their secondary to do so. Tulsa's veer 'n' shoot offense is designed to hold defenders outside the hashmarks with spread sets featuring extra wide receiver splits so they can punish you running off tackle into wide-open alleys. The Bearcats aren't vulnerable to this trick because they'll play man coverage outside rather than playing two-high and ultra-quick linebacker Jarell White (their leading tackler) is often stationed to defend those alleys.

Cincinnati will dare Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith to beat man coverage while facing pressure. Smith only completed 57.8% of his passes and averaged just 7.7 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns to six interceptions in seven games. Tulsa just didn't have enough firepower in the passing game to really get after opponents this season and the Bearcats pressure and athleticism in the defensive backfield may squelch what Tulsa can do.

Watch for:

  • Can Tulsa protect quarterback Zach Smith and hit some big throws against the elite Cincinnati defense?
  • Tulsa's solid defensive interior facing the mauling Bearcats run game.
  • Is there a margin Cincinnati can win by or a series of events in earlier games that gives them a chance at being selected for the playoff?

FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 13.3

FEI PICKS: Championship Week

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Ian's Pick
Against the Spread
USC 3 Oregon USC USC Oregon
Ohio State 20.5 Northwestern Ohio State Northwestern Northwestern
Oklahoma 5.5 Iowa State Oklahoma Iowa State Iowa State
Clemson 10.5 Notre Dame Clemson Notre Dame Clemson
Alabama 17 Florida Alabama Alabama Florida
at Cincinnati 14.5 Tulsa Cincinnati Tulsa Cincinnati

FEI picks against the spread in Week 15: 2-3

FEI picks against the spread this year: 45-35-1

Ian's picks against the spread in Week 14: 2-3

Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 43-37-1


6 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2020, 7:20am

1 I really don't understand…

I really don't understand Smith's Heisman campaign. He plays on an offense where the QB has spectacular numbers, which has a great O-line, and an NFL running back, and the other WRs put up similarly outstanding numbers. Waddle's numbers in the four games he played suggested Smith is no better than Waddle.

So what's his claim? He can't separate from the other parts of the offense, and he plays a less important position than the other guy on his team with a claim.

4 Because it's not about importance

And being the alpha dog among alpha dogs is...crazy. And it's not like Mac Jones (the only position objectively more important) is having a historic season as opposed to Smith. Already breaking Amari Coopers SEC rec TDs record with 1 or maybe even 2 games to go.

5 It's hard to untangle any of the Bama players from the machine

The fact Jaylen Waddle was even better before his injury is tough, but doesn't mean Smith isn't the best and most productive player left in the country after his injury.

Like I noted, I wish there was a way to give it to the O-line. It really should be Trevor Lawrence if only as a lifetime achievement award.

2 "The playoff is a financial…

"The playoff is a financial boondoggle"

Do you mean "windfall"? The playoff is many things, but "work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value" is just about the last way I'd describe it!

Also, thank God USC lost. Based on tonight's game, they barely belong in the Top 20, much less the national semifinals. Congrats Oregon on your "conference" "championship"! u da bess 4-2 teem evaaaa