Cincinnati, Oklahoma State Harness Championship Chaos

Cincinnati Bearcats RB Jerome Ford
Cincinnati Bearcats RB Jerome Ford
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA - There seems to be no limit to the chaos of the 2021 college football season. Rivalry Week offered up a tantalizing slate with everything from New Year's Six bowls to College Football Playoff spots to bowl eligibility on the line, and it more than delivered. NC State wowed with a massive comeback; Michigan and Oklahoma State defeated their rivalry demons; Auburn nearly stunned Alabama with a limping backup quarterback; two teams reached bowl eligibility after 1-6 starts; and several divisions were decided on the final day of the season. The last big game of the day was a fittingly bizarre Bedlam that featured a 100-yard kick return, two muffed punts, a safety, and two turnovers on downs in a frantic final 1:30.

Then, about 15 hours after the curtain came down on that wild duel—and on rumors of Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley's interest in LSU—reports broke that Riley was leaving for USC. Since the end of the regular season, coaching changes have hit a fever pitch: Florida hired Billy Napier, Duke fired David Cutcliffe, and Brian Kelly jumped ship from Notre Dame to LSU, all in just a few days. The drama has left one playoff contender (Notre Dame) without a head coach and another (Cincinnati) in danger of losing their own.

And, in case you had forgotten, the season is still going on. The decisive conference championships are finally here, and the group of likely playoff contenders has dropped to just six (with Ohio State, Baylor, and Iowa needing miracles to have a chance). Dominant No. 1 Georgia has led the rankings all year and is a near-lock to make the playoff, even if they drop the SEC Championship Game against No. 3 Alabama. No. 2 Michigan needs only a win over Iowa to reach the playoff, while No. 4 Cincinnati (facing Houston) might need a bit of help—No. 5 Oklahoma State lurks just behind and gets top-10 Baylor in their own title matchup. No. 6 Notre Dame is the wild card, with chaos the key for a team locked in at 11-1. Outside the playoff discussion, Oregon and Utah meet in a rematch with the Rose Bowl at stake, while Pitt and Wake Forest battle for one of the unlikeliest underdog titles in recent memory.

The worst thing about the 2021 season is that it has to end, but this star-studded slate will help kick off its final month with a bang. The craziest playoff chase yet, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it month of coaching shuffles, and a topsy-turvy bowl lineup await us in the final month of the year. But the biggest games of the season lie just ahead with a conference championship weekend that will provide one more slate full of upsets, heroics, and down-to-the-wire playoff battles.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon vs. Utah (-2.5) in Las Vegas—Friday, 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oregon Utah
2021 F+ 21 12
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 9 20
2021 EPA/pass 41 39
2021 EPA/rush 4 57
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 44 11
2021 EPA/pass 65 51
2021 EPA/rush 43 1

Regular readers will remember Devin Lloyd, a linebacker who has been key to Utah's defensive success and who helped shut down Oregon up front in their meeting two weeks ago. The Ducks managed all of 63 yards and 2.7 yards per carry with no touchdowns on the ground in a stunning 38-7 loss, a performance that sticks out like a sore thumb in their season. (Their previous lows: 121 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, and one touchdown, all in separate games.) Lloyd was key in the trenches, making all six of his tackles and adding two quarterback hurries. Oregon's offense sputtered on all fronts, but the rushing attack was particularly troubled, so perhaps they'll focus more on the passing game in the rematch.

The problem there: also Devin Lloyd (and the rest of a tenacious Utah pass defense). The Utes are among the foremost employers of college football's biggest tactical revolution since the spread offense—namely, defensive versatility. The traditional view of a defense divides specific duties between various positions, similar to an offense. Linemen hold off rushes down the middle, edge rushers try to break through on the outside and pressure the quarterback, and linebackers read the play and divert to whichever vector of attack benefits more from their additional numbers. In the secondary, cornerbacks stay to the outside and usually trail receivers closely, while safeties come up to protect the middle of the field, typically covering off shorter routes or assisting the run defense. While the position unit can shift into different looks depending on the look of the offense—such as a blitz where more defenders go after the quarterback, or zone coverage where defenders are assigned regions of the field rather than single receivers—it all operates from the fundamental position-by-position basis.

This works just fine, and Utah has plenty of experience running defenses on this underlying formula. Back in 2015, when the Utes reached as high as third in the AP Poll and allowed just 22.3 points per game, most of their players were fairly locked into their roles. A typical defender in that season had a snap breakdown like safety Marcus Williams, who appeared on a team-leading 924 plays. On 570 of those, he remained in pass coverage, while in 350, he came down to defend the run. But Utah practically never employed him in a safety blitz; he only rushed the opposing quarterback four times across the entire season. Some players were more versatile—linebacker Gionni Paul, who was second with 921 snaps, appeared in all three roles on at least 80 plays—but it wasn't a fundamental concept for the defense.

Six years later, that's beginning to change. Leading defenses across the country have bought in on flexibility, with the most experienced units (such as Georgia, Oklahoma State, and Wisconsin) reaching remarkable heights. The Utes are further down the pecking order, but players such as Lloyd (299 snaps in run defense, 280 in coverage, 145 in pass-rushing) have helped them rise further. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lloyd is one of only two Power 5 players with a PFF grade of 75 or better in run defense, coverage, pass-rushing, and overall tackling. Having a position-agnostic force like that helps make the Utes' defense difficult to deal with no matter how you attack. Despite being significantly better against the pass (24th in EPA) than the run (53rd), they had the cohesion to handle Oregon on the ground without having to radically reshape their base alignment.

When these teams faced off in November, Utah was simply more adaptable and more physical. Making the adjustments necessary to pull off a win will be a difficult task, but when it comes down to it, the key will be the play of Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown. The struggles of the run game two weeks ago were compounded by Brown's inconsistency on short passes: when his target was less than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, he completed only 11 of 17 attempts for 68 yards. He's generally a lot more reliable on those plays—he has an 80.5% completion rate on passes under 10 yards this season—and setting up those throws helps the rest of the offense shine, both on the ground (where opponents can't stack the box and give up easy checkdowns) and on longer throws, where Brown's deep ball has provided an offensive spark. To get past the imposing Utah defense, the Ducks will need the same quality that helped key the Utes' win in their first meeting: versatility.

Watch for:

  • Can the Utes' offensive line (3.01 line yards per carry, 14th) pick up where it left off in a thorough domination of Oregon last time out?
  • Will the dependable Oregon rushing attack (second in success rate behind 1, 036-yard running back Travis Dye) deliver a more typical performance?
  • Can Oregon (32nd in rushing explosiveness allowed) hold off a Utah rushing corps that broke off four explosive plays against the Ducks in their first game?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 3.5

Big 12 Championship Game: Baylor vs. Oklahoma State (-5.5) in Arlington—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Baylor Oklahoma State
2021 F+ 19 9
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 28 3
2021 EPA/pass 35 8
2021 EPA/rush 28 2
When Oklahoma State has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 17 53
2021 EPA/pass 41 54
2021 EPA/rush 49 89

Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams averaged 9.0 yards per attempt this season, passed for 18 touchdowns, only threw four interceptions, and rushed for 408 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. It was a remarkable effort, particularly considering he had only thrown 11 passes until initial starter Spencer Rattler was benched. Perhaps because of that relatively short season, though, he was passed up for the Big 12's first- and second-team honors at the position. Beating out Oklahoma's quarterback for the second consecutive year was Iowa State's Brock Purdy, who averaged only 8.1 yards per attempt but proved a model of consistency with his 73.1% completion rate. A three-interception outing against Iowa seemed to derail Purdy's hopes of glory, but he picked up the pace and matched Williams' 18-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio from that point on.

Neither, however, managed to earn first-team honors. That role, in one of the biggest surprises of award season, went to Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders. The Cowboys' signal-caller had worse stats more or less across the board—7.5 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns to eight interceptions, and 510 rushing yards on 4.4 yards per carry. While there was no overwhelming candidate for the Big 12's top quarterback, he seems an odd choice. But in Sanders' defense, even on a burgeoning defensive powerhouse, he was among the most important players of the season. And with one game left, his performance in the Big 12 Championship Game will be crucial to Oklahoma State's surging playoff hopes.

A look back at Bedlam demonstrates the upside and downside Sanders brings to the Cowboys' offense. From the jump, Oklahoma State's attack surged, peaking at 17.2 cumulative EPA after just 31 offensive plays. After a three-and-out on the first drive, Sanders led a methodical march downfield, completing all four passes for 77 yards and adding three more on the ground. On the following drive, he gained 40 of Oklahoma State's 54 offensive yards. But as the game wore on, the early scoring outburst faded, and the Cowboys' offense struggled through the second and third quarters with mostly unproductive stretches. Near the end of the first half, Sanders threw an interception; by the next time he even made it onto the field, Oklahoma State had lost two fumbles on two Oklahoma punts, sinking them into a 33-24 hole. After yet another drive that sputtered and another pick, Sanders finally came alive in the fourth quarter, gaining all 58 yards on the drive, nearly ending it early with a narrow non-catch by Tay Martin, then scrambling 37 yards to pull within two. The Cowboys pulled off a win, in spite of—and because of—Sanders.

The first meeting between Oklahoma State and Baylor was in a similar vein: Sanders threw three interceptions, but led just enough solid drives to keep the game out of reach in an eventual 24-14 victory. Inconsistency and flashes of excellence have defined his career, and it has been the same this year, but the good plays have started to overtake the bad ones. The reason: his scrambling ability, which has always been a strength but has taken a major step forward this year. Sanders suffered a 7.1% sack rate last year, and he was picked off on 7.3% of his pressured passes, compared to 2.4% of all others. This season, only 2.6% of his pressured passes have resulted in interceptions, and he has been sacked fewer times (12 to 17) despite being pressured more (106 dropbacks to 79). While Sanders' most recent game was evidently not mistake-free, he did avoid disaster outside the pocket: on nine pressured dropbacks, he completed three of six passes, threw no interceptions, and only suffered one sack. The biggest problem in his game, a tendency to take risks when flushed from the pocket, has been far less glaring.

Still, it's a tendency that exists, and the first game against Baylor was a notable exception to Sanders' improvement under pressure. He threw seven passes on nine pressured dropbacks in that game, and only managed two completions for 2 yards—plus one interception. Baylor's defense has a powerful pass rush led by linemen Gabe Hall (31 pressures) and Siaki Ika (23 pressures), as well as frequent blitzers Terrel Bernard (29 pressures) and Jalen Pitre (21 pressures despite playing cornerback). They got to Sanders frequently in their last meeting, and it nearly led the Cowboys to disaster. If Baylor can coax enough hero ball from Oklahoma State's quarterback, they might have a shot at springing an upset and securing an outright conference title for just the second time in the last four decades.

Watch for:

  • Baylor's defense excels at limiting successful plays (20th in success rate allowed), but the Cowboys proved an exception when they first met (48% success rate); can the Bears flip the script?
  • Can Abram Smith (1,366 yards, 12 TD) get past the Oklahoma State defense and punish their weakness to rushing explosiveness (56th in EPA allowed per successful run)?
  • Will Baylor be able to prevent Oklahoma State, the FBS leader in sacks per game, from getting to their quarterback (either injured starter Gerry Bohanon or backup Blake Shapen)?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 4.5

SEC Championship Game: Alabama vs. Georgia (-6.5) in Atlanta—Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama Georgia
2021 F+ 3 1
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 3 1
2021 EPA/pass 5 1
2021 EPA/rush 80 5
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 9 2
2021 EPA/pass 42 3
2021 EPA/rush 1 77

The participants of several conference championship games almost make you wonder if you're dreaming. Seriously? Oklahoma actually got knocked out of the Big 12 chase? Either Pitt or Wake Forest is going to end up in the New Year's Six? Michigan got to Indianapolis by beating Ohio State, and Iowa got to Indianapolis despite having some of the worst quarterback play in the country? It all seems to beggar belief. But the SEC matchup is far less surprising, pitting Georgia against Alabama. These teams have actually only met once in this game since the Bulldogs rose to prominence—in 2018, when Tua Tagovailoa was benched and Jalen Hurts led a comeback. But there's more history here; at the end of the 2017 season, Alabama stunned Georgia in overtime after Hurts was benched and Tagovailoa led a comeback. The teams have only met once since then (a 41-24 Tide beatdown in the 2020 regular season), but there's no shortage of bad blood, and they're both familiar faces in Atlanta. The title game has featured at least one of the two in every season since 2013, and they're responsible for seven of the SEC's eight playoff appearances.

What is unusual about this meeting, though, is the role each team has taken on. In their three recent games, Alabama has generally been the favorite: they were ranked higher in 2018 (No. 1 against No. 4) and 2020 (No. 2 against No. 3), and while they were a lower seed in the 2017 playoff, they were named a four-point favorite in that National Championship Game. Georgia has played the role of challenger, slipping further and further from the summit with time—from a narrow overtime loss to a regulation defeat to a blowout. But in 2021, Georgia has done their best Alabama impression, winning game after game with crushing precision. Their defense is playing at a preposterously impressive level, having allowed just eight touchdowns all season. Meanwhile, Alabama has looked vulnerable in the ways Georgia often did in years past, flirting with disaster against LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn, and dropping a thriller against Texas A&M.

This season has been a great one for games carrying weighty narratives—Michigan and Oklahoma State can testify to that—and Georgia hopes to finally set aside any doubt about its championship bona fides with a definitive victory here. To that end, they'll need their record-shattering defense to step up once again. The unit in question has been wildly good, ranking first by a wide margin in EPA per play and success rate. The Bulldogs aren't defined by any single player, but by the remarkable depth of talent on their roster. Nine different players on the Georgia defense have racked up 13 or more quarterback pressures, tied with Clemson for the most in the Power 5. Meanwhile, four different players have allowed 5.0 adjusted yards per attempt or fewer on at least 20 targets, tied for the second-most such players among Power 5 teams. There have been some standouts—such as Nakobe Dean, whose -1.1 adjusted yards per attempt allowed leads all defensive backs with at least 20 targets—but the remarkable variety of stars is the fundamental force that makes Georgia so good.

Alabama will be the best team the Bulldogs have faced yet, but it's hard to be confident in their ability to put up points against this group. Throughout the season, no team managed more than 17 points on Georgia—and that performance, by Tennessee, came in large part because of a well-scripted first drive and a meaningless touchdown deep in garbage time. This defense has allowed only three opponents to score more than 10 points, and they have already put up three shutouts, including one over No. 22 Arkansas. While the Bulldogs have yet to play any teams higher than 20th overall, their defensive might has also singlehandedly dropped several opponents. Still, the Crimson Tide are a uniquely difficult challenge, one Georgia's defense has struggled to solve in several otherwise-great seasons.

That being said, Alabama doesn't look quite themselves, as mentioned previously. In the last three seasons they played Georgia, the Tide averaged 47.1, 45.6, and 48.5 points per game, respectively. This year, they're putting up 42.7—impressive, no doubt, but a step back from their previous three performances, and one that has come against somewhat questionable competition. Only three of Alabama's opponents are currently ranked (with both Texas A&M and Arkansas barely hanging on at the back of the top 25), and in the last four games, they have fallen short of the 30-point mark in two nail-biting rivalry wins. The offense has frequently looked listless since Brian Robinson Jr., the central running back and a key of their attack, struggled to an 18-yard performance against LSU. With his recent hamstring injury potentially leaving the Tide without their star rusher, Alabama will need their own defense to come up big behind Heisman contender Will Anderson Jr. (76 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks), and they won't be able to afford the erratic play that plagued Bryce Young throughout the Iron Bowl. Every other playoff contender will be watching closely to see if the Bulldogs can finally turn the tide and eliminate the final familiar face from the neck-and-neck playoff chase.

Watch for:

  • Will Stetson Bennett IV finally face significant pressure and show whether he can lead the Georgia offense all the way through a close game?
  • Can Alabama's excellent run defense (first in EPA allowed, second in success rate) hold up to the Bulldogs' deep rushing corps?
  • Can the Tide's offense find a way to gain ground against Georgia's preposterous standard-downs performance (first in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness)?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 11.5

AAC Championship Game: Houston at Cincinnati (-10.5)—Saturday, 4 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Houston Cincinnati
2021 F+ 40 5
When Houston has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 58 8
2021 EPA/pass 32 6
2021 EPA/rush 72 4
When Cincinnati has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 18 19
2021 EPA/pass 7 58
2021 EPA/rush 12 6

Balance is a theme for many of the top playoff contenders. Georgia has reached 12-0 for the first time in 41 years behind a superb defense and a quietly great offense, while Michigan outdueled Ohio State in Ann Arbor by virtue of a multidimensional attack that the offense-heavy Buckeyes couldn't counter. And Cincinnati, the first team from the Group of 5 to make it to the playoff committee's top four, is built on balance as well. The top four teams in the current rankings—Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, and these Bearcats—are the only four to rank in the top 20 in EPA on both offense and defense.

The secondary has led the way for the Bearcats on one side of the ball, allowing just 5.4 yards per attempt as a group—the second-lowest mark in the nation. Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner has allowed a remarkable -0.2 adjusted yards per attempt, and he's one of four Cincinnati defenders with at least 250 coverage snaps to allow 8 yards per completion or fewer. On offense, Jerome Ford has broken out for a 1,051-yard season on the ground, leading all qualifiers in the American with 6.6 yards per carry and 17 rushing touchdowns. And, of course, Desmond Ridder has been a reliable star in the passing game, with 8.9 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. His 301 yards in the season finale against East Carolina brought him to exactly 3,000 on the season, and he'll reach his next statistical milestone in the conference championship game: 95 more passing yards will make him the second Cincinnati quarterback ever to reach 10,000 for his career.

It takes a complete team to shut the Bearcats down across the board, which is part of why none of their opponents have managed to do so for 60 full minutes. Cincinnati has fallen asleep at the wheel several times this season: Navy nearly completed a furious comeback, Tulsa got eight plays at the goal line with an eight-point deficit, and USF refused to be shaken for long stretches of their game. The Bearcats aren't alone in struggling with inferior competition—Michigan didn't score in the second half of a 20-13 win over Rutgers, while Alabama needed a desperate 97-yard drive to take Auburn to overtime—but the standards are different against Group of 5 foes, and the playoff chase is close enough that the Bearcats could get pushed out of the top four even if they win on Saturday.

The odds that Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma State, and Cincinnati all win, forcing the committee to make a tough decision among the four of them (with Georgia taking up a spot), are thankfully not too large. Chaos has abounded all year, and the Bearcats should feel relatively confident that the clock will strike midnight on at least one of their fellow contenders. But Houston, riding an 11-game winning streak with a surprisingly well-balanced roster of its own, is one of the toughest foes Cincinnati has faced all year, and they'll need to play a sound game to avoid getting knocked out without an argument.

The Cougars do everything fairly well (though the run game is somewhat suspect), but they're strongest on defense, particularly in the front seven. The line allows just 2.33 yards per carry up front (12th) and produces a sack on 9.4% of plays (17th). Their pressure rate, 40.0%, ranks third nationally, and they have five different players with at least five sacks. But Cincinnati's offensive line is a match for that talent and more, ranking 20th in line yards per carry and 23rd in sack rate allowed. Their pressure rate allowed, 19%, is also third overall, and on the 77.4% of dropbacks where he isn't pressured, Ridder has completed 70.2% of his passes for 9.3 adjusted yards per attempt. As inconsistent as Cincinnati has been with letting teams back into games, they have been consistent in coming out on top, and this rock-solid line is a major reason why. If they're to stun the Bearcats and spoil an unlikely Group of 5 playoff bid, Houston will need to be as physical as possible to slow down the rushing attack and pressure their opponent's quarterback.

Watch for:

  • Will Ridder be able to stay steady against Houston's phenomenal pass defense, which ranks second in EPA allowed and success rate?
  • On the other hand, can the Cougars' Clayton Tune (8.5 yards per attempt, 26 TD, 8 INT) continue his career season against the Bearcats' tough secondary?
  • Can Houston get the Cincinnati offense (64.8% rate of standard downs, fifth-highest in FBS) off schedule and out of its comfort zone?

FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 12.1

Big Ten Championship Game: Iowa vs. Michigan (-11) in Indianapolis—Saturday, 8 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Iowa Michigan
2021 F+ 25 4
When Iowa has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 91 10
2021 EPA/pass 115 26
2021 EPA/rush 111 21
When Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 4 8
2021 EPA/pass 12 24
2021 EPA/rush 9 29

It's easy to forget where Michigan started the 2021 season. While some strugglers from the COVID-affected 2020 season made it well into the preseason rankings—such as No. 11 Oregon, No. 12 Wisconsin, and No. 16 LSU—the Wolverines received all of 12 votes, placing them in the company of teams such as Auburn and Northwestern. That changed quickly enough, of course, as dominant wins over Western Michigan and Washington provided assurance that things were back to normal in Ann Arbor. But the fact that this team was even good wasn't a given. For it to be the best of Jim Harbaugh's beleaguered Michigan career? Few came anywhere close to predicting that before the season, or even before last week, when the Wolverines finally took down Ohio State and stepped into the role of dominant Big Ten force.

There is a narrative about Michigan in big games that has formed throughout the seven years Harbaugh has led this team. The Wolverines of old would have been expected to crash and burn in exactly this kind of game: a solid opponent that Michigan should still beat (or at least compete with), a playoff spot at stake, and an impressive record on the line. Indeed, they suffered precisely such a game this season, blowing a 16-point lead to rival Michigan State in spectacular fashion. In years past, perhaps that would have spurred further losses, missed opportunities, and calls for Harbaugh's firing.

But this team has been different, and it picked itself up, dusted itself off, and won the last four games in a row to steal the tight Big Ten East, closing out the regular season with a resounding victory in The Game. The Wolverines are now ranked No. 2 after facing Ohio State, the first time they have been in the top two at this point since 1997. That's not to say Michigan couldn't lose this week, facing a solid Iowa team that will look to lock down a Rose Bowl bid. But they're playing with house money at this point; even if the Wolverines fade down the stretch, they have shown they can play at a championship level, and most importantly, they have broken a long losing streak against Ohio State. The season is already a success, no matter what comes next.

Still, capping it off with a playoff appearance would certainly be preferable to stumbling in the final stretch. To that end, the Wolverines will need another shutdown performance by their defense. Muting Ohio State's terrifying lineup of CJ Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba was key to Michigan's victory last week, and while Iowa's offense presents a much lesser challenge—averaging only 25.7 points per game (87th) rather than the Buckeyes' 45.5 (first)—the Wolverines will still need to take care of business. The Iowa defense is among the best in the country, and fantastic special teams play has given the Hawkeyes a significant edge, as they rank top-three in offensive and defensive starting field position. Michigan has taken more advantage of its scoring opportunities lately, but the offense still has a tendency to slow down later in drives; the Wolverines average 4.10 points per opportunity, only 51st overall. Ensuring Iowa lives down to its offensive projection could be important if those miscues strike again.

The Hawkeyes' run game isn't exactly effective—despite the services of Tyler Goodson, who has rushed for 1,101 yards this year, they're only 109th in rushing EPA—but passing has been their main concern. Spencer Petras completed 57.1% of his passes for 6.4 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, and five interceptions in his first full season, and Iowa reasonably expected that he would at least step up to FBS average this year. But his statline has been almost identical: 58.1%, 6.5 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, six interceptions. Iowa averages a mere 0.07 EPA per pass, 122nd overall, and things have gone entirely off the rails recently. The situation is dire enough that Alex Padilla, an inexperienced sophomore with little recruiting pedigree, was thrust into the starting role at times, which went about as well as you might expect (46.4%, 6.2 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT). But Petras has been named the starter for Saturday, and he's the man Michigan will hope to limit.

For Iowa's offense to stay in the game, they'll need to play to Petras' strengths, which could require some bold play calling. The Hawkeyes are built around repeatable, reliable yardage, which they hope to gain by a combination of short rushing and short passing. But Petras struggles on these plays, by far his most common: his 112 passes between 0 and 9 yards from the line of scrimmage make up the majority of his attempts, but he has completed only 67% of them for 6.0 yards per attempt. As troubled as his season has been, Petras has shown the occasional flash of brilliance, and if he's allowed to employ his excellent deep ball more often, he could become a more dangerous part of the offense. To stun Michigan and win the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes will need to bet on their attack and take more risks as a substantial underdog.

Watch for:

  • Will Iowa remain confident in Petras, or will they consider benching him for Padilla if Michigan jumps out to an early lead?
  • Can the Hawkeyes pressure opposing quarterback Cade McNamara against a Michigan front seven that has allowed a mere 4.4% havoc rate (lowest in FBS)?
  • Can Iowa (+1.1 turnover margin per game, third overall) win the turnover battle to keep the Wolverines within striking distance?

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 10.5

ACC Championship Game: Pittsburgh (-3) vs. Wake Forest in Charlotte—Saturday, 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Pittsburgh Wake Forest
2021 F+ 16 22
When Pittsburgh has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 21 73
2021 EPA/pass 22 98
2021 EPA/rush 55 96
When Wake Forest has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 31 4
2021 EPA/pass 34 6
2021 EPA/rush 10 56

The SEC, Big 12, and Big Ten all took turns sending offensive superpowers to the fore, but each of their conference championship games looks like a primarily defensive struggle. Georgia has methodically eliminated every offense in its way, Oklahoma State has radically reshaped its identity, and Michigan and Iowa have both pulled off impressive runs behind smothering defensive play. So despite the lurking presence of Clemson, an increasingly defensive team that has dominated this game across the last half-decade, the ACC Championship Game is the show likeliest to provide fireworks. Both Pitt and Wake Forest have transformed into high-scoring powerhouses this season, and their unexpected battle for conference supremacy should follow in the same vein.

Pitt's path to becoming the first repeat champion of the ACC Coastal—which didn't happen until the ninth year of a division that only has seven teams—was the result of a truly stunning breakout. After averaging 6.4, 6.6, and 7.3 yards per attempt in his first three seasons as a start, with TD-to-INT ratios of 12:6, 13:9, and 13:9, Kenny Pickett started the season with a respectable pair of games: 557 yards, 7.6 yards per attempt, and four touchdowns against UMass and Tennessee. Then the Panthers took on Western Michigan, and Pickett's season went from solid to extraordinary. Pitt's passer passed for 382 yards on 31 attempts that day, racking up six touchdowns with just one interception, and while they ended up with a narrow 44-41 loss, Pickett was off to the races. Two and a half months later, the numbers from his season are wondrous to behold: 4,066 passing yards, 8.8 yards per attempt, and 40 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Pickett now holds Pitt's records for single-game, single-season, and career passing yards, as well as single-season passing touchdowns, and he'll likely break a tie for the career record of 79 passing touchdowns on Saturday. Not bad at a school which also hosted Dan Marino.

Wake Forest's rise has been a little more gradual. With Sam Hartman averaging 8.1 yards per attempt and a pair of strong running backs—Christian Beal and future Michigan State star Kenneth Walker III—leading the rushing attack, the Demon Deacons averaged 36.0 points per game in 2020, though a thin defense resulted in a mere 4-5 record. The Deacons ranked 91st in points allowed per game last season, and that's exactly where they sit this year, but they have surged to 10-2 thanks to their offense taking yet another step forward. Hartman has shown excellent poise in his fourth season, passing for 34 touchdowns and rushing for 10 more, and the run game has grown deeper despite the loss of Walker, with four players gaining over 300 yards on the ground. The deep passing attack has been among football's best: on passes over 20 yards to star receivers A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson, Hartman is 25-for-45 for 995 yds, 12 touchdowns, and only one pick. With threats like that, the Deacons are able to get more production out of their run game as well, making the most of their 2.90 line yards per carry (25th).

With such potent offenses, any missed scoring opportunities could be critical. With the Panthers possessing a much stronger defense—16th in EPA and 41st in success rate to Wake Forest's ranks of 104th and 109th in those stats—they're expected to have the advantage, though not by much. But in a game that will rest on the shoulders of two surprise star quarterbacks, pass coverage is the essential key, and the secondary is a weakness for the Panthers. The three most frequent coverage defenders for Pitt (Erick Hallett II, Brandon Hill, and Damarri Mathis) have, between them, allowed a 62.9% completion rate, 8.5 yards per attempt, and 13 touchdowns to only four interceptions. Compare Wake Forest's top trio of Ja'Sir Taylor, Traveon Redd, and Nick Andersen: they have allowed a 64.6% completion rate, 8.8 yards per attempt, and seven touchdowns while picking off six passes. These defenses are a much more even match through the air, and in an offensive shootout that demands big plays, both teams are going to test their opponents' secondaries often. The stakes may not be quite as high for the playoff chase, but for two teams which haven't won outright championships in the last 15 years, this unpredictable showdown will be a game to remember.

Watch for:

  • Can the talented Deacons' run game generate explosive plays against a Pitt defense that defends rushes in the open field well?
  • How much will Pitt need to adjust defensively to handle the dual threat of Perry and Roberson (combined: 2,136 yards, 21 TD) on long passes downfield?
  • Will the Panthers emphasize the run game more against a Wake Forest defense that has faced a high rate of rushes (56.2%, 12th) and struggled against them (120th in EPA allowed per rush)?

FEI Outright Pick: Wake Forest by 2.7

FEI Picks: Championship Week

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI
Utah -2.5 Oregon Utah Utah Utah
Oklahoma State -5.5 Baylor Oklahoma State Baylor Oklahoma State
Georgia -6.5 Alabama Georgia Georgia Georgia
at Cincinnati -10.5 Houston Cincinnati Cincinnati Houston
Michigan -11 Iowa Michigan Iowa Michigan
Pittsburgh -3 Wake Forest Wake Forest Wake Forest Wake Forest

FEI's picks ATS in Week 13: 3-3

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 38-40

Preston's picks ATS in Week 13: 1-5

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 36-42


1 comment, Last at 03 Dec 2021, 3:51pm

#1 by cstoos // Dec 03, 2021 - 3:51pm

....see above.

Points: 0

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