TCU, USC Put Playoff Bids on the Line in Championship Week

USC Trojans S Calen Bullock
USC Trojans S Calen Bullock
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Conference Championship - There are those who would argue that, for teams already in the College Football Playoff committee's top four, conference championship games should only matter as a chance to jostle for seeding in the CFP. As things stand, No. 3 TCU and No. 4 USC are largely undisputed as better candidates for the final bracket than No. 5 Ohio State, but each has to risk a loss this week because of their superior regular seasons. The Trojans are almost certainly out if they lose, and precedents such as 2015 Iowa and 2017 Wisconsin would suggest the Horned Frogs need a win as well. There's a case to be made that TCU and USC not being locked in, regardless of their results this week, is an unfair punishment for doing better than the Buckeyes up to this point.

On the upside, Ohio State's ability to pass a falling Big 12 or Pac-12 runner-up does lend more excitement to a championship week that would otherwise be a formality. It's practically impossible to draw up a scenario where No. 1 Georgia or No. 2 Michigan doesn't make the field, and both are heavy favorites in their conference title games anyway. As for TCU and USC, both are facing rematches that gain a lot more intrigue with the 11-1 Buckeyes in play: the Horned Frogs face Kansas State, whom they trailed 28-10 before coming back to win 38-28, while the Trojans take on Utah, which outlasted them in a 43-42 thriller. With such a limited group of contenders, neither game is an absolute must-win, but each is a chance to settle any debate and secure a guaranteed CFP spot.

Beyond playoff seeding, there's plenty to play for in this week's slate. Clemson is up against North Carolina for the ACC title, an honor the Tar Heels haven't held since 1980, and UCF heads to Tulane in an AAC Championship Game that will all but decide the Group of 5's top bowl bid. Elsewhere, Jon Sumrall has Troy in position for a Sun Belt title in his debut year, while Tim Albin has Ohio with a chance at the MAC title in his second season. Even the awkward games scheduled to fill out the calendar—Akron at Buffalo and Valparaiso at New Mexico State—are worth following as last-ditch bowl chances for the home teams. And, of course, this all goes without mentioning the FCS playoffs, where eight teams have now played their way into the quarterfinals. Bowl season still lies ahead, but the last full Saturday slate of the season promises to be fascinating.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah Utes vs. USC Trojans (-2.5) in Las Vegas, Nevada—8 p.m. Friday (FOX)

Overall Utah USC
2022 F+ 10 11
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 20 77
2022 EPA/pass 40 83
2022 EPA/rush 14 124
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 21 2
2022 EPA/pass 22 4
2022 EPA/rush 42 1

475 total yards and five total touchdowns from quarterback Cameron Rising, 234 yards from sensational tight end Dalton Kincaid, and a last-ditch stand from a secondary that did just enough to keep Caleb Williams from utterly torching them. That was the formula, unlikely as it was, that Utah used to deal USC its only loss all season back in mid-October. It was one of the best games of the season, and it required the Utes to play they best they might have ever played under Kyle Whittingham, at least on offense. Utah put in one of the best performances we have seen all year—and won by one point at home.

That's a tribute to just how difficult it has been to fully bury USC, which has defined "finding a way to win" in a way that makes TCU's results look comfortable by comparison. The Trojans enjoyed a ridiculous 86.5 points of turnover luck in their first four games, a span in which they won by a total of 96 points. That included over 20 points of luck against Oregon State, whom they narrowly escaped by three points as Chance Nolan tossed four interceptions. The defense regressed to the mean after that hot start—it secured 15 turnovers in the first four games but has only 13 since—but USC managed to keep pulling out wins.

The hangover from that Utah loss followed the Trojans into Tucson, where they led Arizona by just two points heading into the fourth quarter and survived to win 45-37. Then they led California 34-14 in the fourth quarter before giving up three touchdowns and escaping 41-35. Most recently, they overcame a quick 14-0 deficit against crosstown rival UCLA to win a 48-45 shootout. In almost every alternate universe, these constant close calls caught up with USC against somebody, as they did for UCLA (which lost to Arizona) and Washington (which lost to Arizona State). But as the rest of the Pac-12 tore apart its playoff chances, the Trojans managed to keep themselves just barely above the chaos.

Now all they have to do is get revenge on the one team that did catch them for a week. The Trojans have been making strides against the run, giving up only 123 rushing yards per game on 4.0 yards per carry over the last four games, and they held Utah to a season-low 138 yards in that loss. But a big game from the secondary, which allowed the most passing yards on USC in seven years in the first matchup, will be vital. Drew Pyne passed for 318 yards on 26 passes against the Trojans last week, adding three touchdowns and an interception. Notre Dame didn't threaten thanks to what was otherwise a complete performance from USC—10.5 yards per pass and a 204-to-90 advantage in rushing yards—but it's evident this pass defense is still a problem. Corner Mekhi Blackmon (team-high 59 targets, 4.8 yards allowed per target) has been a force, but USC needs more from players such as Max Williams, Ceyair Wright, and Shane Lee (70.6% completion rate allowed, 8.7 yards allowed per target).

Beyond Calen Bullock—the team leader with five interceptions—the Trojans lack for effective coverage over the middle of the field, where Kincaid put together his incredible performance when these teams last played. 46 of the tight end's 66 receptions have come in the slot, including 10 on 10 targets in the USC game. The Trojans' secondary was unable to force a single incompletion on his 16 total targets, and 109 of his 234 yards came after the catch (an average of 6.8 per reception). That showing will be difficult to match, but Kincaid will be a key piece of Utah's attack. In just 11 games this season, he's first among all tight ends in yards, second in touchdowns, and second in receptions—and he enters this game following a snub from the Mackey Award's list of finalists. If he's available (and the Utes have indicated he likely will be), finding a way to limit him will be crucial for the Trojans in the biggest must-win game of a season that has been full of them.

Watch for:

  • Will USC (127th in rushing success rate allowed, 116th in rushing explosiveness allowed) be able to contain Utah's run game again?
  • Can Heisman Trophy candidate Caleb Williams repeat his performance (381 yards, five touchdowns on 42 passes) against an improving Utah secondary?
  • Can the Utes' run defense carry its recent form (68 yards per game, 2.8 yards per carry across the last five games) into a tough matchup with USC's Travis Dye and Austin Jones?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 1.3.

Big 12 Championship Game: Kansas State Wildcats vs. TCU Horned Frogs (-2.5) in Arlington, Texas—12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Kansas State TCU
2022 F+ 9 7
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 21 29
2022 EPA/pass 23 64
2022 EPA/rush 73 39
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 13 7
2022 EPA/pass 33 15
2022 EPA/rush 75 30

When things go wrong for TCU, it often looks like the first 25 minutes or so of their first game against Kansas State. After a three-and-out to start the game, the Wildcats pulled quarterback Adrian Martinez for then-backup Will Howard and promptly scored touchdowns on their next four possessions, three in under two minutes of game time apiece. Meanwhile, the Horned Frogs' offense sputtered, unable to find the explosive plays that had defined it all season long and turning the ball over on downs following Kansas State's fourth score. Approaching halftime, TCU found itself in a 28-10 hole with no obvious reason to expect a comeback.

But for a team that loves to live dangerously—pinning its hopes on the inherently small sample size of explosive offense—the Horned Frogs have been remarkably consistent in finding a way to turn things around. After that potentially back-breaking sequence, they punched back heading into halftime, forcing another Wildcats three-and-out before embarking on a 91-yard drive to cut the lead to 28-17 entering halftime. A 77-yard drive lasting nearly seven minutes followed out of the break, and TCU flashed the big-play potential with a quick 55-yard touchdown pass to take the lead not long after. While the offense hit its stride, the defense made an unexpected stand (aided by Howard missing a drive and third-stringer Jake Rubley immediately throwing an interception). Kansas State was shut out after taking that first-half 28-10 lead, and TCU pulled away for a 38-28 victory, the finest of the Horned Frogs' stunning 12-0 season.

How much is on the line in this rematch is a matter of debate; TCU has a better chance than USC of staying ahead of Ohio State with a loss, and they're clearly in if the Trojans fall on Friday. But, obviously, the Horned Frogs would prefer to do what they have done all year and make the debates over their one-loss status irrelevant by continuing to win. Most things point in TCU's favor—the neutral site in Arlington makes this more or less a home game, and they're one of the few teams which has already gotten a good look at Howard, who's now starting for Kansas State. But both oddsmakers and metrics suggest this should be a close game, if not an outright Wildcats win, and the Horned Frogs will need to pull out all the stops to stay undefeated.

TCU's offense found consistency against Kansas State last time out by using its run game, led by breakout junior Kendre Miller, to great effect. That win marked a slight but significant move towards the rushing attack for the Frogs: they passed an average of 32.3 times per game in the first half of the season but only 28.7 in the second, and they rushed an average of 36.2 times per game in the first half and 40.5 in the second. That stylistic shift has played into the strengths of this offense, allowing the run game to serve as more of a foundation and letting quarterback Max Duggan focus on more efficient passes to targets outside the numbers. In addition to highlighting the offense's best way of creating big plays, TCU has also improved in finding success even without big plays; they had only one for more than 25 yards against Iowa State last week, but still scored their most points since 2017 in a 62-14 win.

Kansas State needs to hold back the Horned Frogs up front in order to slow down their offense—a tall order considering their last four opponents have each averaged over 4.0 yards per carry and combined for 163 rushing yards per game. The Wildcats have been better at limiting big plays than short gains and better against the pass than the run, which makes the short rushing attack a natural way to attack their defense. As long as TCU can continue to lean on Kendre Miller, who will become their first player with 200 carries since 2016 this weekend, they should have the edge to repeat their winning performance against Kansas State.

Watch for:

  • Can the Wildcats (fifth in EPA on passing downs) take advantage of TCU's reliance on explosive plays to force a high third-down failure rate?
  • How well can star edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah (the Big 12 leader with 7.5 sacks) get pressure against the fairly mobile Duggan (294 rushing yards)?
  • Which of two elite special teams units—both top-15 in starting field position on offense and defense—will have the upper hand?

FEI Outright Pick: Kansas State by 0.1.

SEC Championship Game: LSU Tigers vs. Georgia Bulldogs (-17.5) in Atlanta, Georgia—4 p.m. (CBS)

Overall LSU Georgia
2022 F+ 13 1
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 23 1
2022 EPA/pass 37 8
2022 EPA/rush 7 1
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 18 9
2022 EPA/pass 40 10
2022 EPA/rush 65 53

There have been many pretenders to Georgia's throne this season. First there was Alabama, whose excellence has been a staple of so long that it was assumed their close calls in 2021 wouldn't continue into this season—but the Crimson Tide fell from the No. 1 conversation after losing at Tennessee. The Volunteers then moved into that discussion, earning the top spot in the CFP committee's first rankings—but Georgia throttled them 27-13 at home to emphatically reclaim the lead. Ohio State lurked in the hunt for No. 1 all season—but they were run out of Columbus by Michigan just last week. Now those Wolverines are the preeminent challenger to Georgia's status, hoping to beat the long odds set by those who tried and failed to surpass the Bulldogs.

Through all the chaos of a season that has seen plenty of it—with no playoff bids for Alabama and Clemson and possibly Ohio State, while TCU and USC have made runs to the top four—Georgia has been the one true constant at the top. The Bulldogs haven't been totally unchallenged, with Missouri, Florida, and Kentucky testing them at various points, but they have been the most complete team this season and have put in a laudable title defense thus far. A spot in the playoff is all but assured at this point, but that No. 1 seed is still within Georgia's grasp as long as they can deal with another ranked opponent.

LSU's season has been much more turbulent; they reached the rankings for the first time in Week 6 and were promptly crushed 40-13 at home, then surged from unranked to seventh in just two games by stunning Ole Miss and Alabama. The Tigers climbed to fifth in the CFP rankings and looked likely to make the playoff if they could finish 10-2 and upset Georgia ... until they suffered a bewildering 38-23 loss to Texas A&M just last week. It's hard to know what to make of a team that pulled off back-to-back top-10 wins and has two of three losses to fellow top-15 teams, but also struggled to put away 6-6 Arkansas and lost to an Aggies team that didn't even make a bowl. Home-field advantage explains some of the Tigers' inconsistency—both ranked wins came at home, and most of their losses and ugly wins were on the road—but it's hard to make sense of just how unpredictable they have been.

Perhaps the most obvious cause of LSU's unreliable play has been their run defense. At times, this unit has been fantastic: it held Auburn to 101 rushing yards and Ole Miss to 117, playing a key role in both wins. At other times, however, it has looked genuinely incapable of making a stop on the ground: Devon Achane led a 274-yard performance by Texas A&M against the Tigers, and Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker singlehandedly outrushed the entire LSU rushing corps. If the latter version of the Tigers' run defense shows up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, it's hard to see them having a chance against the high-flying Bulldogs.

But at their best, LSU has been able to play well enough that they might have a chance at the upset in this game. Georgia needs the depth of their rushing attack to come up big in Atlanta, just as it has all season. Kenny McIntosh (654 yards, 5.4 yards per carry) and Daijun Edwards (606 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) have been a lights-out duo at running back, with Kendall Milton (418 yards, 6.4 yards per carry) and Branson Robinson (268 yards, 4.8 yards per carry) chipping in significantly as well. Georgia's rushing lags a step behind their passing in efficiency, but it's still solid and, crucially, has been unquestionably reliable all season. The Bulldogs haven't rushed for 125 or fewer yards in a single game this year, and they have only averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry once. Georgia's 35 rushing touchdowns are tied for third nationally thanks to four different players with at least six touchdowns on the ground, the only FBS team to spread its scoring so evenly. As long as they can keep rolling against LSU, the Bulldogs' first conference title since 2017 should be within reach.

Watch for:

  • Can Georgia's run defense (top-three in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness) make a stand against a talented, deep LSU rushing corps?
  • Will the Bulldogs create pressure and sacks against the Tigers' offensive line (126th in sack rate allowed, 66th in front-seven havoc allowed)?
  • Can LSU (88th in success rate allowed on passing downs) find ways to get Georgia's offense (second in success rate on passing downs) off the field?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 17.6.

AAC Championship Game: UCF Knights at Tulane Green Wave (-3.5)—4 p.m. (ABC)

Overall UCF Tulane
2022 F+ 33 24
When UCF has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 33 28
2022 EPA/pass 68 54
2022 EPA/rush 10 83
When Tulane has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 40 41
2022 EPA/pass 77 64
2022 EPA/rush 52 18

It's debatable whether this game should be an effective play-in for the Group of 5's spot in the Cotton Bowl, but it seems likely to be just that. Tulane, of course, would be an easy pick at 11-2: they would be tied for the best record of any non-power team and would have avenged one of their losses in this game. UCF, however, would be 10-3 and arguably behind two potential 11-2 champions—UTSA and Troy, each of which faced a strong P5 opponent in non-conference play and has won nine games in a row. With losses to East Carolina and Navy, it's difficult to agree with the committee's evaluation that these Knights are better than the top options outside the AAC. Nevertheless, Tulane and UCF are the only ranked Group of 5 teams, making the winner of this game a prohibitive favorite to reach the New Year's Six.

The Knights have struggled with consistency, but the way they beat the Green Wave a few weeks ago shows how good they can be. UCF built a quick 24-7 lead in that game and held on to win 38-31, in part due to the way their defense limited Tulane's offensive options. Michael Pratt (236 yards on 39 passes with three touchdowns) was solid but unexceptional in the loss, and while Tyjae Spears dominated the Knights' run defense with 130 yards on eight carries, UCF's other rushers were held 25 yards on 19 carries. The Knights' explosiveness was almost completely eliminated outside of a 67-yard John Rhys Plumlee, but they were still able to win in methodical fashion. Against a Tulane defense that excels at limiting big plays but struggles underneath, that's the natural blueprint for success.

The Green Wave will look to counter UCF's steady attack with the explosive arm of Pratt, who's looking to get back on form after a rough close to the season. Tulane's quarterback averaged 9.5 yards per attempt on 27.5 passes per game through mid-October, but in his last five games he's averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt despite a dip to 24.6 passes per game. Accuracy on his deep ball (7-for-8 in the first half, 8-for-24 in the second) has plunged, and while he's avoiding turnovers well, he hasn't brought the consistency that the Green Wave's offense needs.

Amid Pratt's struggles, Tulane has leaned heavily on Spears at running back. With 312 yards and just one 100-yard game at the midpoint of the season, AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors didn't seem remotely likely for Spears, but he went on a tear to earn that award down the stretch. Averaging 18.7 carries per game, including a career-high 35 in the season finale against Cincinnati, he rushed for over 120 yards in each of the Green Wave's last six games and totaled 865 yards in just half a season. With 12 carries of at least 20 yards, he's tied for 13th nationally alongside the likes of Zach Charbonnet and Bijan Robinson. The lack of rushing depth behind Spears is a concern—only three other players have surpassed 10 carries or 50 yards—but he has been good enough to carry Tulane's offense throughout the last month-and-a-half.

UCF, like most teams the Green Wave have faced recently, contained Pratt fairly well, but at the cost of a sensational performance by Spears. The Knights managed to limit Tulane's offense fairly well despite that, but they also needed a similarly brilliant performance from their own rushing corps, which displayed much more variety than the Green Wave's. Plumlee, RJ Harvey, and Isaiah Bowser each totaled at least 12 carries, and they combined for 313 of UCF's 336 rushing yards while scoring four touchdowns. Tulane has been mostly adequate in run defense (50th in success rate, fourth in explosiveness), but both UCF and Cincinnati ran for well over 200 yards on them in November. To cap this remarkable season with their first bid to a New Year's Six game in 83 years, they'll have to find a way to keep the Knights' multifaceted rushing attack in check while unleashing their own superstar on the ground.

Watch for:

  • How well will Tulane (top-10 in passing and rushing explosiveness allowed) shut down UCF's potential for big plays?
  • Can the Knights' freshman punter, Mitch McCarthy (42.4 yards per punt), hand Tulane's offense poor starting field position?
  • How much pressure can UCF pass-rusher Tre'Mon Morris-Brash, the team leader with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks, produce against a sturdy Tulane line?

FEI Outright Pick: Tulane by 1.5.

ACC Championship Game: Clemson Tigers (-7.5) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels in Charlotte, North Carolina—8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson North Carolina
2022 F+ 19 49
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 39 114
2022 EPA/pass 85 129
2022 EPA/rush 25 89
When North Carolina has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 19 13
2022 EPA/pass 9 6
2022 EPA/rush 12 37

After 18 years, including a seven-season stretch in which every team in the division made the conference championship game, the ACC Coastal plays its final game this Saturday. (So does the Atlantic, but few will mourn for a division that Clemson dominated for most of the last decade.) College football is moving away from divisions, and the Pac-12 and ACC will likely be joined soon enough by the Big Ten and SEC in preferring pods or protected rivalries instead. That move should be a good one for the ACC, which has often had entirely uninteresting matchups in the conference title game thanks to the divisional imbalance, but it's still sad to see this chaotic collection of teams disbanded.

For its swan song, though, the Coastal does have a decent shot at pulling off just its second ACC title since 2011. Clemson has been vulnerable in the last two seasons, missing the championship game entirely in 2021 and coasting in after a strong start and a rocky finish this year. While the Tigers were untouched in conference play, they lost two of their last four games to 8-4 Notre Dame and 8-4 South Carolina, and they needed a spirited comeback to survive a Syracuse team that ended up 7-5. North Carolina doesn't exactly look like a world-beating team itself—the Tar Heels dropped their last two games of the season to 5-7 Georgia Tech and 8-4 NC State—but stranger things have happened, including to Clemson last week.

It should go without saying that Clemson has to find a way to limit Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye. A dazzling start (9.5 yards per attempt, 34 touchdowns, three interceptions through 10 games) gave way to a disappointing finish for the redshirt freshman, who averaged 5.5 yards per attempt with a touchdown and two interceptions in North Carolina's last two games. While Maye has been solid under pressure this season, he struggled to improvise in that stretch, going 4-for-19 for 40 yards and an interception on pressured dropbacks. Between K.J. Henry, Myles Murphy, and Tyler Davis (107 pressures, 14 sacks combined), the Tigers certainly have the pass-rushers to threaten Maye in the pocket.

Locking down North Carolina's receivers is another question, however. The primary threat is obviously Josh Downs, who joined Maye on the all-ACC first team following a 929-yard, 11-touchdown season. He has led the conference in receptions in back-to-back years now, and his 83 catches dwarf those of secondary targets Antoine Green (38 catches) and Bryson Nesbit (30 catches). While Clemson has plenty of depth in coverage, nobody stands out as an obvious top defensive back to match up with Downs. Nate Wiggins is perhaps the best player in the secondary, with a 53.1% completion rate allowed on a team-high 49 targets, but matching up a corner against a slot receiver might not be feasible. Up the middle, Barrett Carter has handled a high volume of short passes but is running a troublesome 21.2% missed-tackle rate. Trenton Simpson could be another solid matchup, but his 7.9 yards after catch allowed per reception are likewise a problem.

As has been the case for the last few games of this season, it's vital for Clemson to contain their opponent's passing game because of their own struggles to keep up through the air. After an encouraging start (7.8 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns, two interceptions before the Syracuse game), DJ Uiagalelei has regressed to his 2021 form, with 5.6 yards per attempt, five touchdowns, and five interceptions in his last five outings. After being outpassed 360 yards to 99 in the loss to South Carolina, his duel with Maye this week might be as much for the starting job as for the conference championship. The Tigers' defense has been mostly up to the task this season, but to keep pace with the Tar Heels through the air, they're going to need Uiagalelei to step up sooner or later.

Watch for:

  • How well can North Carolina's run defense (113th in success rate, but 38th in explosiveness) keep Will Shipley and Phil Mafah in check?
  • Will Maye rebound and keep the Tar Heels' offense rolling on passing downs, where they're seventh in EPA and success rate?
  • Can a North Carolina rushing corps with no clear leader create big plays to support Maye against Clemson's run defense (83rd in explosiveness allowed)?

FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 8.7.

Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan Wolverines (-16.5) vs. Purdue Boilermakers in Indianapolis, Indiana—8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Michigan Purdue
2022 F+ 2 44
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 11 39
2022 EPA/pass 25 53
2022 EPA/rush 11 34
When Purdue has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 4 43
2022 EPA/pass 6 79
2022 EPA/rush 3 75

As with Georgia, it's hard to see Michigan finding a way to miss the playoff—even with a loss, the Wolverines would obviously have a better case than Ohio State (whom they beat head-to-head) and any two-loss candidates. That doesn't mean this game is without stakes, though, and it's a prime opportunity for one of Purdue's trademark inexplicable upsets. Jeff Brohm's Boilermakers are 3-1 against top-five opponents despite being ranked for all of one week (at No. 25) in his tenure. Adding to the intrigue, the site of the game in Indianapolis is just an hour from West Lafayette; while Michigan fans will undoubtedly have a presence, it could feel like a visit to Ross-Ade Stadium, which rarely goes well for elite teams trying to avoid drama.

There's plenty to be said about why the Boilermakers could win here, even if a lot of it comes down to simply not betting against history. But how the Boilermakers could win is a fascinating question, because they do have one strength that presents an obvious path: late-down situations. Purdue's defense has been unremarkable on standard downs this year, ranking 68th in EPA and 51st in success rate, but it has a knack for taking advantage when they have the opportunity to shut down a drive. Their opponents' success rates drop by a whopping 52% from standard downs to passing downs, the sixth-biggest plunge for any FBS defense.

Michigan's offense is, in that aspect, almost exactly the opposite of Purdue's defense. The Wolverines typically move the ball with purpose, ranking seventh in EPA and success rate on standard downs (resulting, naturally, in the seventh-highest rate of standard downs for any offense). Michigan only runs into trouble once in every four plays or so, but they struggle to get out of it—they fall to 85th in EPA and 57th in success rate on passing downs. So while the Wolverines don't rely on big plays (they're ninth in success rate and 28th in explosiveness), their attack still has a tendency to be rather boom-or-bust: it hums along well as long as it's on schedule, but struggles to catch up when it falls behind.

Of course, offense isn't the main reason Michigan has made it this far. Their defense is just as good at getting off the field as Purdue's—it's one of the few units which forces a bigger drop-off in success rate on passing downs—and against a Boilermakers offense without a wide variety of options, it should find plenty of success. The Wolverines could sputter out on nearly every offensive possession and still throttle Purdue in a win by a score in the low double digits, but putting that much pressure on the defense coming off a masterful performance against Ohio State could expose signs of a hangover from The Game.

Michigan's offensive blueprint is a good deal more complicated because Blake Corum, third in the nation with 19 touchdowns from scrimmage, is now out for the remainder of the season. The Wolverines didn't miss a beat employing Donovan Edwards as their top rusher last week—he put up 216 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns—but the increased dearth of rushing depth and that high workload means they'll probably want J.J. McCarthy handling the ball as much as possible. Though it was hoped he would lend increased explosiveness to Michigan's passing attack, McCarthy has instead filled an unexciting but rock-solid role in the offense. Only five other qualified quarterbacks have as few as his two interceptions, but 56 have more than his 17 touchdowns. While his specialty as a game manager might raise more questions when the playoff arrives, it's a valuable trait in this game, where the Wolverines direly need him to pick up short and steady yardage often. It may not be pretty, but McCarthy's reliability should be enough for Michigan to defend their Big Ten title and lock up a top-two spot in the CFP.

Watch for:

  • How well will Purdue, the national leader with a 7.6% explosive rush rate allowed, prevent Edwards and Michigan's other rushers from breaking off big plays?
  • Can the Wolverines (+7.7 yards of field position per two possessions) take advantage of Purdue's average special teams (+0.0 yards of field position)?
  • Beyond Mike Morris (11 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), who can produce pressure for Michigan against a capable Purdue offensive line (ninth in front-seven havoc allowed)?

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 23.3.

FEI Picks: Championship Week

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
USC -2.5 Utah Utah Utah USC
TCU -2.5 Kansas State Kansas State Kansas State TCU
Georgia -17.5 LSU Georgia Georgia Georgia
at Tulane -3.5 UCF Tulane UCF UCF
Clemson -7.5 North Carolina Clemson Clemson North Carolina
Michigan -16.5 Purdue Michigan Michigan Purdue

FEI's picks ATS last week: 4-2.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 31-44-1.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 1-5.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 37-40-1.


4 comments, Last at 03 Dec 2022, 11:53am

#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Dec 03, 2022 - 9:30am

And so much for the spoiled children.

Points: 0

#2 by lenny65 // Dec 02, 2022 - 10:56pm

Utah is putting USC to the test here tonight.

Points: 0

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Dec 02, 2022 - 2:51pm

precedents such as 2015 Iowa

That's not quite the same. The 2015 Big Ten Championship was functionally a play-in game between #4 Iowa and #5 Michigan State. They got replaced as the #4 by a team with the same record who they had just lost to.

\That MSU team beat Michigan, OSU, and Iowa, all in basically play-in games, on their last touch of the game

Points: 0

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