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31 Dec 2014

2014-2015 SDA Bowl Spectacular Part III

by Chad Peltier

Finally, we have arrived at the best time of the year for college football, filled with games between two top-25 teams, plus the inaugural College Football Playoff semifinals (as Dr. Pepper advertisements keep reminding us over and over and over).

Besides the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl and all of the Heisman-winning quarterbacks and future Hall of Fame coaches that go along with those two contests, the games over the next two days feature a number of incredible matchups, like Ole Miss versus TCU to start us off, the running games of Wisconsin and Auburn first thing New Year's Day, and the Baylor offense taking on the Michigan State defense as well.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: TCU (-3.5) vs. Ole Miss – 12:30 p.m. Wednesday December 31 (ESPN)

The Peach Bowl is billed as the matchup between the country's top scoring defense in Ole Miss versus the country's second-ranked scoring offense in TCU, but the advanced stats see it a little differently. TCU is a top-20 offense – and the Ole Miss offense is 21st itself – in Offensive F/+, but it's TCU's defense that is the better unit. While the Landsharks will have to face Trevone Boykin, the Rebels' passing offense (9th) is actually more efficient than the Horned Frogs' (36th), despite the reverse in terms of overall passing yards per game (332.8 for TCU and 275.6 for Ole Miss). So the storyline is a little more complicated than simply "great offense versus great defense" – the Peach Bowl instead features two elite defenses and two closely-ranked offenses with contrasting strengths.

Overall Ole Miss TCU
Record 9-3 11-1
Overall F/+ 4 5
Field Position Advantage 18 4
Offensive F/+ 21 20
Defensive F/+ 3 6
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 12 13
FEI 34 6
Rushing S&P+ 37 6
Passing S&P+ 9 34
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 5 16
FEI 3 23
Rushing S&P+ 4 13
Passing S&P+ 3 36

Trevone Boykin finished fourth in the Heisman voting this season thanks to his prolific production, including 3,714 passing yards and 642 rushing yards (which was actually second on the team in total rushing yards and first in carries). On top of that sheer production, Boykin was an efficient runner, with a slightly over 50% success rate on his carries (18th among quarterbacks). However, the Horned Frogs faced the 52nd-ranked Offensive Strength of Schedule, rarely created Methodical Drives (117th), and were less efficient passing (36th) than their bulk offensive production would otherwise indicate. That is not to take away from Boykin or the value of their offensive production per se, but it is worth taking a closer look at exactly how well they stack up against third-ranked Passing S&P+ Ole Miss defense.

The Horned Frogs were 104th in Standard Downs Run Percentage (53%) and 103rd in Passing Downs Run Percentage (25.7%), suggesting that at least some of their sheer production is due to how frequently Boykin passed the ball. Following, the Horned Frogs offense was more explosive (14th in IsoPPP) than efficient (28th in Success Rate) and was only average on third downs (41.9%), which partly explains the low Methodical Drive ranking as well. This actually matches up extremely well for the Ole Miss defense, which tops the country in Defensive IsoPPP (but is only 42nd in Defensive Success Rate) and is eleventh in opponent third down conversion rate (31.2%). Ole Miss has a stellar secondary that is fourth in DB Havoc Rate and sixth in interceptions gained. While the Horned Frogs pass far more than they run, running back Aaron Green averages 7.7 yards per carry and TCU is 13th in Rushing S&P+. The battle between the tenth-ranked Ole Miss defensive line in Adjusted Line Yards and the 34th-ranked TCU offensive line might be as important as Boykin's individual play.

Of course, the TCU defense is, or should be, just as feared as the offense. The Horned Frogs are particularly proficient at creating turnovers (2nd in turnovers gained) and red zone defense (seventh in opponent red zone touchdown percentage), succeeding not only in per-play efficiency, but in stopping drives short as well. However, Ole Miss should look for two weaknesses in the sixth-ranked TCU defense: the pass defense (34th in Passing S&P+) and explosive plays (72nd in Defensive IsoPPP). Ole Miss is decently explosive on offense (28th) and a top ten passing offense (9th), so again, the Rebels match up well against the Horned Frogs.

F/+ Outright Pick: TCU

Vizio Fiesta Bowl: Arizona (-3) vs. Boise State -- 4 p.m. Wednesday December 31 (ESPN)

Overall Boise State Arizona
Record 11-2 10-3
Overall F/+ 25 33
Field Position Advantage 31 22
Offensive F/+ 31 33
Defensive F/+ 26 37
When Boise State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 14 43
FEI 44 33
Rushing S&P+ 16 31
Passing S&P+ 12 37
When Arizona has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 19 44
FEI 29 20
Rushing S&P+ 28 67
Passing S&P+ 40 71

The Fiesta Bowl features individual stars -- like Arizona's Scooby Wright and Anu Solomon, as well as Boise State's Jay Ajayi -- and two teams that threaten to enter the F/+ top-20 and carry momentum into 2015. The Wildcats hope to regain momentum after suffering a beatdown from Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, with freshman stars Solomon and running back Nick Wilson returning. Boise State has to say goodbye to star running back Ajayi, who recently declared for the NFL Draft, and senior quarterback Grant Hedrick.

The Broncos and Wildcats are evenly matched in most statistical areas, with neither team having an overall Offensive or Defensive F/+ advantage. Because of the overall deadlock, one of the biggest keys will be whether the Arizona offense can continue its drive efficiency relative to its play efficiency. Arizona has managed a better per-drive efficiency ranking based almost entirely on its +8 turnover margin and First Down rate (12th, at nearly 76 percent of drives). Arizona's other drive-based statistics -- like third down conversion rate (39 percent, 82nd) or red zone touchdown percentage (56 percent, 84th) -- are below average. It is essential for Arizona to have a positive turnover margin and drive efficiency in the Fiesta Bowl, because the Boise State defense is much higher rated on a rushing and passing per-play basis. Coach Rich Rodriguez shouldn't necessarily be concerned with the low per-play efficiency anyway: Boise State's defense is 123rd -- or fifth to last in the country -- in Defensive IsoPPP, meaning the defense is extremely susceptible to explosive plays (despite ranking fifth overall in Success Rate!). The Wildcats don't need to be concerned with a low per-play success rate as long as they exploit the Broncos' weakness in explosive play defense.

Boise State's offense is the opposite of Arizona's in that it is much more efficient on a per-play than per-drive basis. Ranking in the top 16 in both Rushing and Passing S&P+, but 44th in FEI, the Broncos have a low Methodical Drive ranking, but are otherwise solid in turnover margin (+7), third down conversion rate (45 percent, 32nd), and red zone touchdown efficiency (70.6 percent, 15th). The Boise State offense is otherwise very efficient (20th in Success Rate) and explosive (13th in IsoPPP) per play. Boise is slightly tilted towards the run with Ajayi, running on 61.6 percent of standard downs (45th), but has decent balance between the run and the pass. Boise State's consistent ground game, interspersed with Hedrick's efficient passing, is likely the biggest worry for Arizona.

F/+ Outright Pick: Boise State

Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State (-6.5) vs. Georgia Tech -- 8 p.m. Wednesday December 31 (ESPN)

Overall Mississippi State Georgia Tech
Record 10-2 10-3
Overall F/+ 6 10
Field Position Advantage 24 15
Offensive F/+ 14 1
Defensive F/+ 9 58
When Mississippi State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 4 58
FEI 21 57
Rushing S&P+ 5 96
Passing S&P+ 8 81
When Georgia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 9 5
FEI 10 1
Rushing S&P+ 21 4
Passing S&P+ 16 6

Both the Yellow Jackets and Mississippi State Bulldogs outperformed expectations this season, snagging ten wins apiece, but now the two programs have to deal with one another's impressive rushing attacks. Georgia Tech ascended to the top overall Offensive F/+ spot -- and top Offensive FEI spot too -- after their narrow loss in the ACC Championship Game, while the Bulldogs allowed 205 rushing yards in their Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss. That will be the big question for the Orange Bowl this season: while the Bulldogs will likely be able to score efficiently on the 58th-ranked F/+ defense, will the fourth-ranked rushing offense take advantage of a potential weak spot in the 21st-ranked Rushing S&P+ defense?

Mississippi State's defense has been solid all season, even if early wins over LSU, Texas A&M, and Kentucky (allowing a total of 91 yards to these three opponents) look less impressive in hindsight. Georgia Tech is the best rushing offense that the Bulldogs will have faced this season, even better than the option-inspired Auburn offense that cranked out 232 rushing yards and 5.4 yards per carry in a win over Mississippi State. Auburn is likely the best comparison to Georgia Tech in terms of rushing offense, though Mississippi State does at least have the advantage of several weeks of bowl preparations to face the scout team's triple option in practice (this may partially explain why Georgia Tech is just 1-5 in bowl games under Paul Johnson). Regardless, Georgia Tech is the most successful offense in the country and the 49th-most explosive according to IsoPPP, and it does this by running on 84 percent of standard downs and 56 percent of passing downs. The Yellow Jackets are ranked sixth in Passing S&P+, but given how little they throw the ball, the Bulldogs will likely focus much more on stopping the triple option running threat.

Mississippi State's offense is nearly as efficient running the ball, and is certainly more prolific (and almost as efficient) passing the ball with one-time Heisman contending quarterback Dak Prescott. You might think of Prescott as a rusher like his running back Josh Robinson -- like a bowling ball more suited to efficient than explosive running -- but Prescott is actually the 15th-most explosive rushing quarterback in Highlight Yards per Opportunity, and the 20th-best in Opportunity Rate (48.8 percent). The combination of Prescott and Robinson (who is 12th among running backs with a 47.3 percent Opportunity Rate) has fueled a very effective rushing offense that is nearly as efficient passing as well. Interestingly, the Bulldogs haven't run as often as other teams on standard downs (78th), but run much more frequently on passing downs (18th). Mississippi State is only +1 in overall turnover margin, however, so Tech should certainly focus on creating turnovers. For the Bulldogs, the plan is simple: be balanced and efficient against the 124th-ranked defense in Success Rate.

F/+ Outright Pick: Mississippi State

Outback Bowl: Wisconsin (+6.5) vs. Auburn -- 12 p.m. Thursday January 1 (ESPN)

Overall Wisconsin Auburn
Record 10-3 8-4
Overall F/+ 17 12
Field Position Advantage 95 29
Offensive F/+ 18 5
Defensive F/+ 18 38
When Wisconsin has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 9 29
FEI 31 41
Rushing S&P+ 10 18
Passing S&P+ 42 47
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 14 6
FEI 31 2
Rushing S&P+ 29 2
Passing S&P+ 31 2

The Outback Bowl has two of the deadliest rushing attacks in the country, from Guz Malzhan's veer-inspired system to Wisconsin's pounding attack full of large offensive linemen and Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon. If you're sick of the NFL's abandonment of the ground game, the Outback Bowl is for you.

The Badgers' statistical rankings, and likely the Badgers' confidence, took quite a hit in their 59-0 defeat to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State held Melvin Gordon to just 72 rushing yards, but the jury is still out on whether Auburn's defense will be able to do the same. After all, Malzhan was forced to dismiss his defensive coordinator at the end of the regular season after allowing 55 points to Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Wisconsin's lower Offensive FEI is due in large part to their -6 turnover margin, but the Badgers have also struggled with field position (starting drives on average at the 30-yard line) and methodical drives (103rd), and were only average in First Down Rate (63rd). Because Melvin Gordon led such an explosive offense, this suggests that the problem is structural, but also limited to certain situations -- namely, on passing downs. The Badgers were 49th in Passing Downs S&P+, and the team completed just 50 percent of passes on third down. Badgers quarterbacks also threw five interceptions on third down. Auburn's defense has been susceptible to big plays all season (ranking 97th in IsoPPP), but at 18th in Rushing S&P+ and 47th in Passing S&P+, the bigger worry for the Tigers is the secondary and opposing passing games. Auburn allowed 289 and 227 rushing yards to Georgia and Alabama, who rank seventh and eighth in Rushing S&P+ respectively, so that will likely be a big focus for Auburn's defense.

As we saw in the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin defensive backs are vulnerable to play-action explosive passes in man-to-man coverage. With Auburn's stable of receivers -- even minus Duke Williams -- look for Sammie Coates and Quan Bray to have big games. The Auburn rushing attack will always be the focus of the offense, but the most explosive plays will likely be the result of a successful rushing attack that sets up play action.

F/+ Outright Pick: Auburn

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Baylor (-2.5) vs. Michigan State -- 12:30 p.m. Thursday January 1 (ESPN)

Overall Michigan State Baylor
Record 10-2 11-1
Overall F/+ 11 9
Field Position Advantage 9 7
Offensive F/+ 15 11
Defensive F/+ 24 16
When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 8 11
FEI 22 23
Rushing S&P+ 17 19
Passing S&P+ 4 45
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 6 11
FEI 43 12
Rushing S&P+ 14 23
Passing S&P+ 8 11

Baylor narrowly missed a spot in the inaugural Playoff, but they are rewarded with one of the most interesting matchups of bowl season: a tilt with Michigan State. This isn't the same Pat Narduzzi defense that finished second in the country in Defensive S&P+ last season, but it's still a formidable group that is aggressive, disruptive, and efficient. The Baylor offense has somewhat quietly finished 11th in Offensive F/+, including 11th in Passing S&P+ under quarterback Bryce Petty. Besides the Baylor offense versus the Michigan State defense, Petty's quarterback duel with Connor Cook will be worth watching, as the latter averaged a career high 9.0 yards per pass (tied for sixth with Ohio State's J.T. Barrett) to Petty's 8.8 yards per pass.

Michigan State has some of the least quarterback-friendly play-calling in the country, running on 70 percent of standard downs (19th) and passing on 80 percent of passing downs (125th). In other words, they nearly always run on early downs, and always pass on later downs, making things fairly predictable for opposing defenses. Yet Connor Cook has thrived, leading Michigan State to the fourth-ranked Passing S&P+ offense. Part of that is because of the balance that the run game provides: Jeremy Langford averages 5.5 yards per carry, and backup Nick Hill averages 6.0 yards per carry. Langford isn't flashy, ranking 38th among running backs in Highlight Yards per Opportunity, but he is consistent and frequently-used (17th in attempts per game, averaging just under 21). Baylor's defense is typically underrated, though allowing 58 points to TCU and 46 points to Texas Tech can undermine otherwise-stellar defensive ratings. Baylor is decently disruptive, with the 17th overall Havoc Rate and recovering 13 fumbles (17th). Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman is 14th in the country with ten sacks and 12th in tackles for loss with 18.5, and is a big reason for the team's Havoc Rate and high fumble recovery (forcing three fumbles himself). Michigan State's offensive line, which is 34th in Adjusted Line Rate and eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate, should try to neutralize Oakman first, because he is clearly the focal point of the Baylor defense.

Stopping Baylor's offense is a challenge for nearly everyone, especially because it balances a high Success Rate (ninth) with explosive-play ability (24th). Michigan State is known for its aggressive, Cover-4 pattern matching defense under Narduzzi (who recently accepted the Pitt head coaching job) that stymies spread offenses because of secondary support against the run game. However, its aggression also makes it susceptible to explosive plays, where the Spartans rank 120th in IsoPPP. The Bears will likely try to take advantage of this by targeting their top three receivers, all of whom have explosive ability: Corey Coleman, KD Cannon, and Antwan Goodley (who respectively rank 26th, 44th, and 97th in RYPR, a measure of the value of the receiver to the team's passing offense). Michigan State will likely attempt to rattle Petty and the Baylor offensive line, which ranks 56th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Their success at getting to Petty, and Petty's ability to generate explosive plays, could very well determine who wins in a potential shootout.

F/+ Outright Pick: Baylor

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri (-3.5) vs. Minnesota -- 1 p.m. Thursday January 1 (ESPN)

Overall Minnesota Missouri
Record 8-4 10-3
Overall F/+ 35 31
Field Position Advantage 11 78
Offensive F/+ 44 52
Defensive F/+ 42 11
When Minnesota has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 42 25
FEI 43 19
Rushing S&P+ 41 11
Passing S&P+ 51 22
When Missouri has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 42 50
FEI 40 53
Rushing S&P+ 30 48
Passing S&P+ 43 66

The Citrus Bowl has two teams that didn't garner very much preseason love. Minnesota, the Playoff Selection Committee's yardstick for measuring Playoff contenders, is hoping that Indiana isn't the only Big Ten team that can take down the Missouri Tigers this season. Missouri, fresh off a second SEC Championship appearance in its three seasons in the SEC, has been overachieving but is still looking for a signature win on the season to hit 11 wins. By F/+ rankings, the two teams are evenly matched, with only four spots separating the two. But while Minnesota is balanced, with both Offensive and Defensive F/+ rankings in the low 40s, the Tigers' defense is much better than their mediocre and turnover-prone passing offense.

In some ways, Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk is this year's Bo Wallace, where there is a "Good Maty" and "Bad Maty." Bad Maty is the one who threw four interceptions in the shutout loss to Georgia earlier this season and didn't even crack 100 passing yards. Good Maty completed 60 percent of his passes for 331 yards against Indiana and threw for 265 yards against an Arkansas team that finished 21st in Passing S&P+ defense. Whichever Maty shows up against Minnesota will likely go a long way in deciding the overall outcome of the game. Besides turnovers, the Missouri offense has been average in the red zone (turning 63.4 percent of opportunities into touchdowns) and not very explosive (87th in IsoPPP). Minnesota's secondary is particularly aggressive, ranking 16th in DB Havoc Rate and 27th in IsoPPP.

Minnesota's offense is particularly dependent on running back David Cobb, the tenth-ranked running back in yards per game (129). However, the Gophers running game is more about volume than explosive ability or efficiency: the running game is ranked 41st in Rushing S&P+, and Cobb is 50th in Opportunity Rate and averages just 5.0 Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Even still, he has amassed 1,545 yards this season because the Gophers run on 79 percent of standard downs (seventh) and only passes on 66 percent of passing downs (12th). The offensive line also deserves a lot credit, ranking 16th in Adjusted Line Yards. However, passing downs look to be an extreme challenge for the Gophers. Minnesota's Mitch Leidner has only passed for 1,540 yards this season, but leads the 51st-ranked Passing S&P+ unit -- but it's not a passing offense that will win games on its own. In fact, as good as the offensive line is at run blocking, they are equally deficient in pass blocking, ranking 116th in Adjusted Sack Rate. That will only be compounded by Missouri ranking 19th in Front Seven Havoc Rate, led by SEC sack leader Shane Ray (with 12.5 sacks this season). It will be absolutely crucial for Minnesota to neutralize Ray and the Missouri pass rush to develop some kind of offensive balance in what will likely be a field position and turnover-dependent game.

F/+ Outright Pick: Missouri

Rose Bowl: Oregon (-8.5) vs. Florida State -- 5 p.m. Thursday January 1 (ESPN)

Overall Florida State Oregon
Record 13-0 12-1
Overall F/+ 8 3
Field Position Advantage 85 8
Offensive F/+ 6 2
Defensive F/+ 20 13
When Florida State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 10 12
FEI 7 18
Rushing S&P+ 22 42
Passing S&P+ 7 33
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 26 3
FEI 17 3
Rushing S&P+ 50 3
Passing S&P+ 58 5

Both Playoff games are truly dream matchups between elite programs, but the sheer number of storylines really sets this one apart: defending national champion Florida State is on a two-year winning streak despite comparably lower advanced statistics, while Oregon is a statistical powerhouse that took down Michigan State, Utah, UCLA, and Arizona this season. On top of the teams' overall season story arcs, it's a Rose Bowl matchup between the last two Heisman Trophy winners, polar-opposite quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

Based on the F/+ metrics, the Oregon offense should have a leg up on the Seminoles defense. The Seminoles haven't matched their elite defense from a year ago, but have nonetheless fielded a top-20 unit -- except by breaking out the Rushing and Passing S&P+ rankings (50th and 58th, respectively). Because of a sluggish first-half offense and defense that has been much less explosive (51st in Havoc Rate), Florida State has had to generate multiple second-half rallies this season. For instance, in both the Miami and Louisville games, the Seminoles defense allowed both a 100-yard rusher (Duke Johnson and Michael Dyer) and a 300-yard passer (Brad Kaaya and Will Gardner). However, the Seminoles have stepped up in the red zone, holding opponents to just a 52 percent touchdown rate (24th).

The Ducks, typically known for their spread-to-run offense, have been increasingly pass-oriented this season thanks to Mariota's accuracy and quality decision-making. Not only has Oregon tossed a nation-low two interceptions, but Mariota is also fifth in completion percentage (68.3 percent). Best of all, Mariota is best in pressure situations, completing 71.4 percent of his passes on third down. The Ducks are consistent behind freshman running back Royce Freeman, who is 23rd in Opportunity Rate, but 60th in Highlight Yards per Opportunity, meaning that he is much more of a steady and efficient runner than an explosive runner. The combination of the explosive Mariota and steady Freeman makes Oregon a deadly offense in any matchup, but Oregon's top-ranked offensive line in Adjusted Line Yards will certainly have the upper hand on a Seminoles defense that is just 56th in Success Rate.

However, the Winston-led Florida State offense has enjoyed increasing contributions from the explosive Dalvin Cook and can score on anyone, especially in the second half. Until the Boston College game, Cook was still secondary to running back Karlos Williams, but Cook received 24 and 31 touches and averaged more than 5.7 yards per carry in his last two appearances against Florida and Georgia Tech. But the offense certainly moves through Winston, who is 19th with 8.4 yards per attempt. The Seminoles have been extremely pass-heavy, passing on 48 percent of standard downs, but have been more efficient than explosive, ranking 24th in Success Rate but 46th in IsoPPP. The key is whether the 32nd-ranked Defensive Back Havoc Rate Oregon secondary can force Jameis Winston into turnovers. Despite Winston's two prolific seasons in a row, he has 17 interceptions this season, leading to the Seminoles' -3 turnover margin, 105th ranking in average opponent starting field position, and 118th ranking in opponent short-field drives.

Ultimately, the Rose Bowl will come down to Oregon's offensive consistency, Winston's turnovers, and how explosive Dalvin Cook can be. Regardless, there will be no doubt that the winner will certainly deserve their spot in the national championship.

F/+ Outright Pick: Oregon

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama (-9) vs. Ohio State -- 8:30 p.m. Thursday January 1 (ESPN)

Overall Ohio State Alabama
Record 12-1 12-1
Overall F/+ 2 1
Field Position Advantage 3 87
Offensive F/+ 4 3
Defensive F/+ 7 2
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 1 1
FEI 9 5
Rushing S&P+ 1 1
Passing S&P+ 1 26
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 4 2
FEI 12 5
Rushing S&P+ 37 8
Passing S&P+ 10 3

Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are ready to resume their coaching rivalry, now with the two top teams in the F/+ rankings. A lot has changed since their meetings in the 2008 and 2009 SEC Championship Games, however: Saban's offense is now run by Lane Kiffin and features sporadic use of the hurry-up with some spread-game principles, while Meyer's offense is entrusted to a former third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones. The two coaches lead teams with extremely similar F/+ rankings. In only three metrics does either team have a clear advantage -- Ohio State in Field Position Advantage and Passing S&P+, and Alabama in Rushing S&P+ offense.

Alabama's biggest concern might just be whether Ohio State can continue the strategy from the Big Ten Championship Game. It was quarterback Cardale Jones' first start in place of the injured J.T. Barrett, but Jones looked like a veteran hitting Devin Smith on three explosive touchdown passes over Badgers defenders in man coverage. Smith averaged a staggering 34.3 yards per reception in the 59-0 blowout, while running back Ezekiel Elliot rushed for a career high 220 yards, including an 81-yard run on Ohio State's third possession in the first quarter. Alabama returns a typically rock-solid defense that is second overall in Defensive F/+ and first in Rushing S&P+, but it still must fear Ohio State targeting individual defenders for explosive plays, just like Auburn did in the Iron Bowl. There, Auburn receiver Sammie Coates had five receptions for 206 yards and Duke Williams had seven for 121 -- Ohio State receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas will seek to match that production. The Crimson Tide defense isn't statistically overmatched in IsoPPP -- both teams are ranked 16th -- but it's nonetheless a concern, especially with Cardale Jones as a mobile quarterback.

But it is worth remembering that Jones is making his second career start for the Buckeyes, and even in his stellar Big Ten Championship Game performance, Jones often benefitted from Buckeyes receivers winning individual battles against Badgers defenders. There is no guarantee that is repeatable against an even tougher Alabama secondary.

There are four statistical categories (including the offensive line stats) where the Buckeyes offense and Crimson Tide defense both rank first or second, meaning that something will have to give. One of those main areas is in the run game, where the Buckeyes are first in Rushing S&P+ and second in Adjusted Line Yards, while the Crimson Tide front seven are first in both defensive Rushing S&P+ and Adjusted Line Yards. The success of the Ohio State explosive passing game is predicated on the run game, so Elliott and the offensive line will need to establish a level of efficient production that the Tide haven't consistently allowed all season. Elliott has been extremely efficient, ranking third among running backs with a 49.7 percent Opportunity Rate, but certainly not as explosive as he was in the Big Ten Championship Game (he ranks 72nd in Highlight Yards per Opportunity).

The Alabama offense is just as formidable as its defense this season under the direction of Lane Kiffin and veteran quarterback Blake Sims. The Crimson Tide rank in the top ten in each offensive metric, but the Tide's biggest margin might be in rushing efficiency, where they face the 37th rush defense in Rushing S&P+. Alabama running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry rank 11th and 29th in Opportunity Rate respectively, while the Crimson Tide offensive line is sixth in Adjusted Line Yards (the Ohio State defensive line is 59th). A consistent run game might be the biggest advantage for Alabama if Ohio State cannot replicate its defensive effort in the Big Ten Championship Game. That contest was an outlier for the Buckeyes defensively, as they held the efficient and explosive Melvin Gordon to 2.9 yards per carry.

Another key will be whether the Buckeyes' pass rush (ranked 12th in Adjusted Sack Rate and second in Front Seven Havoc Rate) can generate any pressure on a young but stellar offensive line that is fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate itself. If it can't, then that will likely leave plenty of opportunities for Amari Cooper, who is the nation's top receiver according to RYPR. Cooper will be targeted even if the Ohio State pass rush is effective, because Kiffin likes to feature him (often) on screens and other short passes. Cooper has been targeted on 38.7 percent of Alabama's passes, which is the third-most of any receiver in the country, and he has caught 70.5 percent of his targets.

Besides Cooper, the Alabama offensive line, and Devin Smith, another more subtle game-changer might just be field position. Because of a poor average starting field position for the Crimson Tide (85th, with an average of 71.3 yards to go per drive) and an excellent average for the Buckeyes (second overall, with an average of 64.2 yards to go), the Tide might have to drive farther than the Buckeyes on each offensive possession. Part of this can be attributed to turnovers, where Alabama is -1 in overall turnover margin and has lost 12 fumbles, but Alabama also has problems in the kickoff return game, ranking 55th in average kickoff return yards.

F/+ Outright Pick: Alabama

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Pittsburgh (-3) vs. Houston -- 12 p.m. Friday January 2 (ESPN)

Overall Houston Pittsburgh
Record 7-5 6-6
Overall F/+ 79 39
Field Position Advantage 51 41
Offensive F/+ 74 13
Defensive F/+ 69 73
When Houston has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 83 68
FEI 72 78
Rushing S&P+ 63 93
Passing S&P+ 116 76
When Pittsburgh has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 81 17
FEI 67 11
Rushing S&P+ 111 6
Passing S&P+ 93 25

The Armed Forces Bowl is in a weird place, with both Pittsburgh and Houston set to feature new head coaches next season (both of whom are former Big Ten assistants in Ohio State's Tom Herman and Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi). Pittsburgh is the better team according to the F/+ rankings despite the disappointing year, with the sixth-ranked Rushing S&P+ offense and sophomore running back James Conner. Both teams otherwise have poor defenses -- especially Houston's rushing defense, which is 111th in Rushing S&P+. The matchup of Conner versus the Houston run defense will probably make this too much for the Cougars.

F/+ Outright Pick: Pittsburgh

TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee (-3.5) vs. Iowa -- 3:20 p.m. Friday January 2 (ESPN)

Overall Iowa Tennessee
Record 7-5 6-6
Overall F/+ 55 43
Field Position Advantage 83 20
Offensive F/+ 56 69
Defensive F/+ 47 31
When Iowa has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 76 30
FEI 52 32
Rushing S&P+ 102 22
Passing S&P+ 53 13
When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 47 57
FEI 42 77
Rushing S&P+ 24 50
Passing S&P+ 65 47

Each year we continue to think that Tennessee is a program on the rise, but the Volunteers had to scrape together six wins to make the postseason. Iowa, meanwhile, had an extremely disappointing 7-5 campaign despite a very favorable schedule. Nevertheless, there is some potential redemption at stake in the TaxSlayer bowl. The only question is whether either team can score on the opposing defense: Iowa has the 102nd-ranked Rushing S&P+ offense against Tennessee's 22nd-ranked rush defense, while Tennessee's Jalen Hurd will face a top-25 Iowa rush defense. The quarterbacks -- Iowa's Jake Rudock and Tennessee's Josh Dobbs -- will need to be the difference.

F/+ Outright Pick: Tennessee

Valero Alamo Bowl: Kansas State (+1) vs. UCLA -- 6:45 p.m. Friday January 2 (ESPN)

Overall Kansas State UCLA
Record 9-3 9-3
Overall F/+ 21 19
Field Position Advantage 12 66
Offensive F/+ 16 7
Defensive F/+ 51 49
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 27 40
FEI 15 54
Rushing S&P+ 45 54
Passing S&P+ 23 23
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 38 20
FEI 60 4
Rushing S&P+ 27 11
Passing S&P+ 51 18

Both Kansas State and UCLA had bigger aspirations than the Alamo Bowl, but the Wildcats and Bruins are each competing for a ten-win season nonetheless. The major story will be the offenses, led by veteran Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Waters also has two of the top ten wide receivers in college football with Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton according to RYPR, so the 23rd-ranked Bruins pass defense will have to be ready for both. However, the Bruins also have an advantage in passing offense, as the 18th-ranked UCLA unit faces the 51st-ranked Passing S&P+ Kansas State defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: UCLA

TicketCity Cactus Bowl: Oklahoma State (+6) vs. Washington -- 10:15 p.m. Friday January 2 (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma State Washington
Record 6-6 8-5
Overall F/+ 68 51
Field Position Advantage 68 14
Offensive F/+ 77 92
Defensive F/+ 71 30
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 80 55
FEI 80 16
Rushing S&P+ 85 47
Passing S&P+ 45 55
When Washington has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 61 82
FEI 75 96
Rushing S&P+ 41 65
Passing S&P+ 53 91

Washington had a decent season under first-year head coach Chris Peterson, but it could have been much better if the Huskies had fielded a more effective attack than the 92nd-ranked offensive F/+ unit. The Huskies particularly struggled with quarterback play, as Washington quarterback Cyler Miles passed for just 2,129 yards with the 91st-ranked Passing S&P+ offense. However, the streaky Oklahoma State offense can't lay claim to a much better ranking, and only holds a narrow statistical advantage in passing offense over the Huskies defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: Washington

Birmingham Bowl: Florida (-6.5) vs. East Carolina -- 12 p.m. Saturday January 3 (ESPN)

Overall East Carolina Florida
Record 8-4 6-5
Overall F/+ 58 41
Field Position Advantage 68 13
Offensive F/+ 37 97
Defensive F/+ 63 12
When East Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 34 21
FEI 80 8
Rushing S&P+ 44 16
Passing S&P+ 48 12
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 59 81
FEI 75 101
Rushing S&P+ 45 71
Passing S&P+ 113 90

Florida's Will Muschamp has already packed his bags and moved to Auburn as defensive coordinator, but the Gators have one more hurdle in their 2014 season: an upstart Pirates team that features the nation's second-leading passer in quarterback Shane Carden. Carden is second in the country in number of attempts this season and the Pirates passing offense is more about Air Raid bulk than efficiency (the Pirates are just the 44th-ranked Passing S&P+ offense). They have to go against one of the country's best pass defenses, with star cornerbacks like Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tarbor. With the country's 113th Passing S&P+ defense of their own, the Pirates may need to even fear the lackluster Gators passing offense as well.

F/+ Outright Pick: Florida

GoDaddy Bowl: Arkansas State (+3.5) vs. Toledo -- 9 p.m. Sunday January 4 (ESPN)

Overall Toledo Arkansas State
Record 8-4 7-5
Overall F/+ 63 75
Field Position Advantage 81 23
Offensive F/+ 38 62
Defensive F/+ 100 80
When Toledo has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 42 70
FEI 29 86
Rushing S&P+ 38 104
Passing S&P+ 63 70
When Arkansas State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 73 61
FEI 107 61
Rushing S&P+ 46 66
Passing S&P+ 105 57

In the final bowl game before the Playoff championship, the Toledo Rockets and Arkansas State Red Wolves will hope to show some offensive sparks with Toledo's 38th-ranked F/+ offense and 100th-ranked F/+ defense. One of the best reasons to watch the Rockets is sophomore running back Kareem Hunt, who leads the country's running backs with a 53.4 percent Opportunity Rate, and is 11th in Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Arkansas State and quarterback Fredi Knighten will try and counter by throwing against Toledo's 105th-ranked pass defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: Toledo

F/+ Picks: Bowl Games December 31 -- January 4

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Ole Miss 3.5 TCU Ole Miss Ole Miss
Boise State 3 Arizona Boise State Boise State
Georgia Tech 6.5 Mississippi State Mississippi State Georgia Tech
Wisconsin 6.5 Auburn Auburn Wisconsin
Michigan State 2.5 Baylor Baylor Baylor
Minnesota 3.5 Missouri Missouri Minnesota
Florida State 8.5 Oregon Oregon Oregon
Ohio State 9 Alabama Alabama Ohio State
Houston 3 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Pittsburgh
Iowa 3.5 Tennessee Tennessee Tennessee
Kansas State 1 UCLA UCLA UCLA
Oklahoma State 6 Washington Washington Washington
East Carolina 6.5 Florida Florida Florida
Arkansas State 3.5 Toledo Toledo Toledo

Record last week outright: 9-3
Record last week against the spread: 8-4
Season record outright: 101-47
Season record against the spread: 73-78

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 31 Dec 2014

4 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2015, 8:22pm by gomer_rs


by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Fri, 01/02/2015 - 12:43pm

well, the selection committee and the various pollsters all have egg on their face(s) now

Remember when Bama, Miss, and Miss St were 1,3,4 in the polls?

They got swept out on NYE/NYD. Remember how FSU and Baylor were 3 and 5 above TCU @ 6? LMAO.

TCU- true champs in 2011 and 2014.

The standard is the standard!

by gomer_rs :: Fri, 01/02/2015 - 2:29pm

U of O or OSU v. TCU would be a great game, but I'd take the Ducks over TCU.

Still waiting for the top 6 conference champs and 2 At-Large team playoff.

Boise @ Bama, Miss. St. @ Oregon, TCU @ FSU, Baylor @ Ohio St.

Boise v. Oregon Rose Bowl, TCU v. Ohio St. Sugar Bowl

Oregon v. OSU/TCU for title.

It'd be fun.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

by RickD :: Fri, 01/02/2015 - 2:48pm

Wow, the SEC West really flamed out, didn't it?
Ohio State 42 Alabama 35
Wisconsin 34 Auburn 31
Georgia Tech 49 Mississippi State 34
TCU 42 Ole Miss 3
Notre Dame 31 LSU 28

Well at least Texas A&M and Arkansas won their bowl games.

But seriously, all season long we've been told that not only the SEC, but specifically the SEC West was the strongest conference in the country. But their top five, ranked teams all lose.

And if we'd been using the old BCS system, is there any doubt the national championship game would have been between Alabama and FSU? Which Alabama would likely have won?

A talking head on ESPN said that perhaps the other conferences have "narrowed the gap" between them and SEC. Um, no. There is no "gap". How can anybody pretend that the SEC deserves the reputation it had all season after the humiliation of this bowl season?

by gomer_rs :: Fri, 01/02/2015 - 8:22pm

Yeah, this bowl season really exposed the myth of the SEC. The narrowing of the gap has been between the SEC and ACC. The PAC-12 & Big-12 have always been right there and the Big-10, MSU, OSU, Wiscy, seem like they're on the way back.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.