Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» 2017 Defeats

The Cardinals had a winning record with backup quarterbacks last year thanks in large part to their high-profile edge rusher who terrorized opposing offenses. We look at defeat leaders for every position, as well as overall leaders over the past few seasons.

31 Dec 2015

SDA: The Playoff Begins

by Chad Peltier

This is bowl season's home stretch. Seventh Day Adventure takes a look at all of the remaining bowl games save for the national championship, and this is where the cream of the crop playoff games and New Year's Six games all fit in. From high-scoring potential in the Fiesta Bowl and Alamo Bowl to defense-led games in the Taxslayer and Citrus bowls, these next few days have a non-stop variety of excellent matchups.

The playoff games themselves are probably the highlights. Oklahoma and Clemson are neck-and-neck by most advanced metrics, while there is a clear underdog in the Cotton Bowl between Alabama and Michigan State. The four playoff teams are all defined by excellent defenses with a single star offensive player on each squad. Connor Cook, Derrick Henry, Baker Mayfield, and Deshaun Watson are all critical stars for their respective playoff teams. So sit back and absorb as much college football as you possibly can over the next three days.

Peach Bowl: Florida State (-7) vs. Houston -- December 31, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Looking at their relative F/+ rankings (fifth and 48th), it's clear this is a mismatch on paper. Tom Herman's first year at Houston has surpassed all expectations with a 12-1 record, but the Seminoles simply have too much talent on the roster. But again, that's just on paper. Is there a chance that Florida State isn't sufficiently motivated for this matchup with a non-Power 5 school? Absolutely. But where are the other areas where Houston might have an advantage?

Overall Houston Florida State
F/+ 32 9
When Houston has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 31 9
FEI 20 26
Success Rate 30 18
IsoPPP 38 6
Rushing S&P+ 41 33
Passing S&P+ 48 5
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 19 68
FEI 27 27
Success Rate 54 37
IsoPPP 57 21
Rushing S&P+ 9 43
Passing S&P+ 32 76

First of all, Houston will need to win with great field position and by finishing drives. The Cougars rank 39th in offensive field position and eighth in defensive field position, and Florida State is fifth and 71st in those areas. If Houston can create several short fields, then its offense can likely get a few scores. That's because no one is better in the country at getting touchdowns to finish drives, as Houston averages 5.7 points per scoring opportunity and touchdowns on 70.9 percent of red zone trips. Related, Houston is second in the country in overall turnover margin, with 30 gained and only 13 lost this season. By holding on to the ball and taking it away from the Seminoles, Houston can control the field and give its offense a more manageable area in which to work.

They will likely need it, too, since Florida State overmatches the Cougars in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Houston's biggest weakness is in pass defense, where it is ranked 76th in passing S&P+. Sean Maguire will be the starter for the Seminoles as Everett Golson didn't make the trip (and has therefore played his final college game), but he has averaged 7.1 yards per attempt and thrown just two interceptions. While Houston's run defense is better, at 43rd in rushing S&P+, the Seminoles have Dalvin Cook. Cook wasn't invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, but he might have been the most explosive running back in the country, averaging 10.2 highlight yards per opportunity with a 44 percent opportunity rate. For Houston's offense, Greg Ward Jr. will likely have to carry the load and exploit a Seminoles run defense that was just 33rd (its pass defense was fifth in passing S&P+). Ward averaged 7.6 yards per carry with a 51.6 percent opportunity rate. Though he threw for 2,590 yards on 7.5 yards per attempt, he is a much bigger threat in this one if he moves the chains with his feet.

Orange Bowl: Oklahoma (-4) vs. Clemson -- December 31, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma Clemson
F/+ 3 2
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 3 6
FEI 15 7
Success Rate 17 3
IsoPPP 7 114
Rushing S&P+ 18 13
Passing S&P+ 10 3
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 12 10
FEI 3 12
Success Rate 19 13
IsoPPP 32 46
Rushing S&P+ 6 28
Passing S&P+ 6 3

This line is a little surprising given that Clemson started and ended the College Football Playoff rankings in the top spot, but the Sooners are favored by a little more than a field goal. In the overall F/+ rankings it's neck-and-neck, with the Tigers at second and the Sooners third. Even the quarterbacks, who were the near-consensus top two in the country this season, were similarly ranked in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Deshaun Watson edged Baker Mayfield there, but now he has a chance at revenge.

There are few obvious advantages. Potentially the Tigers' sixth-ranked run defense has an edge over the 28th-ranked Sooners rushing offense, despite the duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Clemson's defense, which hasn't been heavily tested outside of the ACC championship game, is mediocre on passing downs (59th), but the high-flying Sooners offense is as well, ranking 61st in passing downs S&P+. But the biggest statistical advantage for either team might be that the Sooners are seventh in offensive explosiveness, while Clemson is 114th in defensive IsoPPP. This means we could be looking at a shootout where the Sooners can hit big plays, but Clemson's offense is as efficient as ever. Interestingly enough, those big plays from the Sooners are likely to all be on standard downs (second in standard downs IsoPPP to Clemson at 57th), since the Sooners are just 123rd in passing downs IsoPPP. So watch for big plays, especially through the air, by Baker Mayfield on standard downs. Of course, Clemson's defensive line will be unlike anything the Sooners have seen, as the Sooners are 120th and 86th in standard and passing downs sack rates, while Clemson is first and 28th in the same categories. Clemson gets a lot of pressure with its sixth-ranked front seven havoc rate.

As for the personnel, it's anyone's guess who is the better quarterback. Watson has thrown twice as many interceptions, but taken about a third the number of sacks, and averages 0.2 yards per pass less than Mayfield. However, it's unclear whether Oklahoma's defense -- which is sixth in passing defensive S&P+ -- has seen a quarterback like Watson yet. Oklahoma faced backup quarterbacks at Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU -- three elite passing offenses that weren't at full strength. So can Oklahoma's defense really contain Clemson like the numbers suggest? Or will we just see a series of explosive plays back and forth?

Cotton Bowl: Alabama (-9.5) vs. Michigan State -- December 31, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Alabama Michigan State
F/+ 1 6
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 27 13
FEI 29 15
Success Rate 35 51
IsoPPP 80 52
Rushing S&P+ 13 21
Passing S&P+ 28 10
When Michigan State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 1 26
FEI 2 23
Success Rate 1 48
IsoPPP 74 76
Rushing S&P+ 1 98
Passing S&P+ 1 30

Like Houston vs. Florida State, this is a game where you have to talk yourself in to why the underdog can win. The difference in the F/+ rankings is much more narrow than in the Peach Bowl -- the Spartans and Crimson Tide are separated by only eight teams, ranking ninth and first -- but there are still few obvious areas where the Spartans can take advantage over the Crimson Tide. Connor Cook is likely better than Alabama's Jake Coker, and that's largely where the Spartans have the greatest advantage -- in pass defense.

Coker has had a decent season, throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and just eight interceptions, but he averages just 6.6 yards per attempt. The Crimson Tide rank 28th in passing S&P+ on offense, but Michigan State is tenth in defensive passing S&P+. Similarly, the Spartans have narrow advantages in passing efficiency and explosiveness (ranking 13th and ninth in these areas), so it's unlikely Coker will be the difference-maker in the game.

The primary storylines will be whether the Spartans defense can stop Derrick Henry, and whether Connor Cook is good enough to exploit the Alabama defense. On the one hand, the reigning Heisman winner has been on a tear, rushing for at least 200 yards in four games this season. But Michigan State's defense has significantly slowed the best two running backs it has faced this season, Ezekiel Elliott and Royce Freeman. The Spartans held Oregon to 2.9 yards per carry and Ohio State to just under 3 yards per carry in wins over both teams. Alabama is 13th in rushing S&P+ to Michigan State's 21st-ranked rushing S&P+ defense, but lackluster games against Air Force and Purdue likely influence the Spartans' lower-than-expected rushing ranking. Henry himself has been steady and efficient, but not particularly flashy, averaging 5.5 highlight yards per opportunity and a 43.7 percent opportunity rate.

Cook is probably the Spartans' best hope. His record in big games is impeccable, though his overall statistics don't separate him much from the pack. Last season, Ohio State found that Alabama's big weakness was in pass defense -- this year, the pass rush and the secondary are totally turned around. The Tide have the top-ranked havoc rate, and are fourth and fifth in standard and passing downs sack rate. They have also reversed their trend in the secondary, as the addition of some extremely talented freshmen like Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick has boosted the Tide to the top-ranked passing S&P+ defense. This is the best defense in the country, and the Spartans will have their hands full. The Spartans run game is almost a lost cause (98th in rushing S&P+ vs. the No. 1 rush defense) -- Cook will need to carry the load. Aaron Burbridge is the main target, totaling more yards than the next three leading receivers for the Spartans. No matter how good Cook is in big games, it's unclear whether he has the receivers necessary to beat the now-loaded Alabama secondary.

Outback Bowl: Tennessee (-8) vs. Northwestern -- January 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Northwestern Tennessee
F/+ 42 19
When Northwestern has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 109 25
FEI 109 50
Success Rate 121 21
IsoPPP 87 76
Rushing S&P+ 96 25
Passing S&P+ 112 43
When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 4 40
FEI 8 22
Success Rate 16 57
IsoPPP 18 78
Rushing S&P+ 16 17
Passing S&P+ 13 31

Northwestern may be ranked ten spots higher than the Vols, but Tennessee is favored by more than a touchdown. In the F/+ rankings, the 8-4 Vols are 19th, the third-highest rated team with at least four losses. Northwestern is just 42nd. So in this case, the Vegas line matches up well with the advanced stats.

The problem for Northwestern is that they completely lack an offense. The defense is a top-ten unit, ranked fourth in the S&P+ and in the top 20 in both rushing and passing S&P+. But the offense is 96th in rushing S&P+ and 112th in passing S&P+. You're likely to hear running back Justin Jackson's name a lot when the Wildcats have the ball, as he has the fifth-most carries of anyone in the country and crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year. However, he averages less than 5 yards per carry and, even worse, has just a 33.1 percent opportunity rate. The passing game under freshman Clayton Thorson has been poor, as he averages 4.6 yards per attempt and has as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns. Tennessee's defense has been excellent against the run (25th) and worse against the pass (43rd), but that leaves the Wildcats at a disadvantage.

Josh Dobbs and the Tennessee offense will have a tall order. It's hard to see the Volunteers being very explosive against Northwestern, ranking 78th in overall IsoPPP to Northwestern's 18th. Tennessee's Jalen Hurd is actually a mirror image of Justin Jackson statistically, as both average 4.5 yards per carry, with an opportunity rate of less than 35 percent, and fewer than 5 highlight yards per opportunity. Again, similar to Northwestern, the Vols' offense doesn't have a clear top receiver despite all of the talent Butch Jones has amassed in Knoxville. Three receivers have more than 300 yards, but only one of those three has a catch rate higher than 60 percent. Despite all of that, the Vols rank as high as 31st in passing S&P+. Even if the Volunteers move the ball some on Northwestern, they may struggle to get touchdowns out of their opportunities since Northwestern allows an average of just 3.4 points per opportunity (fourth-best in the country).

Citrus Bowl: Michigan (-4) vs. Florida -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan Florida
F/+ 10 20
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 34 5
FEI 33 6
Success Rate 29 7
IsoPPP 49 54
Rushing S&P+ 61 5
Passing S&P+ 17 7
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 2 61
FEI 20 60
Success Rate 12 101
IsoPPP 69 90
Rushing S&P+ 28 73
Passing S&P+ 11 44

If you're looking for a game to take the under, this is your pick. Florida lost its final two games of the season, both against solid defenses, by scoring a combined 17 points. In the last five games, they've managed a high of just 24 points, falling under 20 in three of those games. But the defenses are where the excitement is for the Citrus Bowl. Both units are top-five in the defensive S&P+ rankings, with Florida at fifth and Michigan at second. While Florida is top-ten in both rushing and passing S&P+, Michigan's defense is much stronger against the pass, ranking 11th in passing S&P+ (but just 28th in rushing S&P+) thanks to the efforts of Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers in the secondary.

But what is the state of the Michigan defense following the Buckeyes' 42 points in The Game? Ohio State exposed a vulnerability to certain aspects of the quarterback run game, specifically from two-tight end sets where the quarterback was a threat in the zone read game. Treon Harris has a similar ability to J.T. Barrett, though maybe not as refined, as he is the Gators' second-leading rusher. However, Harris only has 56 carries on the year even though he averages 6.7 yards per carry with a 50 percent opportunity rate. Michigan's defense will likely limit the Gators' opportunities through the air, except on passing downs, where the Gators rank ninth in passing downs IsoPPP and Michigan is 55th. In almost every other statistical category, the Michigan defense has an advantage.

Michigan's offense is higher rated than you might think. Jake Rudock really grew as a quarterback throughout the year, even throwing for 307 yards against Ohio State's excellent pass defense. The issue is that it's hard to single out an area where the Wolverines really have a match-up advantage over the Gators. Their run game is severely lacking, so Rudock will likely need to carry the day against a secondary that includes Jalen Tarbor and Vernon Hargreaves III. Though Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh have really been solid for the Wolverines (Chesson has been particularly explosive lately, with two hundred-yard receiving performances in his last three games), it's hard to see them taking too much advantage of the Gators' defense. Expect a low-scoring slugfest with most of the action through the air, unless one team fails to show up mentally for this one.

Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State (-6.5) vs. Notre Dame -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Notre Dame Ohio State
F/+ 5 4
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 6 8
FEI 6 10
Success Rate 25 6
IsoPPP 5 51
Rushing S&P+ 3 17
Passing S&P+ 8 4
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 33 14
FEI 52 26
Success Rate 38 16
IsoPPP 94 58
Rushing S&P+ 51 8
Passing S&P+ 36 26

The Fiesta Bowl is a little bit of a disappointment for both teams as the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish harbored playoff ambitions in 2015. Michigan State, Stanford, and Clemson derailed those plans, but the three teams who beat Ohio State and Notre Dame are all in the top six in the country, and the Spartans and Tigers may meet in the College Football Playoff championship game. Sure, detractors would argue that their resumes are a little lacking without those big wins -- Notre Dame can claim wins over Temple and Navy, while Ohio State's win over Michigan was easily its top of the season -- but the teams are advanced statistical darlings nonetheless.

Both teams have had quarterback issues. For the Irish, it was losing Everett Golson to Florida State before the season, then Malik Zaire going down for the year early on, forcing Deshone Kizer to take the starting spot earlier than expected. Ohio State juggled its two championship quarterbacks, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, before ultimately settling on Barrett after seven weeks. Despite injuries and quarterback battles, both offenses are top-20 units, with the Irish ranking third and eighth in rushing and passing S&P+, while Ohio State is eighth and 26th in the same rankings.

The thing for Notre Dame is that they have both deep-threat Will Fuller (who averages 20.5 yards per catch) and an incredibly efficient rushing offense. C.J. Prosise averages a 48.1 percent opportunity rate in his first season at running back, while freshman Josh Adams nearly matches Prosise's consistency but also has 8.5 highlight yards per opportunity. This combination will be deadly for Ohio State's defense since, while a top-ten unit (eighth in the S&P+ and tenth in FEI), they nonetheless are 51st in defensive IsoPPP. They allowed big plays to Michigan's Jehu Chesson, and that's certainly a concern with Will Fuller. But just as dangerous is the running back tandem against the Buckeyes' 17th-ranked rushing S&P+ defense. While the Buckeyes have been solid on the ground, they have also allowed some big runs and are now without starting defensive tackles Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt. Joey Bosa will likely slide inside some, while a rotating cast of backups will fill in for the other role, but this likely makes the Buckeyes a little easier to run on than before.

But expect a shootout if Notre Dame can find success with deep passes and efficient running. The Irish are 33rd in defensive S&P+ and 52nd in defensive FEI as the worst total unit on the field. That's not to say they're not talented -- Jaylon Smith is one of the country's top linebackers, and solid defensive tackle Jarron Jones looks to return for some number of snaps -- but Keivarae Russel is injured and the defense has struggled against the run, ranking 51st in rushing S&P+. That's big news for Ezekiel Elliott, who is playing in his final game for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are extremely explosive running the ball, ranking 13th in rushing IsoPPP to 65th for Notre Dame, and the Irish are 94th overall in defensive IsoPPP. So expect to see a lot of Barrett and Elliott running, combined with some big play-action passing for an exciting, likely offense-first game that rivals either playoff game in total accumulated talent.

Rose Bowl: Stanford (-7) vs. Iowa -- January 1, 5 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Stanford Iowa
F/+ 8 25
When Stanford has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 7 26
FEI 4 24
Success Rate 2 35
IsoPPP 92 5
Rushing S&P+ 21 22
Passing S&P+ 7 46
When Iowa has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 54 48
FEI 60 31
Success Rate 72 53
IsoPPP 75 56
Rushing S&P+ 65 44
Passing S&P+ 57 43

At fifth and sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Cardinal and Hawkeyes meet in the Rose Bowl as the first two teams to just miss the playoff cut. The matchup seems to favor the Cardinal, as they are spotted a touchdown in the Vegas line and are ranked 22 spots higher in the overall S&P+ rankings. When Stanford is on defense, the game should devolve a little. Ranked 54th in defensive S&P+, the Stanford defense hasn't matched its units from previous seasons, but faces an Iowa offense that is 44th in rushing S&P+ and 43rd in passing S&P+. But when Stanford has the ball, it will be clear why these two teams were playoff-caliber, as the Hawkeyes are 26th in defensive S&P+ and Stanford is seventh on offense.

When Stanford has the ball, it will be favored by the advanced stats due to its efficiency, not its explosiveness. The Cardinal is just 92nd in overall IsoPPP (which is surprising, given Christian McCaffrey's exploits this season), while Iowa is fifth, locking down big plays. But the second-highest success rate offense should make up for that big-play deficiency. Christian McCaffrey is obviously the big threat to the Hawkeyes, but look for his role in the passing game especially, since Iowa is much stronger against the run than against the pass (22nd in rushing S&P+ to 46th). This game will probably have mostly long, plodding drives from both teams, since both offenses average 11 to 12 drives (126th and 102nd-most) a game. That means that scoring opportunities will be at a premium and the offenses will need to take advantage of the opportunities they create. Stanford excels here, ranking fourth and averaging 5.6 points per scoring opportunity. Iowa doesn't bring much pressure (76th in overall havoc rate), so Kevin Hogan should have a decent amount of time to target McCaffrey, tight end Austin Hooper, and Michael Rector through the air.

Jordan Canzeri and C.J. Beathard will need big games to keep pace with Stanford offensively. The senior running back has struggled with injuries some this season, but has averaged 5.5 yards per carry with a 35.4 percent opportunity rate. None of the Hawkeyes' running backs (they go three deep) have a high opportunity rate, but all have decent explosiveness, and a passing game that excels on passing downs has kept Iowa ahead. Iowa is just 43rd in passing S&P+, but they are a top-20 passing downs S&P+ offense. Converting third downs and finishing drives are relative strengths as well, but Stanford's defense plays the field position game better than anyone. But the Hawkeyes should find some room to drive on the Cardinal, and they will likely need to given Stanford's red zone efficiency on offense. All in all, look for the small things to matter significantly -- turnovers, field position, and finishing drives.

Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss (-6.5) vs. Oklahoma State -- January 1, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma State Ole Miss
F/+ 29 7
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 18 23
FEI 24 37
Success Rate 42 36
IsoPPP 17 34
Rushing S&P+ 114 18
Passing S&P+ 15 30
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 58 11
FEI 49 10
Success Rate 58 11
IsoPPP 49 10
Rushing S&P+ 48 23
Passing S&P+ 32 2

The Cowboys and Rebels were both in the playoff hunt at different parts of the year, but never put it all together as the teams to win their conferences. Oklahoma State does two things really well: throw the ball (15th in passing S&P+) and pressure the quarterback (24th and second in standard and passing downs sack rate). But they also are terrible running the ball (114th in rushing S&P+), and their defense as a whole regressed throughout the season (to 58th). Ole Miss doesn't have quite as dramatic strengths and weaknesses (18th in rushing S&P+ and 30th in passing S&P+ on defense, and 23rd and second in rushing and passing S&P+ on offense), but wasn't consistent throughout the year. Ugly losses to Ole Miss and Memphis stand out, but the shootout loss to Arkansas (52-53) is also an ugly mark.

The defenses are fairly solid, both ranking in the low 30s in passing S&P+, but are certainly capable of giving up big numbers through the air. With two excellent quarterbacks in Mason Rudolph (8.2 yards per attempt, 62.6 percent completion rate, nine interceptions) and Chad Kelly (also 8.2 yards per attempt, 65.2 percent completion rate, 12 interceptions), the offenses will be able to exploit the pass defenses. The Cowboys defense is much worse at containing explosive plays (85th) than the Ole Miss defense (34th), even though they are of similar quality otherwise. However, two things balance this out. First, Oklahoma State has a much better turnover margin (plus-7, 13) than Ole Miss (plus-0, 65th). Part of that is due to Chad Kelly being a gunslinger -- an accurate gunslinger for the most part, with Laquon Treadwell to target, but a gunslinger nonetheless. Second, the biggest matchup of the entire game will probably be the Ole Miss offensive line against the Oklahoma State defensive line's pass rush. The Cowboys are elite in rushing the quarterback thanks primarily to Emmanuel Ogbah. If Laremy Tunsil, who is likely playing his final college game, can contain him rushing the edge, then the Rebels are likely a little more explosive and balanced on offense. But if Ogbah and company can pressure Kelly into mistakes, then this could end up as a very close one. It certainly doesn't help the Rebels pass defense that star interior lineman Robert Nkemdiche (and his brother, Denzel) are both headed to the NFL after strange illnesses and accidents during bowl prep.

Taxslayer Bowl: Georgia (-7) vs. Penn State -- January 2, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Penn State Georgia
F/+ 46 36
When Penn State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 56 11
FEI 81 16
Success Rate 110 4
IsoPPP 15 71
Rushing S&P+ 38 23
Passing S&P+ 81 23
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 16 73
FEI 19 64
Success Rate 37 52
IsoPPP 20 60
Rushing S&P+ 39 14
Passing S&P+ 8 29

This game seems more like an audition for next season than anything, as Georgia and Penn State more or less limp in to their bowl matchup. Penn State fired its offensive coordinator, while Georgia cleaned house for Kirby Smart's new staff. Both defenses are top-20 units, but the offenses are miserable, with ineffective quarterback play on passing downs (93rd for Penn State and 62nd for Georgia) and run games that had more potential than production.

Penn State has been dealing with the effects of sanctions in terms of depth, particularly along the offensive line, but also in key skill positions. The offensive line is ineffective on third downs (94th in third downs S&P+) and allows sacks (105th in passing downs sack rate, 116th in overall adjusted sack rate) far too easily. Funny enough, leaky line play has led to a terrible success rate (36.9 percent, or 110th), but explosiveness (15th in IsoPPP). And this is where Penn State must exploit the Georgia defense. The Dawgs were solid on defense under Jeremy Pruitt (who now returns to Alabama, this time as defensive coordinator), but were fourth in efficiency and 71st in defensive IsoPPP. The big plays will come from receivers Chris Godwin (15.2 yards per catch) and DaeSean Hamilton (12.9 yards per catch) as well as running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley was a revelation to a Penn State offense that has lacked a run game for years. Though he didn't get the volume of carries that other elite running backs did, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry with a 41.8 percent opportunity rate behind that still-rebuilding offensive line. Those three -- and Christian Hackenberg, who is probably weighing an NFL decision -- will need explosive games to beat this Georgia defense. The main issue is that Georgia is likely to control standard downs (sixth in standard downs success rate to Penn State's 100th ranking) and pressure Penn State on passing downs (ranking 20th in passing downs sack rate).

But Georgia's offense has struggled mightily itself. While 14th in standard downs S&P+, they are 62nd in passing downs S&P+ and 64th in offensive FEI. The Dawgs sorely miss Nick Chubb, who masked many other offensive deficiencies when he was on the field. He kept the Bulldogs on track on standard downs and was explosive enough to hide issues in obvious passing situations. Sony Michel has performed admirably, with 5.4 yards per carry, but he's much more effective when he can be a change-of-pace explosive back and get involved in the passing game (he has a 32.5 percent opportunity rate). And the Georgia offense is extremely concentrated on the ground game. Georgia's leading receiver, Malcom Mitchell, has just 345 yards. Any time Georgia is in an obvious passing situation, it should fear Carl Nassib (15.5 sacks) and the Penn State front seven.

Liberty Bowl: Arkansas (-11) vs. Kansas State -- January 2, 3:20 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Kansas State Arkansas
F/+ 77 15
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 75 71
FEI 76 101
Success Rate 62 123
IsoPPP 123 35
Rushing S&P+ 45 56
Passing S&P+ 110 118
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 75 2
FEI 67 5
Success Rate 114 3
IsoPPP 81 62
Rushing S&P+ 86 10
Passing S&P+ 73 1

This is one of the bowl matchups that only looks fair if you're just going by their records. The 6-6 and rebuilding Kansas State Wildcats shouldn't be much of a fight for the 7-5 Razorbacks. Once again, Bret Bielema's Arkansas team started slowly, but got better and better as the season went on. Now Arkansas, despite five losses, is 14th in the FEI rankings to Kansas State at 72nd. That justifies one of the largest Vegas lines of any bowl game, with Arkansas favored by 11.

The Razorbacks aren't a complete team, and are much more successful on offense (second in S&P+) than defense (71st). But Kansas State's offense has struggled with a quarterback transition and lack of a clear top rushing threat, ranking 45th and 110th in rushing and passing S&P+. So without much threat from Kansas State's offense, it's easy to see Arkansas just running wild in this one. The thing is that Arkansas has a notable weakness against the pass. They rank 118th in passing S&P+ defense, particularly from shorter, efficient throws (123rd in defensive success rate). Arkansas also frequently allows touchdowns from scoring opportunities, ranking 97th in finishing drives and 112th in red zone S&P+. That's likely Kansas State's biggest opportunity -- taking advantage of red zone chances. Arkansas may be poor in pass defense, but Kansas State is ranked 110th in passing S&P+ behind Joe Hubener, who has a 47.8 percent completion rate on the year.

And when Arkansas has the ball, it's easy to see this game getting ugly. They are tenth in rushing S&P+ but first in passing S&P+ due to the surprisingly strong season from Brandon Allen. Allen averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and completed nearly two-thirds of his throws. He has support from running back Alex Collins, who crossed the thousand-yard mark again and runs efficiently (43.1 percent opportunity rate) even if the rushing offense as a whole isn't particularly explosive. They should eat up a Kansas State defense that only is favored in passing downs sack rate, and even then the advantage is fairly narrow.

Alamo Bowl: Oregon (EVEN) vs. TCU -- January 2, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oregon TCU
F/+ 26 16
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 8 56
FEI 8 22
Success Rate 12 23
IsoPPP 8 108
Rushing S&P+ 4 37
Passing S&P+ 19 26
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 88 13
FEI 87 38
Success Rate 102 15
IsoPPP 55 27
Rushing S&P+ 110 65
Passing S&P+ 61 14

Games like this are the reason why bowl season is so exciting. Two high-flying offenses meet two questionable-at-best defenses from Oregon and TCU, with star quarterbacks Vernon Adams and Trevone Boykin at the helm.* Oregon's offense is tilted in favor of the run game, at fourth in rushing S&P+ to 19th in passing S&P+, but TCU's is the opposite, ranking 65th in rushing S&P+ and 14th in passing S&P+.

(Ed. Note: Or not... this preview was written before Boykin's arrest for assault on a police officer. He's been suspended for the Alamo Bowl.)

For Oregon this will be about big plays, likely on the ground. Ranking eighth in IsoPPP and 12th in success rate, the Oregon offense will likely hit more big plays despite a lower average efficiency with TCU's 23rd-ranked success rate defense (they are 108th in IsoPPP). Adams averages 8.7 yards per attempt, and had he been healthy, Oregon could have challenged for the Pac-12 title and maybe even a repeat playoff bid. But Royce Freeman has been the unheralded workhorse for the Ducks, amassing 1,706 rushing yards with a 44.6 percent opportunity rate and 6.5 highlight yards per opportunity. There's not much of a blueprint for TCU shutting down the Ducks on offense besides playing field position football (18th) and winning standard downs, where TCU is at least ranked 27th in standard downs S&P+.

The only thing that can prevent TCU from matching or exceeding Oregon's (likely) high scoring rate will be Josh Doctson's absence. The star Horned Frogs receiver is out for the bowl game, leaving Trevone Boykin to throw to a wider cast of receivers that includes Shaun Nixon, Kolby Listenbee, and KaVontae Turpin. None of them match Doctson's combination of reliability (73.8 percent catch rate) and explosive ability (16.8 yards per catch), but they at least offer varying strengths like Listenbee's big-play ability (20.6 yards per catch) and Turpin's catch rate (74.1 percent). Almost everyone has found success against Oregon's defense this season, though. The Ducks are 102nd in overall success rate, allow touchdowns from scoring opportunities (averaging 5.1 points per scoring opportunity, 106th), and are easily run on (110th in rushing S&P+). TCU's Aaron Green has been fairly efficient for the Horned Frogs, with a 42.3 percent opportunity rate (and only 4.8 highlight yards per opportunity), and he'll be tasked with keeping the TCU offense on track and balanced against Oregon's defense. The gains for TCU may be smaller and steadier than Oregon's, but either way this one looks like a shootout unless Doctson's absence proves to be the difference.

Cactus Bowl: Arizona State (-1) vs. West Virginia -- January 2, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall West Virginia Arizona State
F/+ 31 52
When West Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 29 79
FEI 83 47
Success Rate 31 42
IsoPPP 65 123
Rushing S&P+ 32 26
Passing S&P+ 51 67
When Arizona State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 18 35
FEI 4 49
Success Rate 11 77
IsoPPP 112 38
Rushing S&P+ 3 77
Passing S&P+ 14 58

Frequently in bowl season, the advanced stats and Vegas line have agreed. But not in the penultimate bowl game of the 2015 season between West Virginia and Arizona State. The Sun Devils are narrowly favored even though West Virginia looks like the clearly better team, ranked 31st in F/+ to 52nd for the Sun Devils. The Mountaineers just played better than their record indicates given their stretch of games with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU all in a row. Arizona State was picked by many to win the Pac-12 South, but came up short on defense and on the ground, with losses to Texas A&M (which now looks even worse than it did at the time), USC, and almost every other ranked team it faced.

West Virginia looks to control this game on defense, particularly on standard downs, where it ranks fourth in both standard downs efficiency and rushing efficiency, compared to the Sun Devils at 98th and 102nd in those areas. Overall West Virginia is 11th in defensive success rate. The problem is through the air and explosive plays, where they are 112th in IsoPPP. The Sun Devils have a big opportunity to create explosive passing plays behind Mike Bercovici and his receiving corps of former running back D.J. Foster and receivers Devin Lucien and Tim White.

West Virginia's offense should be able to handle the Sun Devils' leaky defense, but their strengths don't really align in favor of the Mountaineers. At 32nd in rushing S&P+ and 51st in passing S&P+, the Mountaineers may not be as efficient as expected because the Sun Devils are weaker against the pass (67th in passing S&P+) than against the run. Similarly, the Sun Devils are one of the worst teams in the country in allowing explosive plays (123rd in IsoPPP), but West Virginia is only average at creating them, ranked 65th. West Virginia's Wendell Smallwood will need a big game and explosive runs to counter the Sun Devils' own explosive plays.


Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Florida State 7.5 Houston Florida State Florida State
Oklahoma 4 Clemson Clemson Clemson
Alabama 9.5 Michigan State Alabama Alabama
Tennessee 8 Northwestern Tennessee Northwestern
Michigan 4.5 Florida Michigan Michigan
Ohio State 7 Notre Dame Ohio State Notre Dame
Stanford 7 Iowa Stanford Iowa
Ole Miss 7.5 Oklahoma State Ole Miss Ole Miss
Georgia 7 Penn State Penn State Penn State
Arkansas 11 Kansas State Arkansas Arkansas
Oregon 0 TCU TCU TCU
West Virginia 1 Arizona State West Virginia West Virginia

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 31 Dec 2015