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28 Nov 2016

OFI: Playoff Race is Tight

by Chad Peltier

Without any major upsets from Michigan State, Utah, Washington State, or South Carolina, the playoff race is essentially unchanged -- especially because of how close Ohio State and Michigan looked on Saturday. When the College Football Playoff rankings are released on Tuesday night, there's a decent probability that the Wolverines will still be ranked in the top four, in front of Washington, after losing at Ohio State in double-overtime. Next week's conference championships could shake things up, but as it stands now, the playoff race is still wide open although Alabama, Ohio State, Washington, and Clemson are clear favorites.

First things first: Alabama, Washington, and Clemson all rolled over their rivals this week. With wins next week over Florida and Virginia Tech, Alabama and Clemson are locks for the playoff. Washington has reason to sweat despite having just one loss. Even with a win next week over Colorado, Washington will likely be competing with Michigan and the Big Ten champion (either Wisconsin or Penn State, just like we expected in the preseason...) for the final spot in the playoff.

Sure, there's the chance that the committee will drop second-ranked Ohio State from the playoff in favor of the Big Ten champion -- after all, two of the committee's important criteria for assessing peers are conference championships and head-to-head results -- but it's looking extremely unlikely. Simply put, Ohio State doesn't look like Penn State or Wisconsin's peer based on resume, despite an overtime win over the Badgers and a narrow loss to the Nittany Lions. And more importantly, at least so far, it doesn't look like the committee views either Wisconsin or Penn State on the same level that they view the Buckeyes. Others have compared top-ten and top-20 wins for the breakdown (and Ohio State is still favored there, too), but in the F/+, Ohio State is ranked third at 62.9 percent, while Wisconsin is seventh at 45.1 percent, and Penn State is tenth at 41.6 percent. Washington is fifth at 52.1 percent. In the F/+ there's a significant gap between the Buckeyes and any of those three challengers.

But further, with two losses (to Iowa and the No. 2 Buckeyes) there's also a very strong argument that Michigan might be in contention for the fourth spot, even if both Washington and Clemson win their conferences next week. They're ranked second in the F/+ at 64 percent. If Penn State beats Wisconsin, how could it move ahead of a statistically superior Michigan team that lost a second game to second-ranked Ohio State in double overtime but also beat the Nittany Lions by 39 points? And Wisconsin also lost to the Wolverines, though by just a touchdown margin.

Finally, the Wolverines have wins over three top-20 S&P+ teams in Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin, while Washington would only have a single win over a top-20 team if it can beat Colorado next week. The Huskies' next-best win this season is over 33rd-ranked S&P+ Stanford.

Of course, the easiest result for the committee might just be if Clemson loses to Virginia Tech next weekend, likely allowing a second Big Ten team into the playoff while keeping 12-1 Washington in as well.


  • The biggest game of the weekend -- and maybe the season -- was The Game between Ohio State and Michigan. Notably the tenth anniversary of the one-versus-two matchup in 2006, this edition pitted two-versus-three and more than lived up to the hype with a double-overtime ending that justified the five-hour special edition of ESPN's College GameDay. The game saw a last-second Ohio State field goal to send it to overtime, a desperate fourth-down attempt in the second overtime (instead of attempting a tying field goal) that was just barely successful, missed field goals, turnovers, and explosive plays. Ohio State was the ultimate winner, but it didn't play like that for most of the game -- according to the S&P+, their 47 percentile performance gave the Buckeyes just a 17 percent win expectancy based on their per-play stats. However, Ohio State ultimately won due to three Michigan turnovers and several explosive runs, particularly at the end of the game.

    First, here's where Michigan excelled. Wilton Speight ended up being able to play despite reports two weeks ago that he would be done for the season, and he delivered with a 52 percent passing success rate. With his passing, the Wolverines managed 4.25 points per scoring opportunity and two explosive passes. As good as the Michigan passing game was, the Wolverines pass defense exceeded that, limiting J.T. Barrett to a 28 percent passing success rate, no explosive pass plays, 3.9 yards per attempt, and an interception. That poor passing efficiency was due in large part to the Michigan front seven's incredible havoc -- Michigan generated an astounding eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss. The best and most recent comparison might be in Houston's upset of Louisville, which saw similar havoc rates -- except Ohio State still managed to win even though more than a quarter of the Buckeyes' rushing attempts went for a loss. That was one of the most surprising results -- Ohio State entered the game third in offensive stuff rate, allowing tackles for loss on just 12.3 percent of runs, but it allowed double that rate against the third-rated stuff-rate Michigan defense. Michigan dominated the field position battle, with an average starting field position on the 33.5-yard line, compared to Ohio State starting on the 17.4-yard line (after removing one outlier possession following a turnover for each team). Ohio State was top-ten in both offensive and defensive starting field position entering The Game. The Wolverines were also excellent in scoring opportunities, limiting the Buckeyes to a dismal two points per scoring opportunity (coincidentally, that's what Alabama averaged in its win over LSU). Finally, Ohio State's reliable kicker (his only miss on the season was the infamous blocked kick against Penn State) missed two field goal attempts, only connecting on the game-tying try in the game's final seconds of regulation.

    So how did Ohio State manage to pull out a win following all of those disadvantages? Well, a strong running game towards the end of the fourth quarter and turnovers. First, beginning with their first drive of the fourth quarter, Ohio State began to run the ball with authority against the Michigan front seven. The Buckeyes averaged a 56 percent rushing success rate from that point on after averaging a 47 percent success rate earlier in the day. That stretch included J.T. Barrett's 41-yard run as well as three other runs of 9-plus yards. That rushing success coincided with a steep decline in Michigan's offensive efficiency, where the Wolverines were held to a single scoring drive in the second half -- otherwise Michigan's drives ended in a fumble, an interception, and three punts. On their last four drives, the Wolverines managed just 30 total yards. Finally, the Ohio State defense continued its ball-hawking ways with a Malik Hooker pick-six, a goal-line forced fumble, and another interception in Michigan territory that led to an Ohio State score. Fourteen of Ohio State's 17 points through four quarters were due to defensive turnovers. So Ohio State got the win -- deservedly -- but who's to say that these teams wouldn't split the games 50-49 if they played another 99 times?

  • There weren't too many upsets on rivalry weekend that directly impacted the playoff, but two worth talking about nonetheless. First, it was notable that Houston was upset by Memphis on Friday night, 48-44, due in large part to the stellar passing performance of Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson, who went 30-for-45 for 409 yards. Houston had a minus-2 turnover margin and averaged more than a point less per scoring opportunity, as quarterback Greg Ward Jr. threw an interception and lost a fumble in the upset. That loss was Houston's third, as the Cougars finished a strange season where they beat their two biggest opponents -- top-ten(ish) teams Louisville and Oklahoma -- but lost to SMU, Navy, and Memphis. Those losses didn't seem to matter much to Texas, who promptly hired away Tom Herman to be the new coach of the Longhorns after letting Charlie Strong go following a loss to TCU this week. Giving Tom Herman those resources, recruiting power, and current Texas personnel should mean extremely fast success for the Longhorns.

    Second, Louisville suffered its third loss of the season, this one to rival Kentucky in a dramatic fall-off at the end of the season. Turnovers were again the culprit in the upset, as quarterback and probable Heisman winner Lamar Jackson turned the ball over four times despite running for 171 yards and averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt. Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson did more than enough through the air, throwing for 338 and averaging 12.5 yards per attempt. Kentucky, like Memphis, also averaged more than a point more per scoring opportunity than Louisville in the upset.

  • The SEC East had a no-good, very-bad, awful rivalry week. Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida all lost, while preseason-favorite Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt. Actually, it was more like the entire SEC outside of Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, and Mississippi State had a terrible week: Auburn was blown out by the Crimson Tide; Florida wasn't competitive against Florida State and now has multiple defensive starters injured for the SEC Championship (and no SEC East team has fewer than four losses); Texas A&M lost to LSU and continued its downward spiral; Ole Miss was blown out by Mississippi State to fall to 5-7; and Arkansas was upset by 4-8 Missouri.


  • Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have embraced their rushing offense with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald as he ran for 258 yards against Ole Miss. Fitzgerald finished the regular season with an astounding 1,243 rushing yards.
  • Adoree Jackson, CB, USC. Adoree Jackson was electric against Notre Dame, scoring touchdowns on a reception, a kickoff return, and a punt return for 291 all-purpose yards against the Irish.
  • Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford. Christian McCaffrey's 204 rushing yards on 30 carries was only against 3-9 Rice, so this individual game wasn't especially impressive for the all-purpose yards leader. McCaffrey's season has gone largely under the radar due to Stanford's disappointing performance -- but he still is fourth in the country in rushing yards per game with roughly 146, and he's actually averaging 0.35 yards per carry more than he did last season. He won't get any Heisman consideration, but he was absurdly productive for a middling (70th-ranked S&P+!) offense.


  • Harold Landry, DE, Boston College. Boston College just played Wake Forest, but Harold Landry had three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss to help the Eagles reach bowl eligibility.
  • Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan. Far more impressive than the more-hyped Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton was an unstoppable force against Ohio State, racking up 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss against an offensive line that was third in stuff rate.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 28 Nov 2016

11 comments, Last at 29 Nov 2016, 5:47pm by big10freak


by big10freak :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 9:46am

Wisconsin fans talk about the playoffs but most just want the Rose Bowl. It's amusing to see how upset Michigan fans get about missing said playoffs conveniently forgetting that the team lost to a solid but nothing more Iowa team. And while those top 20 wins may look impressive Michigan did all that work at home. Other than taking it to Ohio State Michigan has not overwhelmed on the road in the Big10. If someone in the top 4 stumbles, Wisky wins I for one will be more than content if the committee picks the Wolverines. The playoffs are dumb, the discussion about the playoffs is dumber still and the whole thing cannot go away soon enough.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 10:43am

I like the playoffs, I don't like the selection committee. I actually didn't mind the BCS methodology for picking the top teams, though I wanted more weight for the formulaic ("computer") rankings. I don't mind have a human element to the selection, and the polls do that. But more data is better. Use that, take the top 8 teams and play some games. Top 4 is OK, but I'd rather expand it.

Because it's a committe picking, I do think Wisconsin gets in, with any kind of win. If they crush Penn State, then they are in for sure, possibly at the expense of Ohio State, because I think the committee puts too much weight on conference championships. The two best teams in the Big Ten just played each other and neither is in the championship game, instead the champion will be the 3rd best team, since 3 and 4 are playing each other. You may have just seen the same in the SEC, though the best team is still in the championship game there either.

So ditch the committee, double the number of teams, and give me 7 more good match-ups at the end of the college season. Will the winner of that little tourney be the best team in college? No, just like the super bowl champion isn't the best team in the NFL every year, but it's fun to watch.

by big10freak :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 12:39pm

Wisconsin could win 59-0 (the score that will live in infamy) and not get in should someone up top fail to win their game. This is not some persecution complex. Just facing facts. That Harbaugh's little tirade has taken root and everyone is writing articles on how Michigan needs to be the next team in is a pretty good tell that the Big10 champ will not be invited no matter what happens this weekend. There are no consequences for the committee to go this route. And it makes for great fan chatter. Everybody wins. Except either Wisconsin or Penn State of course. But again, I expect the general reaction to be 'so what?'

Which is fine with me. I am all about the Rose Bowl. Wisky beat USC last bowl season, and I think a rematch would be awesome.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 1:12pm

Yeah, I'm OK if the Big Ten champ doesn't get in. But I know the committee isn't a big fan of Washington, or either of the Oklahoma's. I don't see Bama or Clemson losing, so they are in. I don't think the Big 12 gets a team in regardless of the outcome. It's really a question of does Washington get in if they beat Colorado. If they lose I'm pretty sure it's Bama, Clemson, B10 Champ, Ohio State. As mentioned I don't think conference championship games should matter beyond what you get from what should be two good teams posting additional results. I'm just not sure the committee views it that way. So I'm with you, if the B10 champ is left out, I don't think it's a mistake.

Wisky - USC would be a great game too. USC has turned things around they are a very good team, I think it would be a very entertaining game. Wisconsin did well this year, they beat everyone they should, and they had a chance to beat Ohio State and Michigan. They did well vs Ohio State; Michigan I felt really outplayed them, the missed field goals make that score a lot closer than it was, that was a 23 - 7 game. So yeah, they are a damn good team, but not the best in the Big 10, and they aren't even playing the best at the end of the season. Yeah I'm a fan, and I'd love to see them get a shot, and I think the committee will give it to them, but it's not a stretch or a slight if they don't.

by big10freak :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 1:25pm

That Wisconsin team had a patchwork offensive line, a hurt Clement, a new qb and struggling special teams. And even then if the qb hits a wide open Peavy it's a different game as Peavy goes for a 75 yard TD

If MI/WI played right now on a neutral field I think it's dead even. Wisconsin's offensive line is much improved, the qb situation has been settled and the punter and field goal kicker have both stabilized their performance.

Same with OSU. I actually think WI has an edge of OSU as the OSU offensive line is not as capable as Michigan's front. And Barrett made throws in the WI game that he has not matched the rest of the season. He played out of his mind in terms of passing.

by Chappy :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 10:58am

I'm a Michigan fan and I totally agree with your assessment. The Iowa loss was an indictment of Michigan's O-line and, to a lesser degree, the WRs inability to get out of bump-and-run. It also led to Speight's injury, which I can't help but think caused a few of his INTs (or the fumble). If all they had was the Ohio State loss, I think they should definitely be in the playoff, but the Iowa game was really where their season went wrong.

Additionally, while I think that Harbaugh was complaining about the wrong call in the game--and should be held accountable for the yardage he gave up with his unsportmanlike penalty--I don't know how anyone could come away with an understanding of what defensive pass interference is. The DPI calls were just completely incoherent.

by big10freak :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 12:43pm

Meanwhile OSU has won two games in OT with both of those games being dead even throughout yet all kinds of experts think OSU is the best candidate to go toe to toe with Alabama.

Alabama watches tape. Alabama sees number 59 of Ohio State who was gifted approximately 25 non holding calls by Big10 refs over the season. I think he is still holding JT Watt from WI. That young man is a disaster of a tackle. Alabama will have a field day at that player's expense. And if he is the best option for OSU then the backup must be one step from a turnstile.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 5:15pm

What's Alabama's best win this season?

USC and Western Kentucky would be their only victories over a team with fewer than 4 losses, and it was the Max Browne iteration of USC that they played (1-2 under Browne, 8-1 under Darnold).

OSU is 5-1 against teams with three or fewer losses, and has beaten the current 3,6, and 8, and lost on the road to the 9.

Alabama is a really good team. I think they are better than Ohio State. But let's not pretend that Alabama has been playing a bunch of Ohio States, or that Ohio State hasn't been playing a bunch of Alabamas.

by big10freak :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 5:47pm

OSU took it to Oklahoma. Absolutely. Best win of the season given the quality of opponent, location (on the road) and margin of victory.

I think OSU is very good. But the perspective that they are 'obviously' better via overtime wins that are 50/50 propositions is to me a bit curious.

Please note I am not mentioning the PSU loss. That was all fluke and frankly I think it's ridiculous that PSU gets all kinds of credit for a series of events that could not be replicated if one tried.

by ChrisS :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 5:35pm

I am also a whiny U of M fan. If this game was in Ann Arbor U of M would have won. Refs are effected by the crowd and all of the judgement calls went against Michigan. Michigan also would have won if they executed better on offense.

by big10freak :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 1:03pm

By the way, was there a league wide effort to not call offensive holding this season? It seems like the only holding calls that are called are A) really, truly over the top obvious or B) offense springs a big play thanks to an obvious hold. But even A and B are not done consistently.

There is also a category C of towards the end of a game mostly over one of the refs will call a random hold I guess just to say the crew did call holding?

Whatever the case the offensive holding in the Big10 is rampant, and I wonder how this will play out come bowl season.