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30 Oct 2017

OFI: Huge Wins Could Mean Playoff Chaos

by Chad Peltier

Few games have lived up to their billing like the matchup between AP's second-ranked Penn State and sixth-ranked Ohio State. Playing for control of the Big Ten East and facing playoff elimination, Ohio State nevertheless gave the Nittany Lions a 14-point head start: a Saquon Barkley return for a touchdown on the game's opening kickoff, almost immediately followed by a Buckeyes fumble that was returned to the Ohio State 23-yard line. Turnovers, special teams errors, and penalties would continue to undermine the Buckeyes' otherwise superior effort -- until the very end of the fourth quarter.

Ohio State's special teams issues were so bad (and Ohio State's defense so good) that over the course of the game Penn State managed to create scoring opportunities on 38 percent of drives, or five of 13 opportunities. But Penn State began three of those scoring opportunity drives with the ball in Ohio State territory due to turnovers or poor kickoffs. We could have seen some degree of field position disadvantage before the game -- Ohio State has a 55.4 percent kickoff success rate, which is 122nd in the country.

The Buckeyes defense also allowed the Heisman Trophy frontrunner a second-quarter 36-yard touchdown run, but otherwise held Barkley to 20 carries for 8 rushing yards (0.4 yards per carry, a 19 percent rushing success rate), and stuffed 43 percent of his runs at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes defensive front was dominant, keeping Ohio State in the game despite going down 21-3 early in the second quarter. With Barkley kept in check, and Penn State's passing game being less explosive than last season (ranking 49th in passing IsoPPP this year), Ohio State's offense just needed some time to claw its way back -- and it eventually would, due to ruthless efficiency and a heroic late effort from J.T. Barrett.

Ohio State averaged 2.36 more yards per play, had four more scoring opportunities, and had a 19 percent higher success rate than the Nittany Lions. But Ohio State's comeback really kicked in to gear with 11:39 left in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes defense forced a three-and-out, only to have star cornerback Denzel Ward come off the edge and block the punt, giving Ohio State the ball at the Penn State 41-yard line. Two plays later, Barrett would throw a 38-yard strike to Johnnie Dixon to cut the Penn State lead to just eight points. Ohio State would then score on its next two drives thanks to 16 straight completions for Barrett (and just two total rushing attempts in their final three touchdown drives), who threw for 170 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

To close out the one-point win, the Ohio State defense just needed to get one more stop with 1:48 left in the game. Though another poor kickoff gave Penn State the ball on their 41-yard line, the Buckeyes defense forced three incompletions and a sack, and the Buckeyes took the win. On Penn State's final two drives of the game, the Buckeyes defensive front forced two tackles for loss, three incomplete passes, a sack, and just one unsuccessful 5-yard run on third-and-19. Ohio State's special teams, penalties, and turnovers forced the incredible comeback, but according to the S&P+ win probabilities, they would win that game 97 percent of the time (given their statistical performance) with an average margin of victory of 17.4.

But Penn State wasn't the only undefeated team to go down on Saturday, as Matt Campbell's Iowa State Cyclones continued their trend of handing undefeated Big 12 teams their first loss. The Cyclones defense came through with big plays when needed, picking off Kenny Hill twice and forcing two Hill fumbles (one recovered), while denying TCU any points on their three scoring opportunities (TCU's lone score was a 94-yard kickoff return by KaVontae Turpin). The Horned Frogs offense otherwise outperformed the Iowa State offense, holding a 1.45 yards per play edge and a 14 percent higher success rate. But turnovers and scoring opportunities were enough to shut out the Horned Frogs offense, while Kyle Kempt and big-play receiver Allen Lazard were enough to spring the Cyclones offense over TCU.

Iowa State now has wins over two previously undefeated teams and two losses (a conference loss to Texas, and a non-conference loss to Iowa) by a combined 13 points. With a 4-1 conference record, they're tied with TCU, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State atop the Big 12. The Big 12 now enters a cannibalistic circle, with Bedlam next week, while the Cyclones face West Virginia and Oklahoma State next.

So now we have an issue. There are four undefeated Power-5 schools, with Georgia and Alabama looking stronger than Wisconsin and Miami so far. But there are an incredible nine one-loss teams too, including:

  • Ohio State (who likely boasts the best win, but lost head-to-head to fellow one-loss Oklahoma);
  • Notre Dame (whose loss was by just a single point in Week 2 to undefeated Georgia);
  • Clemson (who lost to Syracuse, but had an injured Kelly Bryant, and has only one real test left in North Carolina State next week);
  • Penn State (whose resume looks much weaker after losing to Ohio State);
  • Oklahoma (who lost to two-loss Iowa State, but beat Ohio State, one of the biggest wins among one-loss teams);
  • TCU (who can separate themselves with a win over the Sooners in two more games);
  • Oklahoma State (same, next week in Bedlam);
  • Washington (out of the spotlight since the loss to Arizona State, but with ample opportunities to impress in their remaining four games);
  • and finally Virginia Tech (who face the undefeated Hurricanes in a huge resume-building opportunity next week, but carry a head-to-head loss to Clemson).

That's an insane amount of instability after nine weeks. Thirteen teams remain with a real shot at the Playoff, and all have opportunities to enhance their resumes even ahead of conference title games. The Big 12 is maybe the most unstable, with each team still with multiple loseable games left on their schedules. The Pac-12 has the worst chances of any conference; their sole hope lies in one-loss Washington.

There are a couple of other areas to watch. First, Notre Dame could be tricky moving forward. Their single loss was as good as a loss can be, and their win over North Carolina State this week was incredibly strong, adding to wins over USC and Michigan State as underrated, but excellent performances. The S&P+ projects two remaining games where the Irish are favored by less than a touchdown, against Miami and Stanford. But a one-loss Notre Dame team would be very difficult to keep out of the Playoff even without a conference championship (their strength of schedule would likely make up for that). And the scenario where both Georgia and Alabama get in is still on the table as well.


  • Miami has had a crazy season to stay undefeated, beating 1-8 North Carolina 24-19 for their fourth-straight win by eight points or less. There's no doubt that the Hurricanes are a good team -- they're 14th in the S&P+, after all, and winning close games takes talent. But it's also incredibly lucky, too. They average 4.79 points per game in turnover luck, and beat Florida despite a win probability of just 23 percent. Against the Tar Heels, quarterback Malik Rosier threw for 356 yards, 9.4 per attempt, but completed just 42 percent of his passes -- that's what completing five throws of 35-plus yards will do for you.
  • Georgia beat Florida 42-7 in a game that never really felt close. And that lack of competitiveness -- Georgia was up 21-0 in the first quarter -- was the end for Florida head coach Jim McElwain in Gainesville. Georgia went straight into cruise control after Sony Michel's 74-yard touchdown run, which put Georgia up by three scores after three drives. Jake Fromm only attempted seven passes all game and the Bulldogs only ended with a 5 percent higher offensive success rate, but Georgia essentially rested for three quarters as the Bulldogs only ran a total of 42 plays. Jim McElwain went 22-12 at Florida, but was ultimately undone by a failure to develop an SEC-caliber quarterback. The Gators have ranked 98th, 88th, and 73rd in offensive S&P+ since 2015.


  • J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State. We have already covered how brilliant and clutch J.T. Barrett performed against a then-top ten S&P+ Penn State defense (13-of-13 for 170 yards in the fourth quarter, along with a team-high 95 rushing yards), so I'll use this space to talk about Barrett's season-long stats. Barrett is 23rd in passing yards per game, averaging 271, with 8.8 yards per attempt. He has just a single interception, compared with 25 touchdown passes. He has completed 69.5 percent of his passes, which is fifth in the country, and he is third in quarterback rating. He has also chipped in 454 rushing yards with a 54.7 percent opportunity rate, showing his incredible efficiency in the ground game. This is easily one of the best seasons by an Ohio State quarterback, ever -- and some Ohio State fans wanted him benched after the loss to Oklahoma. This also just goes to show you the impact that quarterback coaches and offensive coordinates can have, as Barrett has improved significantly under Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day.
  • Ronald Jones II, RB, USC. The Trojans' Ronald Jones II was both efficient and explosive against a better-than-expected Arizona State defense, totaling 216 yards on just 18 carries as USC blew out the Sun Devils. Jones II now has 888 yards rushing on the season, at 6.73 per carry.
  • Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame. Almost just to remind everyone that the Irish destroyed the Trojans, running back Josh Adams went off on the strong North Carolina State defense, running for 202 yards on 27 carries and putting himself into the Heisman short list as long as Notre Dame keeps winning. Adams has a 10-plus-yard run on 18.9 percent of his carries, compared to 15.2 percent for Saquon Barkley, and 24.4 percent for Bryce Love. (Arizona's Khalil Tate? 36.2 percent, on 69 carries this year.)


  • Koa Farmer, LB , Penn State. Koa Farmer was all over the field for Penn State. He had seven tackles, including two tackles for loss; recovered and returned a fumble; and had a 59-yard kickoff return against Ohio State.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 30 Oct 2017

2 comments, Last at 01 Nov 2017, 4:24pm by horn


by Will Allen :: Mon, 10/30/2017 - 6:01pm

Penn State's o-line was just thoroughly whipped, and I the Penn State qb had not made some good plays, Penn State would not have been in the game in the 2nd half.

by horn :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:24pm

Miami didn't play Florida this year, I think you missed the 'State' there.