by Chad Peltier
Rivalry week is done, and with it the regular season for most of the country as we turn our attention to playoff selection committee rankings and conference championship games. The Notre Dame issue worked itself out this week with a last-second field goal loss to Stanford (you apparently can't give Kevin Hogan 30 seconds on the clock!), but now we've got North Carolina, Stanford, and Ohio State potentially knocking on the playoff door if there are any upsets in next week's championship games. Oklahoma appears to be a sure thing for the playoff, and Alabama, Clemson, and either Michigan State or Iowa will complete the playoff four if they are able to win their conference championships.
But barring upsets, who has the best shot at the playoff? North Carolina can boast just a single loss to South Carolina in the season opener, but hasn't faced any currently ranked teams. The Tar Heels are also by far the lowest-rated contender in the F/+ rankings at 19th. Ohio State has just a single win over a currently ranked team, but beat Michigan 42-13, is fourth in the latest F/+ rankings following last weekend's games, and their only loss is to top-five Michigan State on a last-second field goal. Finally, Stanford has two losses to Northwestern and Oregon, but the latter was by just two points and the Cardinal is tenth in the F/+ rankings. None of those pros and cons may factor in if the current top four (or Michigan State) win their conference championship games, but the three teams do have a shot.
Finally, we're entering coaching silly season as news continues to break about head coaches getting hired and fired. The LSU athletic department botched the decision-making and public relations process, but decided to hold on to Les Miles following his win over the Aggies in their regular season finale. Assistant coaching changes will almost certainly be evaluated during the offseason, but the head man will be back for at least 2016. News broke Monday morning that USC would take the interim tag off Clay Helton instead of going with an outside hire. In other good news, Virginia Tech hired Memphis' Justin Fuente, who will retain elite defensive coordinator Bud Foster while implementing a long-needed offensive update. This appears to be a slam-dunk hire for the Hokies, as retaining Foster ensures some continuity while also bringing fresh ideas for the Hokies offense. Finally, Mark Richt has stepped down as Georgia's head coach with the option to continue in some other capacity in Georgia's athletic department. The current favorite for his replacement is Alabama defensive coordinator and Georgia alum Kirby Smart, but Houston's Tom Herman (who led the Cougars to a 52-31 upset win over Navy last weekend) is also considered a candidate. It's unclear whether defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who led Georgia's 12th-ranked S&P+ defense, will be retained no matter who the new head coach is.
- Ohio State throttled Michigan just a week removed from an embarrassing offensive performance at home against Michigan State. The Wolverines had one of the top-rated defenses in the country, but that was primarily built on success rate -- Michigan was break, don't bend. The Buckeyes offense certainly exploited this weakness with big plays on the ground from both J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott (more on his performance below) as the pair combined for six explosive runs. Ohio State also had extreme drive efficiency, generating scoring opportunities on nearly 80 percent of its total drives and then averaging six points per scoring opportunity. It wasn't all big plays either, as Elliott had a 62 percent rushing success rate and Barrett averaged a 67 percent rushing success rate. The defense was typically efficient, bending but not breaking by allowing just a single touchdown in Michigan's four scoring opportunities. Jake Rudock (who missed a large part of the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury) got his yards, including 263 total passing yards on more than 8 yards per attempt, but he was unable to turn drives in to touchdowns largely due to a poor run game that averaged just 2.3 yards per attempt with a 21 percent rushing opportunity rate.
- South Carolina certainly made it a contest against the top-ranked Clemson Tigers, losing by just five points in their final game of the season. The Gamecocks had an incredible seven explosive runs against the Tigers, potentially giving North Carolina's Elijah Hood a blueprint for next week's ACC championship game. While Clemson is 15th overall in rushing S&P+, they are fourth in success rate but 127th in rushing IsoPPP, suggesting that Norh Carolina's best hope is hitting big plays on the ground like South Carolina did. Like Clemson's advanced stats show, the Gamecocks had extremely poor rushing efficiency with just a 29 percent rushing success rate, as nearly every non-explosive carry was for a loss or just a few yards.
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- Baylor was lost without either Seth Russell or Jarrett Stidham, as Chris Johnson was just 7-of-24 for 62 total passing yards. The quarterback run game was also inefficient (15 carries for 13 total rushing yards), dragging down the total effectiveness of the Bears' typically high-flying offense. The Bears defense stepped up against Trevone Boykin, who was held to just 4.5 yards per attempt with an interception, but it wasn't enough as the Bears fell to TCU in double overtime.
- Connor Cook and Michigan State's offense had one of their finest performances of the season against the typically havoc-raising, stout Penn State defense. The key was maximizing scoring opportunities. Of their seven scoring opportunities, the Spartans scored six touchdowns, averaging six points per scoring opportunity. The only misstep was a fourth-quarter fumble on the Penn State 36-yard line. The Spartans offense was aided greatly by their defense. For instance, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg threw a pick-six to defensive end Malik McDowell, only to have the Spartans recover a fumble on the ensuing kickoff to get the ball on the Nittany Lions' 9-yard line. Offensive lineman Jack Allen then scored on the following play with a 9-yard touchdown run to cap the Spartans' most dominating win of the season.
- Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. Urban Meyer and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner listened to Ezekiel Elliott's call for more carries following last week's loss. The junior running back had three explosive carries, including a 66-yard run along the sideline in the first half of the Buckeyes' win. Elliott ran with a 62 percent success rate and averaged 7.1 yards per carry (four more than Michigan's defense usually allows this season) on his way to 214 total rushing yards on Michigan's then-ninth-ranked rushing S&P+ defense.
- Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. The likely Heisman leader had a school-record 46 carries for 271 yards in the Iron Bowl against rival Auburn. Derrick Henry continues to be the epitome of a workhorse running back, now leading the nation in total rushing yards (1,797) and sitting second in rushing attempts (295).
- Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. Not only did Clemson's Heisman candidate throw for 279 yards at more than 10 yards per attempt and run for a team-leading 114 yards, but he was also 9-for-11 on third-down attempts when he either threw or was the primary ballcarrier.
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- Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina. Elijah Hood may not be on the national radar yet, but he's sure to challenge Clemson's elite run defense next week in the ACC Championship Gae]me. Hood had 220 rushing yards with a 76 percent success rate and five explosive runs over N.C. State. The Tar Heels offense scored touchdowns on each of their first five possessions of the game.
- Jack Allen, OL, Michigan State. Allen made his case for the SBNation Piesman Trophy by scoring on a 9-yard touchdown run, but he was also part of a Michigan State offensive line that didn't allow a single sack or tackle for loss to Penn State's defense, which led the nation in sacks and was fourth in tackles for loss (tenth in overall havoc rate and first in defensive line havoc rate).
- Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State.. The junior defensive end made his own case for the Piesman by picking off Michigan's Wilton Speight in the fourth quarter after first tipping the pass. He also had a sack and a tackle for loss to go along with his 28-yard interception return.