by Chad Peltier
This week showed the best of what college football has to offer: thrilling last-second wins for Tennessee, North Carolina, and Clemson; complete domination from blue-blood programs like Ohio State and Alabama; and rising teams that have come out of nowhere in Miami and Texas A&M. The premier matchups delivered both in terms of entertainment and in their consequences for the playoff race.
After five weeks we have a decent idea of who the playoff contenders will be this season. At the top we have Washington, Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Clemson, and Houston. These teams have played like championship contenders through five weeks, are all currently undefeated, and have difficult but manageable schedules. This group isn't exactly going out on a limb -- they're the top four teams in the F/+ rankings after last weekend, plus 12th-ranked Houston. Houston may be lower ranked now and has a much smaller margin for error, but wins over Oklahoma and Louisville (and potentially South Florida in the American championship game) would give them an incredibly strong case for the playoff.
The second-tier teams all have some kind of flaw, whether it's a loss, playing poorly in wins, or the weight of lower preseason projections keeping them from the top tier of playoff contenders. This group includes Louisville (who really needs Florida State to pull it back together), Miami (who has surprised many with their play so far and ranks 11th in the F/+ now), Wisconsin (now disqualified necessarily after a touchdown loss to Michigan), Nebraska, Tennessee (the classic undefeated team that has played fairly poorly), Texas A&M, and Baylor. Texas A&M will get to prove itself quickly with matchups against Tennessee and Alabama in its next two games.
Finally, real dark horse playoff contenders include Stanford, West Virginia, and Boise State. Boise State simply doesn't have a tough enough schedule to get in, even if they go undefeated. West Virginia joins Baylor as the only remaining undefeated Big 12 teams, but ranks 28th in the current F/+ rankings. And Stanford, at 19th in the F/+, both has serious offensive issues to overcome and must turn around public perception after their beatdown by Washington last week.
- This Saturday we were lucky enough to see two last-second wins within around ten minutes of each other in real time. First, North Carolina kicked a game-winning field goal with four seconds left to hand Florida State its second loss. Roughly the same time that North Carolina kicker Nick Weiler was tomahawking around the field following his 54-yard kick, Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason launched a 47-yard pass down the sideline with ten seconds left to put Georgia up by three points. (It's important to note here that many are calling Georgia's pass a Hail Mary, but that term doesn't really fit -- it was just a normal pass down the sideline). Most of the country assumed that those two back-to-back incredible plays would be it, and we would end with two big midday upsets. But with four seconds left, and following a penalty-extended kickoff return, Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs launched a Hail Mary into the end zone that Tennessee receiver Jauan Jennings managed to pull in despite being surrounded by five Bulldogs. So what led to these two wild finishes?
Florida State and North Carolina set up their big finale via the Seminoles' poor scoring opportunity efficiency in the first half and both teams' poor secondary play. Florida State started the game with three straight scoring opportunity drives that ended with missed field goals. The issue on all three drives was the same: poor passing downs efficiency. The first drive featured all runs and gained 47 yards before stalling deep in North Carolina territory. The next two mixed efficient running (67 percent success rate) with explosive passes (two passes over 26 yards), but the Seminoles struggled with second- and third-and-long. These three missed scoring opportunities at the beginning of the game would have made the difference in the end -- the Seminoles were as efficient as they could have been in the second half, scoring touchdowns on all four possessions.
Georgia-Tennessee was about as even of a matchup as you can find. Not only did both teams score go-ahead touchdowns in the last ten seconds, but they played evenly for the rest of the game as well. Both had a 44 percent offensive success rate overall, both had six scoring opportunities, and they were within 0.4 average yards per play of one another. The only major statistical differences were in points per scoring opportunity (5.17 to 4.67) and in turnovers, which both favored the Bulldogs. These differences can mostly be traced back to a single play in the second quarter: Georgia defensive back Deandre Baker forced a Jalen Hurd fumble after a 23-yard reception right before Hurd crossed the goal line. Georgia would score on its next possession. Besides that missed opportunity, Georgia and Tennessee were almost complete equals -- setting up the dramatic finish.
- Louisville vs. Clemson was inarguably the game of the week, and it lived up to the hype. Speaking of evenly matched and close games, Louisville literally came up a yard short on fourth down, as receiver James Quick was tackled at the Clemson 3-yard line with only 33 seconds left.
Overall, Clemson was the better team. Their offense averaged 3.25 more yards per play, averaged half a point more per scoring opportunity, and had a seven percent higher overall success rate. Louisville had four three-and-outs, while Clemson just had one. But Louisville went down to the wire with Clemson primarily due to turnovers. Clemson went minus-2 in turnover margin, allowing 14 points off of those turnovers as well. Both teams were fairly sloppy with eight turnovers total, but Deshaun Watson's three interceptions (with one or two being mostly his receivers' fault) halted Clemson's momentum and gave Louisville decent field position.
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Second, Lamar Jackson was, once again, incredible -- and this time against a Clemson defense that now ranks third in defensive S&P+ -- but there are some caveats to that performance. He had a 62 percent rushing success rate throughout the game and led his team with 162 rushing yards, so that wasn't the issue. But Jackson was harassed by an incredibly aggressive Clemson defense in the first half that limited the Cardinals to just ten points at halftime. Jackson missed on his first four passing attempts and was sacked five times (the Clemson defense also had ten tackles for loss, bringing them up to seventh in havoc rate). The Clemson front seven brought extra defenders for most of the first half to confuse Jackson and collapse the pocket with superior numbers. In the first half Jackson had just a 48 percent passing success rate and the Louisville offense struggled to find a rhythm due to constant pressure. But the Clemson defense appeared to pull back in the second half, potentially worried about getting burned by their over-aggression. But the Louisville offense scored on all but their final two drives of the second half to nearly take down last season's playoff runner-up.
- LSU could have completely given up on the season with Les Miles getting fired last week. Coach Ed Orgeron is the most experienced interim coach the Tigers could have hoped for, but there was no telling how the team would respond against a decent Missouri team with a solid quarterback in Drew Lock. But LSU absolutely rolled over Missouri, only allowing a score in the final half of the fourth quarter. Missouri's offense opened with three three-and-outs and was inefficient all night, while LSU's offense created scoring opportunities on eight of their 12 drives, averaging 5.25 points per opportunity as well. That drive efficiency was fueled by incredible rushing success, as both Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams had 100-yard days. Guice had four explosive runs and Williams had three as the team had a 58 percent offensive success rate overall. And that's after this Missouri defense held Georgia's running backs to 2.66 yards per carry.
- Ty Johnson, RB, Maryland. Maryland might be one of the most surprising 4-0 teams in college football right now in D.J. Durkin's first year as head coach. Durkin isn't the only person flying under the radar, as his sophomore running back Ty Johnson ran seven times for an astounding 204 yards. He has 332 total rushing yards this year, with a 53.6 percent opportunity rate and 14.0 highlight yards per opportunity. Those numbers came from three runs of 48-plus yards against Purdue. Maryland is now fourth in rushing success rate and 20th in rushing IsoPPP this year.
- Derrius Guice, RB, LSU. We've already mentioned Derrius Guice's performance against Missouri, but he deserves Honor Roll mention as well because his 163 rushing yards came as he admirably filled in for an injured Leonard Fournette. The Tigers will be in good hands after Fournette leaves for the NFL.
- Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston. Yes, it was only UConn, but it was a game the Cougars lost last season and Greg Ward was nearly perfect, throwing for 389 yards on 32-of-38 passing, and leading the team in rushing with 65 yards. The only concern for Houston is how much of the offense goes through its star quarterback. Backup Kyle Postma is talented, but the offense is highly concentrated and its floor is entirely determined by Ward's health.
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- Washington's entire defensive line. The Washington defensive line might be the best in the country. The Huskies held Stanford to 29 total rushing yards (including sacks) and created eight sacks. The metrics don't love Washington's defense as much, ranking them just 34th in rushing S&P+ and 40th in overall havoc rate, but the unit clearly won the game against Stanford.
- Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE, Northwestern. Ifeadi Odenigbo was a late-riser recruit after starting football in just his sophomore year of high school. But now Odenigbo is tied for 12th in the country in sacks after recording four against Iowa.
- Zedrick Woods, DB, Ole Miss. Ole Miss defensive backs have struggled somewhat as a unit this year, but Zedrick Woods put on a show, recording two interceptions (one of which he returned for a touchdown) eight tackles, and 1.5 tackles for loss as the Rebels took down Memphis.