by Chad Peltier
The theme of this Rivalry Week was "more of the same," but that doesn't mean it wasn't an incredible round of college football that will set up some intense conference championship games.
Rivalry Week seemed to offer some promise for long-time underdogs to get their first rivalry wins in years. Bronco Mendenhall's Virginia Cavaliers seemed to have a good shot against one of the worst Virginia Tech teams in a long time. The Washington State Cougars have looked like the more consistent and higher-ceilinged team compared to Washington. And Michigan was favored to get just their second win in The Game in the last 15 years. But it was more of the same for long-suffering fans of the Cavaliers (34-31), Cougars (28-15), and Wolverines (62-39).
The biggest rivalry game that failed to produce a new winner was The Game between Michigan and Ohio State. Michigan came in as road favorites against the inconsistent Buckeyes, who hadn't had an S&P+ performance above 79 percent since Week 4 against Tulane. In contrast, the Wolverines had played half of their games at a 90 percent S&P+ level or better.
Michigan had a top-five defense using any metric you'd like to try, and their offense was efficient as long as it stayed on schedule. In particular, Karan Higdon and the run game had started to wear opponents down, and they were producing big plays at a steady clip in the second halves of recent games. Ohio State had just gone to overtime against Maryland, giving up nearly 300 rushing yards to a freshman Terrapins running back in the process, so that looked like a matchup the Wolverines would exploit. Further, it was unclear how Dwayne Haskins would move the ball against Don Brown's elite defense. Ohio State's offensive line had been shaky against elite pass-rushers, of which Michigan had a few, including Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary.
But rivalries sometimes defy a season's worth of data. Ohio State's volatile defense held Michigan to a 31 percent rushing success rate and only two explosive runs in non-garbage time (yes, about 20 percent of this game was in garbage time!), and those two plays were each just 15 yards. Without explosive scores, Ohio State's defense was more than up to the task of slowing the Michigan offense, forcing two early field goals on sustained drives that allowed Ohio State to mount an early lead -- and Michigan isn't built for playing from behind.
Further, the Ohio State passing game tore up the Wolverines' man defense, with a 36.7 percent passing explosiveness rate. Sixty-five percent of Haskins' successful passes went for 15-plus yards, and he ended with 396 total passing yards at 12.8 yards per attempt. Ohio State's offensive line didn't allow a single sack. And the Buckeyes also took advantage of turnovers, scoring touchdowns on each of the three turnovers they got -- two interceptions and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.
All in all, it ended up being Ohio State's first completely dominant win against a good opponent this season -- and it has the potential to shake up the playoff race if they can beat Northwestern next week in the Big Ten championship game.
Speaking of championship games, Oklahoma clinched a spot against Texas in the Big 12 title contest thanks to a 59-56 win over West Virginia. This game epitomized the Big 12: Will Grier threw for over 500 yards in a loss; each team had a 200-yard receiver (Marquise Brown and Gary Jennings Jr.) while West Virginia also had another 100-yard receiver (David Sills V); and each team easily outpaced the national average for offensive success rate (57 and 47 percent for Oklahoma and West Virginia, respectively).
In fact, there are few major statistical differences in the teams' performances. West Virginia ran 25 more plays (90 total), but the Sooners averaged about 2.5 yards per play more than the Mountaineers with a ten percent higher success rate. Both teams had two turnovers, but the Mountaineers had nearly three expected turnovers based on passes defensed and fumbles, so they benefited from roughly 11 points of average turnover luck (although Oklahoma did have a fumble return for a touchdown!). The Mountaineers averaged 1.7 more points per scoring opportunity than the Sooners, meaning that they were better with a nearly equal number of scoring opportunities (nine to Oklahoma's 10) despite a worse overall offensive success rate. And critically, the Sooners also had an explosive ground game in addition to their efficient passing game -- Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks had 182 rushing yards on 21 carries while Kyler Murray added 114 of his own on nine carries. Both players averaged over 11 highlight yards per opportunity.
With Oklahoma's per-play advantage, West Virginia was forced to stage a comeback touchdown drive with four minutes left. They failed to recover an onside kick though, and then gave up a fourth-and-5 conversion with two minutes left, which effectively sealed the win for Oklahoma. The Sooners now get the opportunity to avenge their only loss of the season -- a 48-45 game against Texas.
Elsewhere, although neither Virginia nor Virginia Tech were ranked, they played a thrilling game. The Cavaliers used four straight touchdown drives to open the second half to come back from a 14-point deficit. But after going down 31-24 late in the fourth, Virginia Tech's Steven Peoples fumbled in the end zone, only for the ball to be recovered by Hezekiah Grimsley for a touchdown to tie the game at 31. After a Hokies field goal, the defense forced a fumble on first-and-10 from the 14 in overtime to clinch another win over their instate rival. Both teams had a 39 percent success rate and seven scoring opportunities -- the only meaningful statistical difference between the two teams was the ending fumble, which gave the Hokies the edge in turnover margin.
Out west, Washington completely dominated the Cougars in a snowy Apple Cup, ending with a 100 percent S&P+ win probability and a 98 percent S&P+ performance. The Huskies had a 12 percent success rate margin, three more scoring opportunities, and averaged half a point more per scoring opportunity. The real difference in the game was that one team could run the ball and the other couldn't, which makes sense considering they played in the snow. The Huskies' Myles Gaskin ran for 170 yards on 27 rushes, while Washington State's Gardner Minshew averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt on 35 passes, including sacks. However, it might be more accurate to say that the Cougars just didn't run the ball, even though they could -- James Williams had 65 yards on just 11 carries, with 55 percent of those runs going for 4 or more yards and with a 64 percent success rate. But Washington State didn't adapt when the passing game wasn't working, and ended up dropping another Apple Cup to the Huskies, 28-15.
Aside from Michigan's loss, the other top playoff contenders all won. Essentially, the remaining playoff contenders are limited to Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio State. There are two clear tiers within that group of six: Alabama (30.4), Clemson (27.7), and Georgia (27.1) are separated by 3.3 points in the recently-updated S&P+. Then there is a 4.2-point drop from Georgia to Oklahoma at fourth. Between Oklahoma (22.9), Notre Dame (ranked sixth, 20.5), and Ohio State (at eighth, 19.6), there's also just a difference of 3.3 points in the S&P+.
Undefeated Central Florida comes in at seventh in the S&P+ ratings and sixth in Resume S&P+, but just lost star quarterback McKenzie Milton to an injury ahead of their championship game against Memphis. While the Knights likely deserve consideration (they're ranked ahead of Ohio State in both S&P+ and Resume S&P+, after all), it's hard to imagine them factoring in to the committee's deliberations unless there is a lot of chaos at the top (i.e., a nightmare scenario where Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State all lose).
Without a conference championship game and with an undefeated record, we can safely assume Notre Dame is in. So that effectively leaves five teams for three spots. Here are a few scenarios for how this could go:
- Alabama is likely in the Playoff even with a loss to Georgia in the SEC championship game (which would also put Georgia in, likely at third). This is the key game of the week, because a Georgia win would leave just one open spot for Clemson, Ohio State, or Oklahoma. Georgia has a 43 percent chance to get the upset according to S&P+.
- If Georgia does beat Alabama, a Clemson win over Pitt would give the Tigers the final Playoff spot, likely as the 1 seed. The Tigers have a 93 percent win probability over Pitt according to S&P+.
- Continuing with that first scenario -- Georgia upsetting Alabama -- Oklahoma and Ohio State would then need Pitt to get a huge upset (seven percent probability by S&P+) over Clemson to have a chance at consideration. The Playoff committee would then have a tough decision between the Sooners and Buckeyes, and the margin of victory in their respective championship games could play a role in that decision.
- The committee would also likely have to decide between Ohio State and Oklahoma if Alabama beats Georgia and Clemson beats Pitt. Unless Alabama wins an extremely close SEC championship game, Georgia would likely be eliminated from the discussion with two losses. Both Alabama and Clemson winning would mean that the Playoff committee would be forced to compare the Sooners' and Buckeyes' resumes for the final spot. This might be difficult.
- Finally, losses by both Georgia and Clemson would pit (sorry) Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma against each other as one-loss teams vying for two spots. Clemson might still get in (unless it's a blowout Pitt win) because of their dominance throughout the regular season (nine of their games have had an S&P+ percentile performance above 90 percent). Oklahoma and Ohio State might still have to fight for that last spot even in this scenario.
Looking at all of the scenarios above, Ohio State and Oklahoma are likely to have to fight for a final playoff spot unless either Texas upsets Oklahoma (19 percent S&P+ win probability), Northwestern upsets Ohio State (12 percent S&P+ win probability), or both Georgia and Clemson win, meaning that both the Buckeyes and Sooners are likely left out.
- Besides all of the traditional rivalry same-ness and Group of Six playoff contenders, this week was notable for one truly record-setting game: LSU vs. Texas A&M. This game was bananas, and your best chance of following the play-by-play is likely reading this article, but I'll try to get the highlights here. The Tigers and Aggies played the highest-scoring game in FBS history, ending 74-72 after seven overtimes, after ending regulation tied at 31. Just the fact that it went to overtime at all was a little controversial, since LSU believed they had a game-winning interception with 29 seconds left. The call was overturned, but not before Ed Orgeron had a celebratory Gatorade bath. On the next play and down by a touchdown, Texas A&M converted a controversial fourth-and-18 pass. On TV the receiver appeared to be down short of the line to gain, but it turned out that the ESPN first-down line was displayed incorrectly. The Aggies then had to get a 19-yard touchdown pass with one second on the clock (which was added back on after a review found that Kellen Mond's spike came before the clock hit zero). Quartney Davis' 19-yard touchdown pass sent the game to overtime … where the two teams then traded touchdowns and field goals until Mond successfully completed a two-point conversion pass following a failed attempt from LSU.
- It might not mean anything in the long run next week -- Pitt has the 87th-ranked passing S&P+ offense -- but South Carolina's Jake Bentley put up 510 yards against Clemson, including 210 yards from Deebo Samuel. Clemson still won by three scores, but the 35 points they allowed was their most yet this season.
- Dwayne Haskins and Parris Campbell, QB and WR, Ohio State. Parris Campbell accounted for 192 of Dwayne Haskins' 396 passing yards against the elite Michigan defense. Buckeyes skill players repeatedly beat man coverage on crossing routes, with Campbell's 78-yard catch-and-run touchdown exemplifying Ohio State's brilliant game plan for the Wolverines defense. Haskins also set the Big Ten season records for passing yards (4,081) and touchdowns (42).
- Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M. Kellen Mond's statline wasn't insane despite the crazy final score -- 23-of-49 for 287 sack-adjusted yards (5.3 yards per attempt) -- but he was clutch when he needed to be, converting a fourth-and-18 on the final drive of regulation, a 19-yard touchdown with one second left on the clock to force overtime, and the final two-point conversion to end the game in the seventh overtime.
- Ohio State's offensive line. The Buckeyes didn't allow a sack against Michigan's defense, despite struggling with elite pass-rushers earlier in the season.