by Chad Peltier
Well, this week was a little slower than most, with every top-ten team winning, and most by three or more scores. Outside of LSU's less-than-dominant 24-17 win over Arkansas and Oklahoma's narrow 48-47 win in Bedlam, the country's best teams cruised through the week.
ESPN's College GameDay was at Boston College this week for Clemson's toughest remaining regular-season test. The 17th-ranked Eagles have flown under the radar this season, but managed wins over Temple, Miami, and Virginia Tech on their way to being 7-2 overall.
Steve Addazio's Eagles successfully limited the Tigers' offense, holding them to 27 points overall and just a 39 percent success rate, but the Tigers' defense absolutely refused to let the Eagles into this game despite losing the turnover battle by two. Boston College was held to a 22 percent success rate and under 2 yards per play, only managing a single scoring opportunity in 13 possessions. Their prolific running back A.J. Dillon was held to 2.4 yards per carry, and only a quarter of his rush attempts went for 4 or more yards. Clemson's defensive front controlled this one, like they usually do, so it didn't really matter that the Tigers were held to a 24 percent rushing success rate.
Continuing the theme of slightly underwhelming offensive performances, Alabama's offense was held to just 24 points -- even though the defense put up its second-straight shutout of a division opponent. Before getting too deep into the game itself, it's worth mentioning the context of both Clemson and Alabama's performances on offense -- Boston College has the 25th-ranked S&P+ defense, holding opponents to an average of just 3.8 points per scoring opportunity (19th), while Mississippi State's defense is seventh overall in the country and fifth in opponent-adjusted passing S&P+. So given the fact they were facing great-to-elite defenses (especially in Alabama's case) and the fact that the game state's never necessitated more aggressive play calling (i.e., their own defenses were even more dominant than their opponents'), even relatively narrow point differentials felt like insurmountable leads.
That said, Tua Tagovailoa was held to 14-of-21 passing for 164 yards and his second-lowest yards per attempt average of the season (7.8, up from an even 7.0 yards per attempt last week against LSU). Overall the passing game had a 48 percent success rate, but it was still a step or two below what has become the (ridiculous) standard for Alabama this season. More concerning was Tagovailoa's knee injury, although we really don't have a good sense for how serious it actually was. Jalen Hurts is also reportedly dealing with an injury, so third-stringer Mac Jones finished the game for the Crimson Tide.
For Mississippi State, few expected the Bulldogs to come close to pulling the upset, but they are now 6-4 and slightly underwhelming in Joe Moorhead's first season. They're still 19th in the S&P+ overall, but the steep efficiency differential between their rushing and passing offense (third vs. 88th in S&P+, 12th vs. 107th in marginal efficiency) ultimately doomed them here. The Bulldogs' passing game is predicated on Nick Fitzgerald's rushing threat, so the fact that the Tide were able to contain his rushing -- he had nine carries for 12 non-sack yards -- meant that there was really no hope for Moorhead's offense.
Staying in the south, Georgia similarly held Auburn at arm's length following a 38-yard touchdown pass to Terry Godwin on fourth-and-3 with 21 second left in the first half. That score put the Bulldogs on top for good, and Auburn wouldn't create another scoring opportunity in the game. It wasn't that the Tigers were all that inefficient on offense -- they actually had a slightly higher offensive success rate than Georgia, 46 percent to 45 percent -- but they just couldn't string a drive together, mostly due to a poor 25 percent success rate on passing downs. Georgia, on the other hand, had a 45 percent passing downs success rate (the national average is 31 percent), and managed four more scoring opportunities than the Tigers.
Georgia stuck to their script, which includes bend-don't-break defense with excellent passing-downs success (eighth compared to 42nd in standard downs S&P+); an efficient and explosive run game where a now-healthier D'Andre Swift totaled 186 yards on 17 carries and Elijah Holyfield had 60 percent of his runs go for 4-plus yards; and timely passing from Jake Fromm, who always seems to pick up third downs when they are most needed (he went 7-of-10 for 102 yards on passing downs).
While there's still a question of whether this Georgia team could pass its way back into a game if it got down big early, the bigger problem seems to be their continuing goal-line issues. Georgia is just 54th in points per scoring opportunity despite ranking third in the country in overall offensive S&P+. The issue is really just at the goal line though -- they rank 28th and 25th in success rate between the 30- to 21- and the 20- to 11-yard lines respectively, but they're second-to-last in success rate inside the ten, with just a 30.4 percent success rate (their goal-line success rate of 18.2 percent is also second-to-last in the country). Georgia won't be able to upset Alabama with field goals, no matter how good Rod Blankenship is as a kicker. And it's not for lack of trying -- Jim Chaney has tried running in heavy sets and standard sets, quick outside passes, and putting in Justin Fields -- all with similar results.
Overall, this season's preseason favorites have really stayed that way week-to-week. Purdue's upset of Ohio State is just about the only surprise so far, and we could end up with a playoff that includes nobody but teams in everybody's top five or six from the end of last season. But with Ohio State-Michigan in The Game and Alabama-Georgia playing for the SEC title, at least there are few huge matchups left this year.
- There wasn't a lot of drama in the top ten, but there were a few upsets in the rest of the top 25. Tennessee upset Kentucky to reach 5-5, as the Volunteers have now achieved two upset wins against conference opponents that few saw coming. They still may not make a bowl, but Tennessee fans have to be pleased that they've even managed this much in Jeremy Pruitt's first season. The Volunteers beat Kentucky by limiting Benny Snell to 4.0 yards per carry, picking up a few explosive plays from Ty Chandler and Marequez Callaway, and holding the Wildcats to just 1.4 points per scoring opportunity. Wake Forest also upset North Carolina State 27-23, mostly by holding the Wolfpack to a 27 percent rushing success rate and 2.0 yards per carry while averaging 4.3 yards per carry and a 47 percent success rate of their own. Cameron Glenn had six havoc plays for the Deacons, with nine tackles, several going for a loss. Finally, Boise State upset Fresno State 24-17; the Bulldogs had arguably looked like the best Group of Five team so far this season and still rank ninth in the S&P+, but the Utah State Aggies are right behind them and are coming off of a huge 62-24 win over San Jose State. The Broncos will get a shot at the Aggies in just two weeks.
- Northwestern wrapped up the Big Ten West in their 14-10 win over Iowa (that's such a late-season Big Ten final score). This was a tight game as the postgame win probability suggests -- 69 percent with a 4.6-point adjusted scoring margin. The only real differences between the teams was Northwestern's ability to run the ball -- they averaged 5.0 yards per carry to Iowa's 3.2, and had a +24 percent rushing success rate differential. This helped them in the red zone, as the Wildcats averaged 4.7 points per scoring opportunity to Iowa's 2.5. In total, Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser managed 165 yards on 31 carries, with 58 percent of those runs going for 4 or more yards. The Wildcats will face either Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. And all of this in a year where the Wildcats are just 6-4 (with just 4.5 second-order wins), rank 77th in the S&P+, and lost to Akron!
- Bobby Petrino is now out at Louisville following a 54-23 loss at Syracuse. The Cardinals fell off completely without Lamar Jackson there to compensate for their numerous weaknesses. They ranked 14th and 17th in the F/+ rankings in 2016 and 2017, but went just 8-5 despite their solid statistical ranking last season, and fell to 118th in the country this season. Their offensive and defensive S&P+ rankings are both 105th, and their only two wins this season were over Indiana State and Western Kentucky in the second and third weeks of the season.
- D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia. Auburn must be tired of D'Andre Swift at this point, because he has had game-clinching long touchdown runs in his last two games against the Tigers. Swift had 17 carries for 186 yards, including that 77-yarder that put Georgia's lead way out of reach. Swift had a 53 percent rushing success rate on the day in addition to averaging 18.8 highlight yards per opportunity. This is his third-straight 100-yard rushing performance since coming back from the bye week.
- Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma. Not that Oklahoma State's defense is that intimidating, but Murray's numbers this season have been unreal. He went 21-of-29 for 349 yards (12.0 yards per attempt) and no picks, and added 66 rushing yards on 14 carries. Saying that he puts up video game numbers is almost inadequate.
- Willie Gay Jr., DL, Mississippi State. Willie Gay Jr. lead the way for Mississippi State's impressive defensive effort against Alabama. The Crimson Tide offense has been a juggernaut this season, but the Bulldogs have had the best showing so far, holding them to just 24 points. Gay had a team-leading nine tackles, six of which were solo, two sacks, and an interception, which was just Tua Tagovailoa's second of the year.