Out of the Power 5 conference championship games, Oregon was the only team to pull an upset, although Baylor tried their absolute best. Unfortunately for Utah, their 37-15 loss didn't just mean that they wouldn't be Pac-12 champs, but also that they would miss the playoff, since LSU would go on to trounce Georgia the next day in the SEC Championship Game.
It's a really tough break for the Utes, who had their best team in years. In fact, looking at CollegeFootballData's Team SP+ trends, this was their second-best team since 1970! But Oregon decided to just run all over the Utes, while mixing in a few explosive passes and big defensive plays too.
The Ducks only had an average overall efficiency, with a 40% success rate, but were better on standard downs (48% success rate, compared to just 21% on passing downs). Instead of per-play efficiency, four explosive plays really defined the Ducks' day offensively. Two were explosive touchdown runs of 70 and 31 yards for C.J. Verdell. He had 208 rushing yards on 18 carries for the day, so half of his yardage production came on just those two plays. His expected points added (EPA) on those two plays alone was 11.7 points! The other two big plays were through the air. Although Justin Herbert's overall day wasn't exactly prolific, he did complete two 45-plus-yard bombs to Juwan Johnson and Johnny Johnson III, which netted 8.3 EPA.
Meanwhile Oregon's defense completely tripped up Tyler Huntley, who averaged -0.4 EPA per pass attempt, which is in the bottom 15% of all games this season. He had two interceptions, one of which was intercepted in the end zone and netted -4.7 EPA. Zach Moss and the run game couldn't get going either. While Moss crossed the 100-yard mark thanks to a 42-yard run, the Utes' overall rushing performance was in the bottom 14% for the 2019 season.
In this game we got a preview of what Mario Cristobal's ideal Oregon performance would look like. He might prefer a more efficient run game than the 24% EPA success rate they got, but elite, run-stuffing defense plus deep shots downfield are probably his platonic ideal for a smashmouth Pac-12 team. As a result, the Pac-12 missed the playoff for the third straight season.
Baylor tried their absolute best to do the same to Oklahoma, forcing the game to overtime before ultimately falling short 30-23. The Bears were forced to go through three quarterbacks during the game due to injuries, with Charlie Brewer and backup Gerry Bohanon giving way to third-stringer Jacob Zeno. Neither of the first two QBs were effective, throwing for 71 total yards and averaging -0.9 and -0.3 EPA respectively, but Zeno came in in the fourth quarter and then things went bananas. Zeno completed only two of his six pass attempts, but they were for 81 and 78 yards each!
Baylor had averaged a 26% standard downs success rate and couldn't run the ball thanks to Oklahoma's attacking defense, but the Bears remained in the thick of it due to their defense and three explosive passes of their own. What was most surprising about the Bears defense/Oklahoma's offense was that someone finally slowed down the Sooners' run game. Oklahoma averaged -0.2 EPA per rush and had just a 22% rushing EPA success rate. While LSU has shown some susceptibility to quarterbacks being involved in the run game (i.e., the game against Ole Miss), Baylor might have provided a template for how to deal with the threat from Jalen Hurts and Kennedy Brooks running the ball. Ultimately for Baylor though, the lack of any kind of efficiency doomed them in overtime, where Oklahoma could more effectively pin their ears back and pressure Zeno. As a result of surviving their sixth one-score game of the season, the Sooners get a shot at the most accomplished team of the season, Joe Burrow's LSU.
Speaking of the Tigers, LSU absolutely blasted Georgia 37-10. Burrow was his usual elite self, throwing for 349 yards on 38 attempts while averaging 0.4 EPA per attempt (which is in the 79th percentile of passing EPA games this year). Basically the game came down to Georgia being unable to do anything on offense, which was easy to predict given how they've played this season, but especially because of the mounting injuries and suspensions that the Bulldogs have experienced.
Coming into this season, Georgia planned to rely on returning receiver Jeremiah Holloman, who was fourth in receiving yards on last year's team with 418. The Bulldogs' top five other receivers left for the NFL. But then Holloman was dismissed from the team over the summer, leaving Tyler Simmons as the new leading returning receiver with just 138 yards. Against LSU, top freshman George Pickens was suspended for the first half. Then Georgia's other strong freshman Dominick Blaylock tore his ACL, and leading rusher D'Andre Swift had a shoulder injury and only received five snaps. That lack of receiver depth, a strangely inaccurate Jake Fromm, and a new offensive coordinator who has underwhelmed in James Coley meant that Georgia couldn't take advantage of any potential weaknesses in the LSU defense. Fromm isn't a running quarterback like Ole Miss' John Rhys Plumlee (who, funny enough, was a signing day flip from Georgia to Ole Miss), and he doesn't have Alabama's receivers to exploit any gaps in coverage.
So the game was about as predictable as you could expect given those circumstances. Georgia's elite defense held on for as long as they could, but eventually the floodgates opened and your future 2019 Heisman winner made plays whenever he needed to. In fact, LSU made it look so easy that they were able to vault Ohio State for the top seed in the final playoff rankings.
Ohio State tried their very best demote themselves from that top spot too, needing a 27-point run in the second half to come back against Wisconsin. The first half was Ohio State's sloppiest half of play in any game this season. The Buckeyes defense struggled in the first half against Michigan last week but turned it around in the second half, and their offense more than kept pace with Shea Patterson and the Wolverines. That wasn't the case this week as the Buckeyes defense was again lax in the first half, but the offense also failed to take advantage of opportunities. The Buckeyes' first drive ended on downs while their second drive ended with a fumble on third-and-goal. In the first quarter the Buckeyes averaged -0.1 EPA with just a 37% success rate, while the Badgers averaged 0.44 and 0.54 EPA in the first two quarters. The result, capped by a four-play, 75-yard drive with under a minute left in the first half, was a 21-7 Badgers halftime lead.
What was most surprising was the Buckeyes defense allowing multiple big plays. In the first half alone, Jonathan Taylor had runs of 44 yards (for a touchdown) and 45 yards, while Quintez Cephus had receptions of 27, 24, 17, and 17 yards. The Buckeyes have rarely allowed big plays this year (unlike last season, where big plays were the norm), so it was shocking.
But the Buckeyes came storming back in the second half, keeping Wisconsin off the scoreboard while scoring 27 straight of their own. Chris Olave and K.J. Hill had big performances while J.K. Dobbins got going on the ground as well. The Badgers were held to 19% and 25% EPA success rates in the third and fourth quarters while Ohio State's average EPA jumped to 0.4 and 0.2 (the Buckeyes' third- and fourth-quarter EPA differential were 0.99 and 0.49 per play).
The Buckeyes will have a few things to clean up before their rematch against Clemson (in 2016 Clemson infamously shut out the Buckeyes 31-0). First will be to get everyone healthy. Justin Fields has taken some big hits and has worn a large brace on his knee since getting injured last week against Michigan and also taking big hits against Penn State. And J.K. Dobbins is likely sore after totaling 100 carries over the last three weeks. Second, the Buckeyes offensive line allowed five sacks against Wisconsin, and Clemson is sure to be able to bring pressure against that Ohio State front. The Buckeyes defense also needs to adjust after allowing Shea Patterson to cut through the secondary in the first half last week and Jack Coan to do the same in the first half of the Big Ten Championship Game. Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson receivers are several notches above any passing attack that the Buckeyes have faced this season, so those five-star defensive backs will have to play like it if they want to get back to the National Championship Game.
- Clemson's 62-17 win over Virginia is barely worth discussing. Trevor Lawrence threw for 302 yards on 22 attempts, averaging 0.78 EPA (top 4% of all passing EPA games this season) with Tee Higgins as the primary beneficiary. Some of the passing game's biggest plays were just Clemson receivers simply outrunning and/or out-jumping Virginia defensive backs, highlighting obvious physical and talent mismatches that are to be expected against 98% of other teams. Three different Clemson receivers had catches of over 50 yards. The Tigers defense forced Bryce Perkins to pass, and he did well outside of two interceptions, but it's almost always a problem when your quarterback has nearly twice as many rushing attempts as your running backs combined.
- Memphis also beat Cincinnati for the second time in two weeks, 29-24, meaning that the Bearcats have lost to the Tigers by a combined 15 points. The Bearcats had an inefficient passing attack, and eventually the Tigers were able to pile up enough explosive plays to get the AAC title. What's most interesting about Memphis (and probably now for Florida State too, since Mike Norvell was reportedly hired away) is that skill players both run and catch the ball in creative ways. Antonio Gibson and Kenneth Gainwell were both the top two rushers and the second- and third-leading receivers against Cincinnati. The win means that Memphis is the Group of 5 representative in the New Year's Six, where they will see Penn State.
- Quintez Cephus, WR, Wisconsin. Quintez Cephus was the game's leading receiver with seven catches for 122 yards against an elite Ohio State defense. He also had two of the team's top three EPA plays, which alone added about 6.5 EPA for the Badgers.
- C.J. Verdell, RB, Oregon. As mentioned above, Verdell's two big runs accounted for half of his yards for the day and really opened the game up for the Ducks in their win over Utah. He finished with 208 rushing yards on only 18 carries.
- Derek Stingley Jr., DB, LSU. Derek Stingley Jr. had two interceptions against Georgia that resulted in a -10.0 cumulative EPA. One of those interceptions was a 17-yard return into Georgia territory and had a -6.7 EPA.
- Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon. Kayvon Thibodeaux is going to be on a ton of watch lists next year as a Chase Young-type difference maker. He had 2.5 sacks and a blocked punt, combining for a cumulative -7.5 EPA on four plays.
Thanks to @msubbiaiah and his cfbscrapR package for EPA data!