One Foot Inbounds
The college football weekend in review

OFI: A New Number One

LSU Tigers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Week 11 was one of those rare weeks in the college football season that had a lot of hype because of matchups between highly-rated teams and actually lived up to that hype. The SEC and Big Ten each had games between two undefeated teams, with the underdogs taking the win in both. Add in undefeated Baylor going to triple-overtime against TCU, and you have quite a week on your hands.

Let's go right to the top matchup between LSU and Alabama. This game had echoes of the infamous 2011 9-6 "Game of the Century" and the underwhelming rematch in the BCS title game, but modernized. Whereas those games were defense-first contests of field position and running the ball, this year's edition was all about the quarterbacks and receivers, nearly all of whom will go on to NFL futures.

Alabama's opening drive set the tone for what would end up being a 46-41 barnburner, as their first two plays from scrimmage gained 51 yards. On third-and-goal from the 8, Tua Tagovailoa scrambled right on his recently surgically repaired ankle and fumbled. Turnovers and explosive plays would bookend the first half for Alabama, allowing the Tigers to steal possessions (as Richard Johnson noted on Podcast Ain't Played Nobody) and amass a commanding lead heading into halftime. LSU would quickly move down the field for a touchdown on their first drive, with three consecutive completions of 23, 18, and 33 yards, previewing LSU's offensive success for the entire game. Alabama's first points wouldn't come until a 77-yard punt return from Jalyn Waddle. Up 19-13 with a little over two minutes left in the half, the Tigers mixed runs from Joe Burrow (for 30 yards on the drive) with intermediate passes to score a touchdown with under 30 seconds left. That seemed likely to be the end of scoring for the half, but on the first play of Alabama's subsequent possession, Patrick Queen intercepted Tagovailoa and returned the pick within the Alabama 30 for another stolen scoring opportunity. The Tigers would need only one play to go up 33-13 for what seemed like an insurmountable LSU lead.

It wasn't, of course, as Alabama would score touchdowns on each of its final four possessions of the game. The comeback would be a mix of the explosive passes that Tagovailo-led Alabama has become known for, along with a steadier mix of runs from Najee Harris, who turned in an excellent performance. The final touchdown was similar to Alabama's first offensive touchdown -- a long completion to DeVonta Smith, who just outran man coverage for an 85-yard score with just over a minute left. Smith's first score was a 64-yarder.

Those two plays help contrast the two offensive performances. Alabama was more reliant on big plays, with 22% of Tagovailoa 's throws going for 20-plus yards compared to 11.4% for Joe Burrow. But both Burrow and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire were more efficient, with Burrow successful on 52.3% of throws (to Tagovailoa 's 43.9%) and the combination of Burrow and Edwards-Helaire efficient on an astounding 60% of runs. The mostly Harris-led Alabama run game was still effective with a 50% success rate, but they were also stuffed on 30.7% of runs. On the day, Alabama averaged 1.9 more yards per successful play than LSU (17.1 to 15.2), but had a -9.4% success rate margin compared to the Tigers. Neither defense was well-equipped to stop the opposing offense, although I do wonder if a defense that wasn't as reliant on man coverages would have more success against each team's explosive receivers.

I'd argue that it's extremely premature to write off the Tide from the playoff conversation. All of the advanced metrics still love the Tide, and their strength of record will likely be at least comparable to that of the other one-loss teams in contention (ESPN's strength of record currently puts the Tide 10th, but with just a 4% difference from the top one-loss team, Penn State). Unless (probably) Georgia upsets LSU in the SEC Championship, Alabama should be considered to be in a solid, if not strong, position for the playoff.

The other big matchup of undefeateds was Penn State falling to the Golden Gophers 31-26. Few gave Minnesota a great chance against the Nittany Lions, and that was justified given the strength (or lack thereof) of Minnesota's 8-0 start. They won their first four games by a touchdown or less against South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern, and Purdue, with a postgame SP+ win expectancy of just 20% in the South Dakota State game.

But the Golden Gophers were more than ready to play against Penn State, and ultimately won for three reasons: quarterback Tanner Morgan's insane efficiency, receiver Rashod Bateman's explosive ability, and a defense that picked off Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford three times, including in the red zone with just over a minute left in the game.

Otherwise the teams were mostly equal. Minnesota's success rate margin was less than 1% higher than Penn State's (43.3% to 42.4%). The Nittany Lions actually created more scoring opportunities than Minnesota (seven to five), but the Golden Gophers took better advantage of their scoring opportunities. Two of Penn State's turnovers were during scoring opportunities, at least partially accounting for the worse scoring efficiency.

Minnesota ran the ball a ton -- 76% of standard-down plays -- and Morgan only threw 20 passes, but it's difficult to overstate how effective his passing was. Morgan finished 18-of-20 for 329 yards (sack-adjusted), which is 15.7 yards per pass. An astounding 38% of his passes were for 20-plus yards, which is higher than either Tagovailoa or Burrow. Rashod Bateman was the primary beneficiary of these throws, with seven catches for 203 yards.

Minnesota still has a relatively tough fight ahead for an undefeated regular season (Iowa and Wisconsin are on deck), but should be viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten West. Penn State can still get a rematch with a win over Ohio State in two weeks too.

Finally, it seems like LSU and Alabama sapped all of the Big 12's offensive energy, draining most of it from Baylor and TCU over the last eight years. Just as 2011 LSU-Alabama ended at 9-6, Baylor-TCU ended regulation 9-9, only getting to 29-23 after three overtimes. Neither team averaged over 4.5 yards per play, a 39% success rate, or 7.5% explosiveness rate. The game ultimately came down to a Max Duggan interception on fourth-and-goal from the Baylor 13 in the third overtime. Baylor remains undefeated, but its offense has taken a nosedive the last two weeks, scoring only 26 points in regulation against West Virginia and TCU. Oklahoma and Texas are next, so that undefeated streak is likely coming to an end.

TOEDRAGS

  • Virginia Tech is the most surprising 6-3 team out there. After starting the year with a loss to Boston College, and with a blowout loss to Duke and a one-score win over Furman on its resume, most were talking about the inevitable end of the Justin Fuente era. But with a surprise win over ranked Wake Forest, the Hokies could end up getting to eight or nine wins.
  • Speaking of 6-3, Texas got its sixth win in a comeback over Kansas State. The Longhorns shut down the Kansas State run game, holding the Wildcats to a 26% success rate, while actually getting a little bit of production from their ground game (Keontay Ingram had 16 carries for 139 yards).
  • Wisconsin survived Iowa 24-22 in a very on-brand Big Ten West matchup. This game was little more than Nate Stanley vs. Jonathan Taylor, as Taylor had 31 carries for 250 yards.
  • Oklahoma came close to another loss as Iowa State clawed its way back into a game where the Sooners had built a 35-14 halftime lead. Turnovers limited the Sooners in the second half, allowing Iowa State to score three times in the fourth quarter. The Cyclones valiantly attempted the two-point conversion to go for the win in regulation rather than playing for overtime, but Brock Purdy's two-point attempt was intercepted with 24 seconds left. The Sooners escaped, but have three matchups with top-32 SP+ teams left.

HONOR ROLL

  • DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama. There are a number of highly deserving players for both the Honor Roll and Lowsman Watch this week, but few deserve the shoutout more than DeVonta Smith. Smith, the hero of second-and-26 during his freshman season, is sometimes overshadowed by Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, but he seems to always be capable of burning man coverage with long touchdown catches. He had two over 65 yards against LSU and was one of the primary reasons the Tide were able to hang in for a near-comeback.
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU. Joe Burrow was obviously the player of the game and is far and away your Heisman frontrunner, but he's an obvious pick. Instead, we'll go with Edwards-Helaire. Edwards-Helaire didn't come to LSU with nearly the fanfare of his predecessors like Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice, but he has been insanely productive. He came up huge in multiple must-win spots against Alabama, including a spin-move at the goal line to avoid a tackle for loss and get the score, as well as bruising run to seal the game with a first down on the final possession. He also opened the scoring with a reception in the first quarter.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Patrick Queen, LB, LSU. Patrick Queen picked off Tua Tagovailoa before the half, giving the Tigers a stolen possession and a second touchdown. He also added seven tackles and half a sack.
  • Antoine Winfield Jr., DB, Minnesota. Antoine Winfield Jr. had two of three interceptions of Sean Clifford against Penn State to go along with a team-high 11 tackles. The Minnesota secondary created huge plays all game despite only two sacks and no quarterback hurries on the box score.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 12 Nov 2019, 3:05pm

1 Gophers 9-0

The last time the Gophers were 9-0 there were only 45 states.