One Foot Inbounds
The college football weekend in review

OFI: Pac-12 Not Dead Yet

Juwan Johnson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Chad Peltier

With Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, and Penn State all on a bye this week (and Clemson basically on a bye in a 59-14 win over Wofford), our focus largely shifted to new venues -- namely the Pac-12 and AAC. Maybe it's just the increased national attention, but with the Pac-12's two one-loss teams picking up their eighth wins, there is a renewed sense that maybe we were too quick to write the conference off from playoff contention after Utah's Week 4 loss to USC.

Oregon looked shaky to start against USC last Saturday, with the Trojans scoring on their opening drive and then intercepting Justin Herbert to go up 10-0 in the first quarter. But following two Ducks touchdown drives in the second quarter, Oregon's Brady Breeze returned a Kedon Slovis interception 32 yards for another score to go up 21-10, and it was all over at that point. The Ducks would then go on a 35-14 run, averaging a 49% expected points added (EPA) success rate (which is in the 79th percentile) thanks to efficient play by Herbert and receiver Juwan Johnson. If that name sounds vaguely familiar to you, it is likely because he is a grad transfer from Penn State, as Podcast Ain't Played Nobody recently reminded us. Johnson was injured to start the season, but the 6-foot-4, 230-pound receiver has put up 11 catches for 170 yards in the last two games since he has gotten healthy.

The Ducks defense effectively slowed the Trojans offense when it mattered. USC actually ended with the same EPA success rate as the Ducks, but turned the ball over four times -- with three of those drives accumulating at least 40 yards prior to the turnover. The Trojans also punted twice in Oregon territory after 30-yard drives. Facing one of the most talented receiver rooms in the country, the Ducks held the Trojans to underneath throws -- Slovis averaged just 4.6 yards per attempt and -0.17 EPA per pass attempt, which is in the 32nd percentile.

Utah has also looked like a serious contender since Week 4, when the Trojans' Michael Pittman Jr. was able to out-athlete the Utes defense for 232 receiving yards. On the season the Utes defense ranks 13th in EPA success rate, while quarterback Tyler Huntley ranks fourth among quarterbacks with an average passing EPA of 0.52 and the third-ranked passing EPA success rate of 59%. Despite those lofty rankings on both sides of the ball, Washington created a 14-3 lead midway through the second quarter on Saturday and held a lead until the start of the fourth. The Utes' comeback came off of a pick-six from Jacob Eason, which was followed by two three-and-outs from Washington's offense while Utah managed two touchdown drives of 80-plus yards. Huntley was as efficient as ever, completing 19 of his 24 passes -- which was good, because Washington's defense stuffed Zach Moss and the Utes run game on 26% of carries.

Utah and Oregon are both through the most difficult parts of their schedule. There's enough parity in the Pac-12 that it's not unreasonable to think one or both could still suffer a loss, but the odds are pretty solid that they will meet in the Pac-12 Championship Game undefeated over the rest of their schedules. Neither team has a marquee win that the playoff committee would find attractive yet, but a one-loss Pac-12 champ shouldn't be written off from playoff contention -- especially if Alabama vs. LSU is decisive and if the Big 12 can cannibalize itself.

Continuing the week's theme of highlighting lesser-watched parts of college football, ESPN's College GameDay contest was SMU vs. Memphis in a battle for AAC contention. The American is especially competitive this year with Central Florida (slightly) down, as the Knights are one of five conference teams (along with Cincinnati, Navy, SMU, and Memphis) that have seven or more wins and are 4-1 or better in-conference. And Memphis vs. SMU delivered on the promise, with nine skill players recording a play of 30-plus yards, four receivers totaling at last 122 yards each, and the teams combining for 102 points. Memphis pulled out the 54-48 win thanks to a decisive third quarter, which opened with Antonio Gibson returning the kick 97 yards for a touchdown. Memphis now looks like the class of the Group of 5 and could see Cincinnati in the last game of the season with both as one-loss teams (SP+ currently gives the Tigers a 73% win probability in that matchup).

The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was the main SEC action this week, and it was a tense game throughout, with Georgia never quite able to pull away from Florida despite leading for the entire game. Vegas favored Georgia, to the surprise of most analysts on the pregame shows, who nearly all took Florida after Georgia's back-to-back offense-less games against South Carolina and Kentucky. Jake Fromm has taken most of the heat, with three interceptions against the Gamecocks and just 35 passing yards in a downpour against Kentucky, but the blame could more accurately be directed at offensive coordinator James Coley and head coach Kirby Smart. Smart and Coley had seemed determined to be as tactically risk-averse as possible, failing to maximize expected points in key game situations.

But a lot of that criticism eases up when you beat your biggest rival. It was really a vintage performance for both teams, because Georgia capitalized on "Third-and-Grantham," converting on 12 of 18 third down attempts. Fromm finished 20-of-30 for 279 passing yards, and the offensive line didn't allow a single sack. Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham (who once held the same position with Georgia) was logically fixated on stopping the Georgia rushing attack. The Gators were successful here, stuffing Georgia on 27% of runs and holding the Bulldogs to a -0.37 EPA per rush, which is in the bottom 11% of performances this season. D'Andre Swift averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, and that was even with a 30-yard run included.

But Fromm responded with a passing performance that was in the top 4% of games this season (0.72 passing EPA). Florida pass rusher Jonathan Greenard said after the game that Georgia didn't even need to max protect, but still was able to hold the Gators defense sack-less. The Georgia defense performed roughly as expected, holding the Gators to a field goal through three quarters before allowing two touchdowns to keep it close late. Critically, they negated the Florida run game, holding them to a 24% EPA success rate and a bottom-16% performance in average EPA per rush (which was a concern, given that Florida's inefficient run game still managed to pop off explosive runs now and then). Georgia is now the odds-on favorite to win the SEC East again, although they have three-straight games against SP+ top-25 opponents.

TOEDRAGS

  • There were few other big games or upsets in Week 10, but several near-misses. Auburn went down to the wire with Ole Miss, despite holding Rebels quarterback John Rhys Plumlee to 86 total passing yards and an interception while Bo Nix passed for 340 yards on 44 attempts. But neither team could run the ball effectively, and Auburn chewed through clock only to attempt field goals on five drives, missing three attempts. That poor red zone efficiency could be deadly against Georgia and Alabama in the next few weeks.
  • The game is mostly forgotten by now, but Thursday's matchup between the undefeated Baylor Bears and West Virginia ended 17-14 with Baylor escaping a contest in which the teams combined for nine three-and-out drives. The Bears defense was solid, as West Virginia only scored on an 83-yard broken play and a kick return for a touchdown. But it's still a surprise that West Virginia, whose defense ranks only in the 69th percentile in EPA success rate, was able to slow the Bears offense down to a crawl.
  • Notre Dame also snuck by Virginia Tech 21-20 after Ian Book scored in the last 30 seconds to avoid a loss to a disappointing Hokies team. The Irish had next to no run game without Tony Jones Jr. in the lineup and averaged just -0.16 EPA per rush as the Hokies sought to force Book to beat them with his arm. Book responded with 336 passing yards, even if it took 53 throws to get there.

HONOR ROLL

  • Antonio Gibson, WR, Memphis. Antonio Gibson was everywhere for the Tigers against SMU, totaling six catches for 130 yards, three rushes for 97 yards, and a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
  • Lawrence Cager, WR, Georgia. Lawrence Cager was a grad transfer from Miami, brought in to provide some veteran leadership for a Georgia receivers room that lacked almost any returning production. The 6-foot-5 receiver is filling the role that Javon Wims did for Jake Fromm during the 2017 season, in that he is the go-to guy on critical passing downs. And he delivered against Florida, totaling seven catches for 132 yards.
  • Chubba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State. Chubba Hubbard has put up insane rushing totals throughout the year, but this weekend's game against TCU was one of his best. Hubbard had 20 carries for 223 yards, including a 92-yarder, against the Horned Frogs.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Air Force defense. Army has been disappointing this year, but that shouldn't take away from Air Force's defensive effort against the Black Knights. Air Force held Army to a -0.2 EPA, which is in the bottom 20% of the season. Their defensive effort also included the game-deciding fourth down stop on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line in the last minute of the game.

As always, thanks to Parker Fleming (@statsowar), collegefootballdata.com, and @903124 for EPA and play by play data!

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