One Foot Inbounds

The college football weekend in review

OFI: Rivalry Week Goes Off the Rails

Alabama Crimson Tide RB Najee Harris
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

OK, the Iron Bowl was just bananas. The game featured 58 first-half points, multiple pick-sixes, a key special teams touchdown, critical field goal attempts, and a combined 17 explosive plays. ESPN's Alex Scarborough put together a nice list of the craziest plays, which captures how bananas this game was.

Basically the game came down to two plays. First was a potential game-tying Alabama field goal attempt with two minutes left in the game that doinked off the upright. Please note that this result had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of Alabama's kicker. It wouldn't have mattered if Lou Groza himself had lined up for the pivotal kick; it was the Iron Bowl, and Fate has decreed that Alabama cannot win via kick in the Iron Bowl. That's just how it is. Second was a "punt" on Auburn's subsequent drive. At fourth-and-4 with just over a minute left, it looked like Alabama's offense would have a final drive to go for the tie or the win. But Auburn used a sneaky formation to trick Alabama into leaving 12 men on the field, giving the Tigers the first down and the ability to just run out the clock.

There were plenty of other statistically unlikely plays prior to those two at the end. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones had two pick-sixes, one of which was in the Auburn end zone after the pass deflected off running back Najee Harris' back … and was then returned for 100 yards. Alabama's Jaylen Waddle had the game of his life, with four touchdowns, one on a kickoff return. Auburn also got a second put back on the clock in the first half for a field goal attempt after Alabama had left for the locker room.

Auburn averaged over 1.6 points per scoring opportunity more than the Crimson Tide, had a higher average PPA, and were more explosive. But the Tigers were significantly less efficient, with a -13% success rate margin, which likely explains why SP+ gave the Tide a 94% postgame win probability. But Auburn simply made more big plays and took advantage of their opportunities more than Alabama. While the game ultimately came down to pivotal plays at the end, Auburn overcame the talent gap between the two teams by winning the important moments leading up to those final seconds. So now Alabama will miss the playoff for the first time. The Tide have two losses, dropping both of their most important games of the season by a combined eight points.

What's astounding is how often Auburn is able to pull off upset Iron Bowl wins like this. From the "Camback" to the "Kick-Six" to whatever ungodly combination of plays ends up naming this edition of the Iron Bowl, the point is that the Tigers have found a way to make the rivalry a real rivalry -- unlike the next rivalry we'll cover. As Bill Connelly said on Twitter, "Basically the only thing separating Michigan and Auburn right now is an ability to beat one's rival at home."

We've grown accustomed to the Buckeyes dominating The Game against Michigan. Jim Tressel first turned things around, going 8-1 during his tenure, and Urban Meyer one-upped that record by going 7-0 over the last seven years. Michigan's last win came in 2011 during Luke Fickell's interim year before Meyer took over. Michigan was favored periodically during those years, including last season, where the Wolverines were a 3.5-point favorite in Columbus (Ohio State won 62-39).

Ohio State was again favored this season, but by the Buckeyes' lowest margin of the year -- just nine points on the road. As has been typical over the last two decades, the Buckeyes ran away with the win, but it looked a little different from how Ohio State wins have typically gone this year. The Ohio State offense was consistent throughout the game, scoring 14 points a quarter, but the defense allowed Shea Patterson to throw for 265 yards in the first half alone. If not for a lost fumble at the Buckeyes' 12-yard line, Michigan would have been in a position to tie the game at 21 in the second quarter. Instead, the Buckeyes would score three more touchdowns before Michigan got into the end zone again, and by that point the lead was insurmountable.

Patterson's passing was impressive in the first half, and the Michigan passing game was undoubtedly the best that the Buckeyes defense had seen this season. But Ohio State was also without star defensive back Shaun Wade, causing the Buckeyes to open the game in a 4-4 defense. They shifted in the second half, holding the Wolverines to a 15.4% predicted points added (PPA, a version of EPA via collegefootballdata.com) passing success rate in the first half after a 73.7% passing PPA success rate in the first half. After averaging nearly a point added per pass in the first half (.94 PPA), the Wolverines averaged -0.42 passing PPA in the second half. So there's certainly evidence that the Buckeyes defense can adjust when needed.

The drop in Michigan's passing efficiency and explosiveness in the second half may have defined the flow of the game, but the constant throughout was the effectiveness of the Ohio State offense. The Buckeyes averaged 0.56 PPA throughout the game, 5.44 points per scoring opportunity, and a 53% success rate. In short, the Buckeyes offense did just about whatever it wanted to.

Finally, the Battle for Paul Bunyan's axe was huge this year, as the winner would clinch the Big Ten West and head to Indianapolis to face Ohio State next week. And while victory would have been a fitting end for a surprisingly excellent season for the Golden Gophers, Wisconsin overpowered Minnesota, compiling dominant margins in almost every area.

The deciding factors seemed to be that the Gophers were one-dimensional (as they really have been all season), couldn't take advantage of scoring opportunities, and allowed too many negative plays. On the whole, the Badgers had a +20% success rate margin and a +20% havoc rate margin (creating a havoc play on over one in three Gophers snaps!), and held the Gophers to only 2.5 points per scoring opportunity. Jonathan Taylor was mostly held in check, but the Gophers traded his rushing success for Jack Coan to have an efficient game through the air, as he averaged 0.77 passing PPA. Wisconsin now gets a rematch against Ohio State, with the potential to seriously harm the Buckeyes' playoff chances (a loss would drop the Buckeyes' playoff odds to 37% via 538's playoff model).

TOEDRAGS

  • There is clear separation between the top three teams -- Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson -- and the other teams vying for that fourth playoff spot. While Georgia is ranked fourth by the Playoff Committee now and will likely stay there following this Tuesday's update, the 538 odds give the Bulldogs a worse shot of making the final four (46%) than Oklahoma, who currently has a 56% probability. The Sooners have a rematch against Baylor up next, while the Bulldogs face LSU; 538 gives Georgia a 43% chance against LSU while SP+ gives the Bulldogs a 44% win probability. If Georgia wins -- which is the most likely upset next weekend, going by 538 odds -- then things could get messy. LSU might be out of the mix entirely, with a Sooners win then giving Oklahoma an 85% chance to LSU's 12%. This would be controversial to say the least. My impression was that a Georgia win would mean that the SEC would get both division winners into the playoff, but 538's model must place a lot of weight on conference championships. Utah almost definitely needs a Baylor win, and it wouldn't hurt if LSU beats Georgia, too. In short, there is a decent chance of some chaos next week, especially if Georgia can beat LSU in Atlanta.
  • Cincinnati vs. Memphis is interesting not only because they are two of the top four or so teams in the Group of 5, but also because the contest (which Memphis won 34-24) was a preview for next weekend's AAC Championship Game, where the two teams will immediately play each other again. Some things for Cincinnati to clean up for next week: the Bearcats allowed a nearly 33% havoc rate, started off slowly (allowing Memphis to average 0.56 PPA in the first quarter), and were awful on standard downs at the beginning and end of the game (33% and 29% success rates). SP+ gives Cincinnati just a 19% chance against Memphis next week, and the offense will have to improve mightily in order to split the series and take the conference championship.
  • Bedlam ended as it usually does, with the Sooners taking down Oklahoma State without too much trouble. Jalen Hurts threw five explosive passes between 20 and 30 yards, Kennedy Brooks ran for 160 yards, and the Sooners defense slowed Chuba Hubbard just enough to keep things out of reach. The Sooners only allowed a 4.9% stuff rate on the day, meaning that almost all of their carries went for positive yardage.

HONOR ROLL

  • Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama. As mentioned above, Jaylen Waddle scored four touchdowns for Alabama -- three through the air and one via kickoff return -- to finish with nearly 100 receiving yards despite being Alabama's fourth(ish)-string receiver. Waddle showed all of the moves against Auburn, compiling an awesome highlight reel in just one game's worth of work.
  • Bryce Perkins, QB, Virginia. Virginia finally, finally got the win over Virginia Tech. And it was entirely the entirely the Bryce Perkins show. Perkins completed 20 of 33 passes for 311 yards and had 19 of his team's 25 carries for 164 more yards. Only 16 of Virginia's 492 yards were from a player other than Perkins. He averaged 0.36 PPA, including 0.7 rushing PPA. His cumulative PPA was at 18 points!
  • J.K. Dobbins and Justin Fields, RB and QB, Ohio State. We didn't have time to go too in-depth into our coverage of Ohio State's offense above, but it's worth noting that Ohio State's two star offensive players average 0.66 and 0.65 PPA against Michigan, combining for a cumulative 40.3 PPA. Dobbins ripped off multiple long runs and the Ohio State offense averaged 5.4 points per scoring opportunity because Michigan simply couldn't stop the Buckeyes ground game. And Justin Fields went down with a knee injury only to come back later during that series and immediately threw a long touchdown pass to another emerging star, freshman receiver Garrett Wilson.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Zakoby McClain and Smoke Monday, LB and DB, Auburn. Zakoby McClain and Smoke Monday were likely the difference in the Iron Bowl, as they both returned interceptions for touchdowns (of 100 and 29 yards, respectively). The 100-yard pick-six was itself a 14-point swing in the Tigers' favor, allowing Auburn to win a game that SP+ gave it just a 6% chance of doing so according to the postgame win probabilities. SP+ also notes that Auburn benefitted from nearly nine points of turnover luck.

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