OFI: South Carolina Shakes Up Playoff Race
by Chad Peltier
This was probably the most dense week of college football yet, with multiple close and consequential games. Let's start with the big upset of the weekend -- South Carolina's 20-17 win over Georgia. A quick read of the box score would suggest that the Bulldogs would have won if not for Jake Fromm's three interceptions and a lost fumble, since the Gamecocks didn't turn the ball over on the day. And while his -0.36 expected points added was his worst of the season by far (he averaged 0.39 EPA per play in his other five games), Fromm's off day wasn't entirely responsible for this upset. I'd argue that, at least in hindsight, it's easy to see the roots of this upset going back to the offense's struggles against Notre Dame and somewhat against Tennessee as well.
In both of those games, and against Vanderbilt to open the season, Georgia fans have noticed that the Bulldogs offensive play calling has been content with a pre-Lane Kiffin Alabama offense that relies on its ground game and a complementary, game manager-style performance from its quarterback to slowly "crockpot" its opponents into submission. And it has been effective -- the Bulldogs entered the week ranking sixth overall in average offensive EPA, which was nearly 1.7 standard deviations above the mean. Despite that, Fromm and the Georgia offense had not yet needed to throw their way to a win if the run game was completely shut down. That is not a knock on Fromm at all -- he has proven throughout his entire career that he is entirely capable of running the must-score two-minute offense to perfection, thriving in a hurry-up offense.
But with the switch to James Coley as offensive coordinator, the Georgia offense has even more deeply embraced the "impose our will" manball tendencies that they had cultivated under former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Against South Carolina, Georgia ran on 60% of standard downs even though their overall run rate was only 42.6%. That means there were a ton of run-run-pass sequences. Yes, Georgia has had some notable injuries along the offensive line and at wide receiver (including emerging top target Lawrence Cager), but the Bulldogs also have three former five-star receivers they can turn to in George Pickens, Dominick Blaylock, and Demetris Robertson. Offenses with far worse talent at receiver are still willing to scheme guys open.
But still, without the turnovers -- one of which was a pick-six, another inside the South Carolina 30, and another that ended Georgia's first overtime -- Georgia likely still wins this game eight or nine times out of ten. The Bulldogs had a 10.4% success rate margin over the Gamecocks despite the conservative play calling. In the end, credit goes to South Carolina's players and coaching staff, who clearly identified during their bye week that Georgia would be either unable or unwilling to target their edge receivers against man coverage, allowing the defense to concentrate on slowing Georgia's run game. The Gamecocks held Georgia to a 33% passing downs success rate and just a 22% touchdown rate on Georgia's nine scoring opportunities.
Banner Society's Bud Elliott summed up this game perfectly: "When you never scheme players open and never hit explosive plays, your offense has to be so clean. [Georgia] should have won game (10% [yards per play] edge and ran 27 more plays), but 4 turnovers is not clean. Georgia's lack of explosive play ability is an every-week issue."
Georgia's goals are still on the table for the season -- a double-overtime loss to a conference opponent can be overcome in terms of making the playoff -- but it's hard to see the Bulldogs winning out without tactical and strategic changes.
Speaking of potential playoff contenders who picked up their first loss, Florida came up a little short against LSU and their elite offense (what a bizarre sentence to type). The Gators kept pace with LSU's scoring through most of the game, keeping it tied at the half and actually taking a one-score lead following the touchdown on their first possession of third quarter. Florida was significantly less efficient on a per-play basis, with a -13% success rate margin, but Kyle Trask and the Gators offense compensated with explosiveness, with 26% of their passes going for 15 or more yards (which is good, but 38% of LSU's dropbacks went for 15-plus yards!).
While the Gators might have been able to keep up despite disadvantages in both efficiency and explosiveness, a red zone interception midway through the fourth quarter ended their chance at the upset. LSU answered with a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive (which included a 54-yard pass to Ja'Marr Chase) to go up by two scores and complete a 14-point swing for the Tigers.
LSU now has the most efficient offense in the country, averaging a 59% overall success rate, with Joe Burrow also leading the country with a 63% passing success rate. With Alabama's defense not playing at the same level as in years past thanks to injuries and attrition over the offseason, this year's LSU-Alabama matchup should be even more titanic than usual. Meanwhile, Florida can't feel too bad about their performance, even in a two-touchdown loss. They hung with LSU as underdogs while starting a backup quarterback and getting just a 37% success rate out of the rushing offense.
The Red River Shootout had top billing with LSU-Florida for the weekend, with Oklahoma edging out Texas 34-27. Entering the season, the Sooners had two major questions: can they win even if they don't get consistently Heisman-level quarterback play from Jalen Hurts, and can the defense improve to even a passable level under new coordinator Alex Grinch? The Sooners went a long way in answering both of those questions against the Longhorns.
Despite the one-score deficit, things seemed to be going in the Longhorns' favor in the first half, down just 10-3 after forcing turnovers on two of Oklahoma's five possessions. Just the fact that they held Oklahoma to five possessions in the first half was a small win for Texas. Things picked up in the second half though, with both teams scoring touchdowns on three of their six possessions each.
Hurts has been phenomenal all season, and he is still second in the country in average EPA and EPA success rate (behind Joe Burrow, of course). But he also had two first-half turnovers that killed red zone drives -- one a fumble following a 27-yard run on third-and-5, and the other an interception in the end zone on the very next drive. So in a sense, while Texas definitely had to be happy with stopping the Sooners on back-to-back scoring opportunities, there was still a sense that the dam could break at any moment. Oklahoma's average EPA wasn't all that high thanks in part to the two aforementioned turnovers (which combined for -15.3 expected points!), ending at just 0.03 on the day (their previous low was 0.31 against Texas Tech), though they still had a 51.7% EPA success rate. Hurts' 235 passing yards were solid, but the Sooners did most of their damage on the ground by averaging 0.06 EPA per play more on runs versus dropbacks. Both Hurts and Kennedy Brooks went over 100 rushing yards, with three players recording runs of 24-plus yards.
Interestingly, Texas' average EPA was slightly higher, rounding to 0.04, but their EPA success rate was significantly lower than Oklahoma's at 41.9%. This was probably due in part to the insane pressure that Oklahoma's defense got on Sam Ehlinger and the Texas offense. The Sooners stopped 14.8% of the Longhorns' runs at or behind the line of scrimmage and Oklahoma piled up nine sacks and 15 total tackles for loss. Nowhere was this more important than midway through the fourth quarter, with Texas trailing but driving into the Oklahoma red zone. With first-and-10 at the twelve, Oklahoma's Neville Gallimore recorded his second sack of the day. Then Sam Ehlinger was stopped for a 1-yard run, and then he forced an incomplete pass on third-and-long to settle for a field goal.
While LSU and Ohio State have both looked like the most dominant team in the country at points this season, and Clemson has probably the easiest path to the playoff given the talent asymmetry they have with the rest of their conference (and, you know, Alabama is Alabama), Oklahoma absolutely deserves mention among the top teams in the country since they have an explosive ground game to complement their passing game, and the defense might not just be passable, but actually be capable of creating some havoc of their own.
- Wisconsin continued their absurdly dominant first half of the season, picking up their fourth shutout of the year. It was no secret that Michigan State's offense was bad -- they have only averaged a positive EPA per play in two games, against Western Michigan and Indiana -- but Wisconsin's defense held the Spartans to a -0.39 EPA with a 26% EPA success rate. Michigan State quarterbacks combined for 119 passing yards and two interceptions, one of which was a late pick-six. The Spartans do have a really strong defense despite the lopsided score, as they held Jonathan Taylor to 26 carries for 80 yards with a long run of just 13 yards. Wisconsin nevertheless did better against the Spartans defense than Ohio State did, averaging 0.16 EPA (0.75 standard deviations above the mean) compared to Ohio State's 0.05 (0.28 standard deviations).
- Iowa essentially forces every opposing offense to play football like they do. Against quality teams this season, they have beaten Iowa State by one point, lost to Michigan 10-3, and now lost to Penn State by five. In none of those three games did either team pass 18 points. Of course, as we saw when Penn State faced Pitt, the Nittany Lions are more than happy to play that kind of game too. This was far from Sean Clifford's best game, averaging -0.26 EPA per dropback with 117 passing yards, but one positive takeaway is that Penn State probably has found their replacement for Miles Sanders at running back. Freshman Noah Cain led the way with 22 carries for 102 yards (and a long run of 12), which isn't an insane average, but he easily has the highest EPA success rate of any back in Penn State's unit, averaging a 60.7% rushing EPA success rate (and he's roughly tied with Journey Brown in average EPA).
- Clemson easily beat Florida State (the game was 28-0 at halftime) as the Tigers defense managed three picks, with one for a touchdown, and Travis Etienne had 127 yards on 17 carries. Even though he wasn't needed to do a whole lot, Trevor Lawrence had kind of an off day again with just 170 passing yards on 25 attempts with an interception. He ranks 101st in average EPA per dropback (including passes and sacks for quarterbacks with 30-plus attempts) and has a 44.2% EPA success rate (also ~100th in the country). That might mean nothing at this point in the year, but it is something to watch for a team that might not really get tested during the regular season.
- Louisville gave Wake Forest their first loss in a 62-59 barnburner that wouldn't have been out of place in the Big 12. That included a 28-point fourth quarter for the Demon Deacons, which was just short of the comeback. Six of the last seven drives for either team (minus Louisville's final two kneel-downs) ended in touchdowns.
- Baylor survived double-overtime against Texas Tech 33-30 to move to 6-0, an awesome achievement considering the rebuilding necessary in the wake of Art Briles' tenure. Both quarterbacks threw for over 350 yards, but the game ended 20-20 in regulation and both teams averaged negative EPAs per play due largely to turnovers -- Charlie Brewer through three while Texas Tech's Jett Duffey threw two. While the Bears are undefeated, their only positive EPA offensive performance against a conference opponent was Kansas State -- their other three positive EPA games were against UTSA, Stephen F. Austin, and Rice.
- Joe Burrow, QB, LSU. I know we're only halfway through the season, but it is still remarkable what Joe Burrow has been able to do this year. Burrow was solid last season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards with only five interceptions, but he completed only 57.8% of his passes. This season he leads the country in average EPA, EPA success rate for quarterbacks with 30 or more dropbacks, and completion percentage (79.6%). He only had three incompletions total against Florida and averaged 12.2 yards per attempt.
- CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma. CeeDee Lamb had ten catches for 171 yards against Texas, with several highlight-reel plays to add to his season.
- Israel Mukuamu, DB, South Carolina. Israel Mukuamu more than doubled his career total for interceptions with three against Georgia -- including one pick-six and one to end Georgia's first overtime possession. The entire South Carolina defense got so much pressure on Georgia's vaunted offensive line and Jake Fromm was off, but Mukuamu always was in the right place to take advantage of errant throws.
As always, thank you to Parker Fleming, @903124, and collegefootballdata.com for EPA and other data.