One Foot Inbounds
The college football weekend in review

OFI: The Upsets That Weren't

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Week 12 was a tough one for a lot of college football fans because it involved numerous comebacks, close losses, and injuries.

We'll start with the most unfortunate, just to get it out of the way: Tua's injury. Tua Tagovailoa dislocated his hip on what was planned to be his final drive of the game when the Tide were up 35-7. He will have season-ending surgery on Monday. This is a shame not just for Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide, but for all college football fans who got to watch one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, and certainly in Alabama football history. Tagovailoa ranked second in the country among quarterbacks with more than 40 plays this season in CollegeFootballData.com's predicted points added (PPA, which is equivalent to expected points added), adding an average of 0.71 points per play. It's also more than a shame that Tagovailoa had to suffer this serious of an injury without being fairly compensated for his work. Here's hoping that Tagovailoa's surgery is successful and that he is able to have a long and productive NFL career.

Alright, shifting gears. Georgia came away from Auburn with a 21-14 win after shutting out the Tigers for three quarters. The Bulldogs offense stopped and started like someone learning to drive a stick shift while Auburn was held scoreless until there were just ten minutes left in the game.

Georgia's offensive performance was best summed up by Banner Society's Bud Elliott: "Georgia gained 230 yards on its 3 scoring drives. It gained 20 yards on its other 12 drives. Combined." The Georgia offense actually had a negative PPA (-0.03), including -0.07 on first down and -0.05 on third down. Auburn finally started a comeback in the fourth quarter down 21-0 thanks to the use of the hurry-up, mixing in some successful runs from Bo Nix, and a few explosive plays from Auburn receivers. But the major feature of the near-comeback is that Auburn's drives were supported by three successive three-and-outs from the Georgia offense, which combined for 1 total yard in the fourth quarter. This might be described as unsuccessful strategic risk aversion, because offensive conservatism can shift the risk onto your defense, undermining your entire effort.

Jake Fromm went 13-of-28 for only 110 yards, with nearly every pass attempt into a tight window. The 2019 Georgia offense does not seemingly have a play capable of getting a receiver open in space, and as a result opposing cornerbacks get at least one week of looking all-SEC as they can successfully play press-man coverage with limited fear of getting picked on or beaten deep.

The Georgia fan base has struggled with the exact diagnosis -- is it the entirely new crop of receivers? The offensive coordinator switch and/or the scheme? Regression on the part of Jake Fromm? Or is this just how Kirby Smart wants to win games? Many have argued the latter, as the 2019 Bulldogs highly resemble pre-Lane Kiffin Alabama, as Steven Godfrey has said on Podcast Ain't Played Nobody. As Godfrey and Richard Johnson noted on the latest PAPN, the Bulldogs are the only team at their talent tier that plays offense like circa-2009 Alabama. While I agree that Smart is overly conservative, the Jim Chaney-led offenses from 2017 and 2018 did not suffer from these obvious deficiencies, at least to the degree that 2019 Georgia does. I'd argue that the combination of Smart and coordinator James Coley has retrenched deeper into that 2009 Alabama offense (and overall game strategy), foregoing plays that scheme players open (please run a mesh route!) and placing too much of the burden on Fromm and his receivers to complete difficult passes on the edges into tight coverage. As a result, Georgia's place as a 2019 playoff contender is tenuous, as there's no guarantee that the Bulldogs offense can take advantage of a suspect LSU defense in the SEC Championship Game.

Elsewhere, Iowa handed Minnesota its first loss 23-19 by allowing the Golden Gophers to rack up yards through explosive plays, but preventing them from getting into the end zone. The Gophers crossed the Iowa 40-yard line seven times in nine drives (a 78% scoring opportunity rate!) but only scored two touchdowns, with two field goals, a missed field goal, and two turnovers on downs. Tanner Morgan threw for 368 yards (51.2% success rate, 0.49 PPA) and Tyler Johnson had nine catches for 170 yards, but inefficiency in and near the red zone did the Gophers in. All in all, that's kind of a dream game for Kirk Ferentz (and honestly, half the Big Ten) -- holding your opponent to only nine possessions, winning by less than a touchdown, and perfecting bend-don't-break defense? Beautiful. With the one loss, the Gophers now essentially have to beat Wisconsin in their final regular season game in order to make the Big Ten Championship Game.

We'll ignore Ohio State vs. Rutgers and move straight to the other consequential Big Ten game of the week, Penn State's touchdown win over Indiana, 34-27. Penn State's victory was one of the most statistically unlikely outcomes of the week, with only a 27% postgame win expectancy via SP+. Penn State's main problems this season are that their cornerbacks have been vulnerable to explosive plays in man coverage while their offense has been overly reliant on big pass plays, specifically from KJ Hamler. Both of those deficiencies flared up against the Hoosiers, as Indiana had a +9% success rate margin with Peyton Ramsey averaging 0.39 PPA (compared to Sean Clifford's 0.24). The Nittany Lions, minus Noah Cain, only had a 39% rush success rate and Clifford completed less than 50% of his passes. Without a fumbled punt return following Penn State's first possession, the Nittany Lions might have been upset by the Hoosiers. Next week's matchup with Ohio State, where they are heavy underdogs on the road, will determine the Big Ten East.

Also on the list of favored teams as statistically improbable winners is Oklahoma, who had just a 29% postgame win expectancy via SP+. Baylor and Oklahoma traded competitive halves, with Baylor unfortunately mustering the most dreaded lead in football -- 28-3 -- at the beginning of the second quarter. But as good as their first half (which was boosted by a Jalen Hurts fumble and an interception that led to Baylor touchdowns) was, the Bears went three-and-out three times in the second half, and turned the ball over on their other two possessions. So Oklahoma scored the final 24 points (despite the noticeable absence of leading receiver CeeDee Lamb) to maintain their playoff hopes. The Sooners have shown their vulnerabilities the last three weeks against Kansas State, Iowa State, and Baylor, and still have tough outs against TCU and Oklahoma State. But if Baylor can get past Texas (who just lost to Iowa State) next week, then the two teams will likely have a rematch in just three weeks.

TOEDRAGS

  • Let's use the Toedrags to recognize teams that have steadily improved this year. First is Michigan, who was walloped by Wisconsin and Penn State, but is rounding into form just in time for The Game against Ohio State. The Michigan defense completely stymied the Spartans offense, and after a quarter of holding back the Wolverines, the Spartans defense allowed 44 points over the rest of the game. The major story was improvement from Shea Patterson, who threw for 384 yards, averaging 0.52 PPA and a 57% passing success rate. The passing game was full of chunk plays, with five receivers catching a pass of 22-plus yards and 13.5% of passes going for 20-plus yards. The Spartans were able to hold the Michigan run game to a 40% success rate without a back gaining more than 32 yards, but the passing game's success alone should give pause to the Buckeyes, who have yet to face a truly lethal passer this season.
  • Crucially, Clemson beat ranked Wake Forest 52-3 in a completely dominant effort. The Tigers' offensive PPA was 0.39 while the Demon Deacons had an astounding -0.29 PPA, which was the third-worst offensive PPA performance of the week. Since surviving North Carolina 21-20, Clemson's smallest margin of victory was their next week's 45-14 win over Florida State. The main improvement has been on offense where Clemson has improved from 0.31 PPA during the first five weeks to 0.44 in the six weeks post-North Carolina. For context, if Clemson had maintained that same average offensive PPA for the entire season then they would be second in the country (they're fifth now as it is). They're also second in the country in average defensive PPA. Ohio State is really the only team that has looked as balanced as the Tigers this season, while Oklahoma and LSU appear to have the offense to at least challenge anyone.

HONOR ROLL

  • Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan. Like we mentioned above, Shea Patterson had one of his best games with the Wolverines against Michigan State, with a 56.7% passing success rate and 0.53 PPA against the Spartans. He had almost no help from the run game but still found receivers like Ronnie Bell, who had nine catches for 150 yards.
  • John Rhys Plumlee, QB, Ole Miss. LSU beat Ole Miss 58-37, and after getting held to just seven points in the first half, the Rebels used John Rhys Plumlee and the ground game to storm back and score 30 second-half points to at least make it respectable. Plumlee had 21 carries for 212 yards, including a 60-yard run, in a vintage RichRod performance.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon. Kayvon Thibodeaux was the second-ranked overall recruit in the 2019 class. He got two of his 5.5 sacks (along with an additional tackle for loss) against Arizona, in a game where the Oregon defense held the Wildcats to the seventh-worst average PPA performance of the week.

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