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The college football weekend in review

OFI: Blue Bloods and the Clarifying Playoff Picture

Ohio State Buckeyes WR Garrett Wilson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

College football has traditionally been a story of the "haves" and the "have-nots." Over the years, college football success has largely been concentrated in the hands of a few "blue bloods" -- schools with the historical success, resources, and location to compete at an elite level. There are exceptions, sure -- Utah, Boise State, and TCU were all "BCS Busters" in the early- to mid-2000s. Now that we have the College Football Playoff Committee, the standards for a shot at college football glory are that much more arbitrary, and the chance of a non-traditional power winning a championship has never been lower. This week spoke to that a bit, as the blue bloods secured wins and potential challengers stumbled. The College Football Playoff race again looks to come down to some combination of Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and whichever fourth team out of the Pac-12, SEC, or Notre Dame gets lucky enough to snag a fourth spot.

Let's look at this week to see how we got some clarity on the playoff picture.


No. 1 Ohio State outgained No. 8 Penn State by almost a full yard per play Saturday (6.6 to 5.7) in a 38-25 win, their 15th win in the last 18 meetings between the schools. Penn State strung together an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown to start the second half and bring the game within one score, but Ohio State responded in kind and never looked back. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford threw an interception late in the fourth quarter to effectively ice the game, but the contest was never as close as the 13-point final margin suggests. Ohio State had a 44% success rate on offense compared to Penn State's 38%, and the Buckeyes won the EPA margin battle by +0.306 EPA/play. Their early-down success was relatively similar: both teams averaged right around 6.3 yards per play on first and second downs, but Ohio State converted 57% of third- and fourth-down attempts (12-of-21) whereas Penn State was held to just 3-of-10. Both teams had explosive plays: Ohio State had runs of 62, 31, and 15, and passes of 49 and 26. Penn State had runs of 23 and 11 and passes of 37, 31, 19.

The difference in this game came down to two factors: Ohio State's explosive offense was more explosive -- their big plays went for more yards -- and their third-down offense extended drives where Penn State's could not. Justin Fields completed 82% of his 34 passes, averaging 13.3 yards per completion with four touchdowns. Both Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson amassed 100 receiving yards, combining for 231 yards and two touchdowns as part of an offensive effort that was successful on 55% of passes. The starkest box score difference between the two teams comes in the run game: for Ohio State, Master Teague ran 23 times, averaging 4.78 yards per carry and a 34.8% success rate. Penn State ran 27 times for 44 yards and an 18.5% success rate. In every facet of the game, Ohio State was better than Penn State, and the Buckeyes' explosive ceiling and third-down conversions set the tone in this game, and despite some second-half push from Penn State, the overall timbre of this game was embodied in the 21-3 lead Ohio State took with two minutes left in the first half. The Buckeyes took a lead and never looked back, and more and more this Big Ten season looks like a training session for Ohio State's 2020 playoff campaign. Ohio State's next four games are Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois. Penn State, after starting 0-2 for the first time under James Franklin, will look to rebound against Maryland and Nebraska before hosting Iowa the third week of November.

The No. 26 Texas Longhorns are having an odd season, to say the least. Frustrations with losses to rivals TCU and Oklahoma combined with off-field issues have made the situation in Austin tenuous heading into the Longhorns' matchup with No. 10 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, but none of that matters when Tom Herman is an underdog. The Longhorns won 41-34 in overtime on the back of a five-turnover performance by the Cowboys -- four fumbles and one interception. The Longhorns had just a 3% postgame win expectancy, but sometimes, "that's just the way football go." Oklahoma State outgained Texas 5.8 to 3.8 on all plays and 6.8 to 3.5 on early downs, and held Texas to just a 27.4% success rate. But they fumbled the ball on the Texas 31-yard line in the fourth quarter, which sent the game to overtime.

One cannot overstate the extent to which Oklahoma State dominated this game outside of turnovers. The Cowboys were +22 percentage points on success rate, successful on 64% of their passes. Spencer Sanders threw for 14.8 yards per completion, Tylan Wallace caught 11 balls for 187 yards, and the Cowboys defense sacked Sam Ehlinger five times. Ehlinger threw for three touchdowns but only 169 total yards (9.4 yards per completion) and completed only 53.9% of his passes for an 18.9% passing success rate on the day. The Texas rush game was only slightly less terrible, with a 36.1% success rate, averaging -0.047 EPA/play.

Ultimately, Oklahoma State did nearly everything they needed to win in regulation, but couldn't overcome some poor turnover luck. The Cowboys had high hopes this season, and one loss doesn't disqualify them from the Playoff per se, but Oklahoma State has yet to play Oklahoma, and will have to beat the Sooners twice to even have a shot at a national championship. On a more micro level, this game doesn't quite flip an already tumultuous Big 12 hierarchy, but with every conference team now brandishing a loss, the race for the conference championship is almost wide open, even if the conference is eliminated from the Playoff. Texas has matchups with Iowa State, West Virginia, and Kansas State left on the schedule, while Oklahoma State has Kansas State and Oklahoma left.


Across the Nation

A slew of upsets rounds out the slate this weekend: No. 16 Michigan fell to in-state rival No. 52 Michigan State 24-27 in Ann Arbor this weekend. The Wolverines were successful on 42% of rushes but only 37% of passes, as quarterback Joe Milton averaged only 9.4 yards per completion and threw for no touchdowns. Michigan scored a late touchdown to try and steal a victory, but punts on drives of 34 yards and 28 yards that took over six minutes of game clock ultimately proved too big of a hole to get out of in the fourth quarter.

Michigan State averaged 6.57 yards per play on early downs, but only a 15.8% success rate in the rush game. The Spartans passing game, led by Rocky Lombardi's 323 yards and three touchdowns, was successful on 47.8% of passes. Receiver Ricky White averaged 24.5 yards per reception, amassing 196 yards. Michigan State had two passes over 50 yards, and that explosiveness was enough to pull ahead. Michigan struggled to find any explosiveness; in a turnover-free game, the Wolverines averaged only +0.028 EPA/play. Michigan had first-and-10 at the Michigan State 11-yard line in the second half and came away with a field goal after two runs and a failed trick play, and that proved to be the difference in the game.

Michigan is 1-1 on the season with two ranked opponents looming in Indiana and Wisconsin. Michigan State redeemed their season somewhat after a loss to Rutgers, but games against Iowa and Indiana will tell whether the Spartans got excited about a rivalry game or have taken a step towards righting the ship.

No. 57 Virginia upset No. 13 North Carolina 44-41 on Saturday thanks in no small part to a successful fake punt with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Virginia all but conceded to Sam Howell and the Tar Heels' passing attack, allowing a 54% success rate and 13.9 yards per early-down pass, but stifled the run: North Carolina averaged only 4.4 yards per early-down rush, -0.204 EPA/rush. Howell completed 82% of his passes for 19.2 yards per completion, throwing four touchdowns. Junior Dyami Brown caught 11 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. The real story is Virginia's offenses. The Cavaliers extended drives four times on fourth down and took advantage of short fields, with touchdown drives of 20 and 30 yards. The Cavaliers offense averaged +0.258 EPA/play and a 46.6% success rate, and so even as they were outgained 8.79 to 5.73 in yards per play, they finished those short drives and pulled off an upset for their second win of the season.

No. 34 West Virginia contributed to the Big 12 chaos this weekend, beating No. 67 Kansas State 37-10. Freshman Will Howard averaged 5 yards per passing attempt and threw three interceptions while Kansas rushed for only 50 yards total. Explosive open-field playmaker Deuce Vaughn went out with an injury and Kansas State's offense went with him. The Wildcats have struggled with efficiency all year, and the Mountaineers have stifled opposing offenses. Coming into this game, West Virginia allowed a 27.9% success rate on defense and Kansas State averaged 33.1% on offense. The Wildcats were successful on 39.2% of plays but averaged just 4.26 yards on early downs, a -0.319 EPA/play. West Virginia's Jarret Doege averaged 8.9 yards per pass and running back Leddie Brown added 102 yards on the ground. Couple that offense with a pick-six on defense and you have a recipe for an upset. West Virginia and Kansas State both still have matchups with Texas and Iowa State, and the fate of the Big 12 is still very much up for debate.

No. 4 Clemson struggled with No. 56 Boston College in the first half before coming back to secure a 34-28 victory in the Tigers' first game without Trevor Lawrence in three seasons. Clemson was successful on 40.5% of plays and averaged only a +0.094 EPA/play. This weekend, they'll play No. 7 Notre Dame, who thoroughly dispatched No. 68 Georgia Tech 31-13. The Irish gained 68% of available yards, holding Georgia Tech to only 34.6%.

No. 2 Alabama ran all over No. 77 Mississippi State, almost literally. The Tide outgained the Bulldogs 6.83 to 3.17 in their 41-0 victory. Things have turned quickly for the Bulldogs. Since winning 44-34 at LSU to start the season, Mike Leach's team has scored 30 points across four games.

No. 6 Georgia won an ugly game against No. 61 Kentucky. At one point, the Wildcats had a 10-minute, 19-play drive that resulted in their only score of the game. Quarterback Stetson Bennett struggled for Georgia, as the passing game continues to be the limiting factor for the Bulldogs. Bennett was 9-of-13 with two interceptions for only 131 yards on the day. No. 5 Florida is the Bulldogs' next opponent and after some time off for COVID reasons, the Gators looked sharp as ever. They averaged a 49.3% success rate against No. 74 Missouri, winning 41-17.

In the realm of the non-Playoff contenders, four teams stand out. No. 9 Cincinnati beat No. 38 Memphis 49-10 as Desmond Ridder completed 81% of his passes and the Bearcats forced two turnovers against the Tigers, and now look to be the class of the Group of Five Schools. No. 12 BYU continued their run, beating No. 79 Western Kentucky to stay undefeated. Heisman contender Zach Wilson had another solid game, passing for 224 yards and three touchdowns, although he did throw his second interception of the season.

In the Sun Belt, America's team, the No. 49 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers took No. 102 Georgia State behind the woodshed; the Chants were favored by only three but won 51-0.

No. 26 Boise State arrived on the scene this week, winning their second game handily over No. 81 Air Force, 49-30. Broncos quarterback Jack Season passed for 280 yards and six Boise State players combined for 179 yards on the ground.


Honor Roll

These players generated the most value for their teams this week:

  • Bo Nix, Auburn quarterback: +28.1 Total EPA
    Nix led his Tigers to a much-needed victory over the LSU Tigers, 48-11. Nix completed 75% of his passes for three touchdowns, along with 81 yards and a touchdown on the ground (7.36 yards per carry).
     
  • Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina quarterback: +25.2 Total EPA
    McCall missed the game last week with a late injury but seemed not to miss a beat in his return. McCall went 18-of-24 for 254 yards and four touchdowns in the 51-0 win over Georgia State.
     
  • D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson quarterback: +25.1 Total EPA
    Uiagalelei started in place of Trevor Lawrence, who was out after a positive Covid test, and his performance was a scary look into Clemson's future. The Tigers scored 21 points in the second half, and Uiagalelei was 30-of-41 with 342 yards and two touchdowns passing. Uiagalelei will get another start this weekend versus Notre Dame.
     
  • Jake Funk, Maryland running back: +12.2 Total EPA
    After a rough start to the season, Maryland pulled out a victory against Minnesota, 45-44. Funk ran for 216 yards on 21 carries and scored a rushing and receiving touchdown.
     
  • Devonta Smith, Alabama wide receiver: +20.0 Total EPA
    In the absence of Jaylen Waddle (out for the season due to injury), Smith more than picked up the slack. Mac Jones found Smith 11 times for 203 yards and four touchdowns in Alabama's 41-0 rout of Mississippi State.

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