"I'm oh so glad we met the second time around
Who can say what brought us to this miracle we've found?
There are those who'll bet love comes but once, and yet
I'm oh so glad we met the second time around"
-- Duke Ellington
On a conference championship week featuring two rematches, we got perhaps the best slate of football all season. No. 3 played No. 5, No. 1 played No. 11, No. 6 played No. 14, and four other games featured top-40 matchups. Beating a team the second time is never easy, and conference championship weekend proved that as Notre Dame and Iowa State both fell short in rematches against Clemson and Oklahoma. Both contests were funhouse mirror images of the first games, as Clemson and Oklahoma adapted, adjusted, and overcame. A full-strength Clemson rolled over Notre Dame, and Oklahoma outlasted Iowa State in a defensive showdown. Meanwhile, Alabama and Florida did their best to break the scoreboard, and Ohio State and Northwestern played a game that only the most diehard of fans could stomach. All that and more in this week's One Foot Inbounds.
No. 3 Clemson 34, No. 5 Notre Dame 10
After Notre Dame beat Clemson in double overtime the first week of November, I asked, "Does it matter?" The answer, of course, is no. Notre Dame and Clemson, the clear best teams in the ACC, could not have engineered this better if they'd tried: by splitting their games, the Fighting Irish and the Tigers have better wins than anyone else in the country, in essence guaranteeing playoff berths for the two schools.
The same question can be asked of Notre Dame's 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, and you'll get a slightly different answer: "No, but yes." The result of this game had no bearing on Notre Dame's playoff resume, and while a win would have kept them in the second seed and facing Ohio State, the loss had no real effect: the Irish were going to be selected, regardless. The effect of this game for Notre Dame is not one of resume but more so of preparedness. Clemson held Notre Dame to a 33% success rate in the game, notably a 17% success rate and -0.280 EPA/play in the rushing game. Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, the second-lowest of his season, and his 50 total yards was his third-lowest total of the season. Brent Venables' Clemson defense decided to shut down Williams and make Ian Book win the game with his arm, a bet that paid off. Book completed 71.4% of his passes, but 14 of his completions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Book was pressured on 15 of his dropbacks and sacked six times, as the Tigers front dominated the Irish line and succeeded in making Book very uncomfortable. Postgame, Brian Kelly identified Clemson's strategy: "Their ends were upfield, they were not rushing quite as hard off the edge as you saw. They were much more in a contain mode to keep him from getting outside. They did a nice job of minimizing his ability to get big chunk runs, trying to keep him at bay was obviously part of the game plan, and they did it by the way they rushed their front four, and then they brought a little bit more pressure from inside out, and flushed him out to ends that were not upfield." With Book contained and Williams sequestered, Notre Dame's offense stalled.
In the first matchup, Notre Dame began drives on their own 32 on average, forced two Clemson turnovers, and converted on 56% of third downs. In the rematch, Clemson held Notre Dame to an average starting field position of 18, committed one turnover, and held Notre Dame to 3-of-12 on third downs (25%). Clemson's offense, meanwhile, displayed a dominant counterpunch. Whereas Notre Dame was able to stifle Travis Etienne in the first meeting (28 yards total, 2.2 yards per carry, 23% rushing success rate), the Clemson senior dominated in the first half of the championship game, amassing 83 yards on six carries and ending the game with a 64% rushing success rate and +0.573 EPA/rush. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, meanwhile, relished his first opportunity to play Notre Dame as a conference opponent. Lawrence completed 70% of his passes for 12.9 yards per completion and two touchdowns. He added 90 yards and a touchdown on the ground and found receiver Amari Rodgers eight times for 121 yards and a touchdown. Clemson looked boringly efficient, back to their old selves, on the eve of the playoff. Despite losing Lawrence for two weeks and numerous other players throughout the season, Clemson finished with the largest EPA/play margin (offense minus defense), cruising into the playoff all but destined for a rematch with Alabama.
No. 6 Oklahoma 27, No. 14 Iowa State 21
What Matt Campbell has done at Iowa State is nothing short of astounding. The Cyclones had won three games once since 1980, and they have done it now in three of Campbell's five seasons. Iowa State had six consecutive losing seasons prior to Campbell, and now they boast four consecutive winning seasons.
What Lincoln Riley has done at Oklahoma is also nothing short of astounding. Under Riley, Oklahoma has won the Big 12 four seasons in a row, winning at least 80% of their games every year, not to mention the parade of NFL quarterbacks that have come through Norman during his tenure.
Iowa State's 37-30 win over Oklahoma in Week 5 threatened the Big 12's power structure; after that loss in Ames, Oklahoma sat at 0-2 in the conference and looked to miss the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time since its reinvention. Instead, Oklahoma rebounded, aided in part by the return of a couple of key pieces on the defensive side of the ball, and ripped off seven consecutive victories to earn their rematch with Iowa State. The Sooners took a 17-0 lead to start the game, thanks to a missed Iowa State field goal and a couple of questionable punts from the Cyclones. Oklahoma came out with haymakers, and that initial push proved to be the deciding factor in the game. Oklahoma's first three drives went for 65, 69, and 74 yards, 53% of their total yards on the day. In those first three drives, Oklahoma averaged 9.04 yards per play. For the rest of the game, Iowa State held the Sooners to just 4.65 yards per play. Meanwhile, Iowa State averaged 4.56 yards per play on those first three drives, scoring no points, but averaged 6.11 yards per play the rest of the game, scoring 21 points.
Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler started the game 10-of-11 (91% completion rate) and averaged 14.6 yards per completion. The rest of the game, Rattler completed only 12 of 23 passes for just 10.5 yards per completion. Marvin Mimms caught five passes for 77 yards on the first three drives, but was restricted to two catches for 24 yards the rest of the game. On the day, Rattler and the Sooners passing attack finished with a 43% success rate, but only +0.053 EPA/play and just 10 explosive plays on the day. Iowa State kept themselves in the game by shutting Oklahoma down on third downs -- the Sooners converted just one of 11 third downs they faced, punting on five of six second-half drives.
On the Iowa State side of the ball, Brock Purdy completed 67.5% of his passes but threw for three interceptions on the day. In the first matchup, in Ames, running back Breece hall ran for 139 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry, but he was held to just 79 yards, 3.4 yards per carry in the rematch. With Hall penned up, Oklahoma's defense was free to disrupt Purdy, pressuring him on 21 of 45 dropbacks and sacking him three times. Iowa State tried to mount a comeback, as they had done against Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma already this season, but the Sooners' defensive talent disrupted the offense to the point where the Cyclones fell short.
The Big 12 will miss out on the playoff for the first time since 2016, although this game had no bearing on that. Oklahoma and Iowa State will both go on to NY6 matchups, both deservedly so after the caliber of seasons they have had, and pending a professional change, Matt Campbell and Lincoln Riley should be battling it out in the Big 12 Championship Game again in the near future.
No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 11 Florida 46
There are only so many combinations of words in the English language, only so many ways you can string together nouns and adjectives to convey a point. I'm afraid when it comes to the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide, we may have run out of clever ways to state the truth: Alabama's just really good. Nick Saban has decided that offense is the way to win games in modern college football, and in 2020, he's doing offense better than everyone else. The Crimson Tide are averaging +0.337 EPA/play on offense, best in the nation, and they have scored 40 points in all but one of their games … and in that down week, they scored 38. Florida gave Alabama its biggest challenge of the season, bringing the fifth-ranked offense (according to EPA/play) into the game. The Gators could have rolled over at any point in this game; they found themselves down 35-17 at the half, outgained 7.05 to 6.38 yards per play, 360 to 217 total. Alabama scored a touchdown on each of their five first-half drives.
Florida scored 20 or more points in the first half in each of their first six games; in their last five games, they failed to score more than 17. Against Alabama, that decline continued, which is an absurd denigration for a team: Florida *only* scored 17 points in the first half, which left them in a hole out of which few could climb. The Gators gave it about the best push possible, though: the Gators outscored Alabama 29-17 in the second half, including 14-0 in the third quarter. The real nail in the coffin for Florida's comeback was a Kyle Trask fumble after a sack in the fourth quarter. At that point, down 11, Florida had scored on two of three drives to start the game, and looked poised to come back. That fumble and the ensuing Alabama field goal not only put the game out of reach, but put the Gators out of time; two consecutive touchdown drives at the end of the game could only make the score respectable.
Florida lost the field position battle, starting drives at their 25 on average while the Crimson Tide averaged a start at their own 35. They managed a more-than-respectable 47% success rate on all plays, and an impressive +0.299 EPA/pass. The Gators had a 52% success rate and a +0.133 EPA/rush, but only rushed the ball on 39% of plays, employing the rush selectively and efficiently. Trask connected with Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts 15 times for 282 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 18 yards per completion. Against Alabama, Trask threw for 400 yards, the fifth time he has done so this season.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama's Mac Jones was again excellent. Jones completed 76.7% of his passes, averaging +0.476 EPA/attempt and a 56% passing success rate. He found Devonta Smith 15 times, 12.3 yards per completion, for two touchdowns, and Najee Harris in the short game picked up the other three touchdowns. Harris accounted for five touchdowns on the day, adding two rushing to his three receiving, and averaged 6.81 yards per touch (reception and carry) on the night. Alabama's offense was successful on 53% of its plays, gained 80% of available yards on drives, and converted on 67% of third-down attempts, an absolutely stellar performance entirely in line with the rest of their season. The Crimson Tide are the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff and the clear favorite to reclaim the national title.
Across the Nation
No. 2 Ohio State 22, No. 20 Northwestern 10
The Buckeyes struggled to finish drives against the Wildcats, settling for two field goals and an interception in plus territory in the first half. Ohio State moved the ball well, generally, averaging a 52% success rate and gaining 59% of available yards, but only 2.6 points per scoring opportunity. Northwestern disrupted Justin Fields in the passing game, forcing two interceptions and holding the Buckeyes to -0.561 EPA/pass on 30% success. While Fields struggled, Ohio State found success in the rushing game, penalizing Northwestern for committing to the pass; a 68% success rate and +0.395 EPA/rush came on the back of running back Trey Sermon's 331 yards and two touchdowns. Sermon averaged 11.4 yards per carry, 9.5 if you censor his long run of 65 yards, and almost single-handedly overcame Northwestern's defense. This game illustrated that Northwestern's brand of "offense-optional" football will only take you so far -- specifically, it will only let you beat one-dimensional teams. Fortunately, the Buckeyes had the rush game to pick up where Fields struggled, but Ohio State will be looking long and hard at their passing game headed into the playoff.
No. 22 Oregon 31, No. 19 USC 24
On Friday night, the Pac-12 had a championship game. Well, sort of. The Oregon Ducks filled in for the North Division champions, Washington, who were unable to play due to roster issues. As so often happens in college football, the Ducks came in and won, securing a spot in the Fiesta Bowl in the process. The Ducks pressured USC's Kedon Slovis on 28 of his dropbacks, sacking him three times. Slovis only completed 54% of his passes and the Trojans averaged -0.030 EPA/pass despite a 48% passing success rate. Oregon's offense really struggled as quarterback Tyler Shough only attempted 15 passes to the team's 41 rushes. The Ducks averaged a slightly positive +0.073 EPA/pass, but only 33% success in the rushing game. The big differences in this game came in two areas: Oregon started drives on their own 38, while USC started only on their own 28, and Oregon averaged 6.2 points per scoring opportunity while USC averaged only 3.4. The Trojans missed a field goal and threw an interception in Oregon territory, both contributing to a loss in a game they should have won.
No. 10 Cincinnati 27, No. 32 Tulsa 24
Cincinnati had but faint hopes of playoff inclusion this season, and their case rested largely on a dominant performance against Tulsa in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. The Bearcats, unfortunately, did not deliver. Tulsa, a perennially underrated 2020 team, held Cincinnati's offense to a 34% success rate and just 2.8 points per scoring opportunity. The Bearcats were successful on only 22% of rushes despite rushing 37 times for 4.27 yards per carry. Tulsa was able to find their ground game, rushing for a 56% success rate and +0.242 EPA/play. Corey Taylor II averaged 4.63 yards per carry and scored a touchdown as well. Tulsa missed a field goal in the first half, failing to capitalize on a first-and-10 at Cinncinati's 11, and that proved to be the difference in an otherwise even game.
No. 37 San Jose State 34, No. 36 Boise State 20
San Jose State's 2020 season has quietly been very fun. The Spartans' offense ranks 18th nationally in EPA/play, eighth in EPA/pass, and they just completed a 7-0 regular season, winning the Mountain West Championship Game on Saturday. Six of San Jose's seven wins came by double digits, and transfer quarterback Nick Starkel has 16 touchdowns on a 65.1% completion rate. Against Boise State, Starkel completed 61.5% of his passes, throwing for 453 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Tre Walker caught seven passes for 147 yards (19.6 yards per catch) and San Jose State averaged +0.335 EPA/pass. The Spartans defense held Boise State to a 31% success rate and only 27% of available yards in the win. The Spartans finish undefeated for the first time in program history, and their Arizona Bowl matchup with Ball State will be the program's fourth bowl since 1990.
These players added the most value to their teams in conference championship games:
- Kyle Trask, Florida QB: +23.4 Total EPA
- Mac Jones, Alabama QB: +21.6 Total EPA
- Nick Starkel, San Jose State QB: +16.4 Total EPA
- Najee Harris, Alabama RB: +16.1 Total EPA
- Trey Sermon, Ohio State RB: +14.5 Total EPA
Through the regular season, here are the players who have added the most value to their teams.
- Kyle Trask, Florida: +191 Total EPA
- Mac Jones, Alabama: +179 Total EPA
- Dillon Gabriel, UCF: +118 Total EPA
- Sam Howell, North Carolina: +109 Total EPA
- Zach Wilson, BYU: +102 Total EPA
- Devonta Smith, Alabama WR: +109 total EPA
- Elijah Moore, Ole Miss WR: +72.2 Total EPA
- Kadarius Toney, Florida WR: +70.2 Total EPA
- Dax Milne, BYU WR: 61.7 Total EPA
- Jaret Patterson, Buffalo RB: +45.6 Total EPA
Note: All rankings refer to F+, a combination of Brian Fremeau's drive-based FEI ratings with Bill Connelly's play-level SP+ ratings. Advanced Stats and leaderboards can be found at cfb-graphs.com. Follow Parker on Twitter: @statsowar.