Roadrunners Steal College Football Spotlight
NCAA Week 12 - In a glorious and much-needed relief from the ever-increasing corporatization of the sport, the best game of Week 12 had nothing to do with the College Football Playoff. The No. 43 University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Roadrunners hosted the No. 68 Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) Blazers in San Antonio with a spot in the Conference USA Championship Game on the line. The teams traded scores in the first half, with UAB scoring touchdowns on three of its five drives and kicking a field goal on the fourth. The defenses showed up in the second half, though, particularly on UTSA's side. UAB had 474 total yards on the day; only 91 (19.2%) of those came in the second half. The Blazers averaged 0.756 EPA/play and a 60% success rate in the first half but were held to -0.258 EPA/play and a 32.3% success rate in the second half.
UTSA allowed UAB to find explosive passes in the first half. UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins amassed 15.5 total EPA (1.40 per attempt) in the first half, including touchdowns of 74 and 40 yards, and chunk plays of 34 and 24 yards to set up scores. In the second half, Hopkins averaged -0.751 EPA/pass, a 28.6% success rate, and had only one pass play go for longer than 10 yards. UAB scored 24 points in the first half: scoring drives of 75, 77, 75, 69 yards. UAB scored seven points in the second half, a 44-yard drive after a short UTSA punt.
Meanwhile, the Roadrunners offense largely kept pace in the first half, scoring on three of their four drives. Their halftime deficit largely comes down to settling for a field goal after a first-and-10 at the UAB 35, and UAB sneaking in an end-of-half field goal themselves. In the second half, the Roadrunners scored 17 points, equaling their first-half total, but that might underrate their second-half performance (and perhaps bear a testament to UAB's defensive red zone resiliency). The Roadrunners had first-and-10 inside UAB territory three times in the second half but scored 10 points on those drives.
Ironically, perhaps, the difference for UTSA in the second half was explosive passing, which had been UAB's success in the first half. UTSA quarterback Frank Harris' overall EPA was worse in the second half (-0.111 EPA/pass compared to 0.270 in the first), but Harris had a 54-yard touchdown to start the third quarter, and in the game-winning drive he completed 28- and 33-yard passes to put the Roadrunners in a position to win the game, not to mention a gutsy, sacrifice-the-body scramble to get to the goal line. Harris' final pass as time expired was tipped, but UTSA tight end Oscar Cardenas was there to catch the tip, and the Roadrunners got the 34-31 win as the Alamodome erupted.
Does it get any better than this?
— Chase Shannon (@chase_shannon) November 21, 2021
UTSA moves to 11-0 and seems destined for a rematch with explosive Western Kentucky in the Conference USA Championship Game. UTSA ranks 13th nationally in EPA/play margin; 11 wins matches the combined total from UTSA's last two seasons and marks the first double-digit-win season in program history.
American Athletic Conference
Elsewhere, a couple of elite teams flexed their muscles on Saturday. No. 12 Cincinnati dispatched No. 48 SMU 48-14, holding the national leader in total EPA, Tanner Mordecai, to -10.8 Total EPA and a 13.3% passing success rate. Despite concerns to the contrary, Cincinnati has not been struggling the last few weeks, and is poised for another opportunity for a quality win against No. 47 Houston in the AAC Championship Game in two weeks.
Speaking of Houston, Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune connected with Nathaniel Dell for 100 yards and a touchdown as Ta'Zhawn Henry averaged 5.6 yards per rush in a 31-13 blowout of No. 79 Memphis.
Big Ten Conference
No. 3 Ohio State embarrassed No. 20 Michigan State, scoring touchdowns on all seven of their first-half drives and holding the Spartans to just 106 yards on their seven drives. C.J. Stroud threw for 22.3 total EPA (0.929 per pass) and completed 91.4% of his passes in the absolute rout of Michigan State. The Buckeyes offense is now averaging 0.338 EPA/play on the season, and the defense has improved to 24th as the Buckeyes gear up for their stretch run.
No. 4 Michigan, Ohio State's opponent next weekend, did some flexing of their own, squashing No. 88 Maryland 59-18. The Wolverines let it fly, rushing on just 39.1% of early downs and averaging 0.382 EPA/pass as they were evidently tuning up for The Game this weekend. Notably, Michigan's Hassan Haskins only had 20 carries (3.9 yards per carry), rushing a couple of times early in the game but then largely resting, perhaps to keep fresh legs for the upcoming matchup, a play-in contest for the Big Ten Championship game.
No. 16 Utah, a team who has looked night-and-day different since switching to Cam Rising at quarterback, ran the No. 13 Oregon Ducks out of the building and out of the playoff Saturday night, 38-7. In the first half, Utah's offense accounted for 11.6 total EPA to Oregon's -4.57, and a punt returned for a touchdown as the half ended all but sealed the deal. Oregon, averaging 0.248 EPA/rush (eighth in the country) coming into the game, had to abandon the rush—they ran the ball on only 40% of early downs in the first half, averaging -0.788 EPA/rush as the Utes shut down that dimension of the Ducks offense. Utah's Tvion Thomas, on the other hand, had an explosive career day, averaging 0.382 EPA/rush (6.88 total EPA) on just a 38.9% success rate, and Rising generated 4.31 total EPA with his legs as well. Kyle Wittingham's Utes clinch the Pac-12 South championship for the third time in four years and will get a tune-up game against 4-7 Colorado before facing the winner of Oregon-Oregon State in the Pac-12 Championship game. Oregon, meanwhile, has fallen since beating Ohio State on the road to start the season: the Ducks sit at 15th in EPA/play margin, and an avoidable loss at Stanford looms large as they will play for their lives this weekend against No. 50 Oregon State.
In the SEC, two upsets and a barnburner are of note. First, Shane Beamer's No. 74 South Carolina upset No. 17 Auburn at home 21-17 thanks to a 14-point second quarter and holding Auburn to just three points on its final seven drives. Auburn's Tank Bigsby averaged 0.465 EPA/rush and a 59.1% success rate, but quarterback TJ Finley, filling in for the injured Bo Nix, had a terrible day against the Gamecocks defense, averaging -0.260 EPA/play, successful on just 25% of his passes.
Speaking of bowl eligibility, the No. 22 Florida Gators are going to be playing for it in a rivalry game against No. 45 Florida State after a shocking loss to No. 90 Missouri. The Tigers defense allowed 0.133 EPA/play on the season before Saturday, 97th in the country, but held Florida to -0.124 EPA/play. Florida had a chance to win the game after Missouri missed a field goal with 1:04 left in the fourth quarter, but recently unemployed coach Dan Mullen decided to not try and move the ball into field goal range from his own 30 with timeouts in his pocket. Missouri went for two in the first overtime and got the win, cementing their bowl eligibility and throwing the Florida program into disarray.
Finally, No. 26 Arkansas gave No. 2 Alabama all it could handle, refusing to fold after a 31-14 second-half deficit before finally falling short 42-35. Both quarterbacks put on dazzling displays. Arkansas' KJ Jefferson averaged 14.8 yards per completion, completing 73% of his passes and throwing for 25.6 total EPA. His favorite target was the explosive Treylon Burkes, who had two touchdowns and averaged 2.34 EPA/reception on eight catches. Meanwhile, Alabama's Bryce Young threw for 28.0 total EPA, 559 total yards, and 5 touchdowns in the game, connecting with both Jameson Williams (190 yards and 3 touchdowns) and John Metchie III (173 yards and 1 touchdown) for 23.8 total EPA.
Big 12 Conference
Lastly, in the Big 12, three results set up a dramatic finish to the conference's round-robin. No. 23 Oklahoma survived No. 11 Iowa State 28-21 thanks to Caleb Williams' 10.6 total rushing EPA and a Brock Purdy fumble returned by Jalen Redmon for a touchdown. No. 5 Oklahoma State decimated No. 71 Texas Tech on the road in a quiet 23-0 game where the Red Raiders punted nine times. A recovered muffed punt and a missed field goal served as the difference for No. 14 Baylor as they ruined No. 19 Kansas State's senior night 20-10. Baylor starter Gerry Bohanon went down with a leg injury and backup Blake Shapen filled in admirably, averaged 0.186 EPA/pass, and generally avoided mistakes enough for the Bears to win.
Those three wins set up the following conference championship scenario. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State play in Stillwater this weekend, and Baylor hosts Texas Tech. Assume Baylor will take care of business, and the stakes reveal themselves. Currently, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are tied with one loss in Big 12 Play, and Baylor has two losses. If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State (which they have done now six straight times and eight of the last 10), Oklahoma State, with two losses, holds the tiebreaker over Baylor and the Big 12 Championship Game will be a Bedlam rematch. If Oklahoma State wins, Baylor holds the tiebreaker and will get their rematch with Oklahoma State. As Baylor has two losses, only the Oklahoma schools are considering playoff implications, each hoping that consecutive wins against top-10 or top-15 teams will be enough of a resume boost to slide into the fourth spot. Oklahoma State, should they beat Oklahoma and Baylor the next two weeks, would be the first first-time playoff team since LSU in 2019, and only the 11th team to appear in the Playoff.
OFI Top 15, Week 12
Ratings this week reflect only conference play, to get a better sense of relative comparison and recent performance as teams head into rivalry week, conference championships, and bowl season. Each team is listed with their current rank, team EPA/game margin, and change in Ranking:
1. Georgia +30.8 (-)
2. Ohio State +52.3 (+1)
3. Alabama +24.8 (-1)
4. Michigan +21.7 (-)
5. Cincinnati +11.6 (-)
6. Oklahoma State +32.8 (-)
Only one change at the top: Ohio State jumps Alabama. The Ohio State offense has proven time and time again to be a force of nature, and Alabama's offensive line play has allowed a few teams to stick around that perhaps shouldn't have. Close wins against Florida, LSU, and Arkansas aren't exactly resumé blights but have at least exposed some flaws in the Crimson Tide's armor.
7. Notre Dame +27.9 (+4)
8. Houston +36.9 (+1)
9. Pittsburgh +41.1 (+3)
10. UTSA +23.7 (+3)
11. Utah +11.33 (NR)
12. NC State +12.8 (NR)
13. Wisconsin +3.6 (+1)
14. Louisiana +12.2 (NR)
15. Arkansas +7.84 (NR)
The bottom half of these rankings have been a revolving door, despite my desire to keep them relatively sticky. It feels this year that for as large as the gap between "elite" and "great" teams is, the gap between "great" and "good" might be that much larger.
Notre Dame, Houston, and Pittsburgh move up after winning as they should, and UTSA moves up they showed resilience in multiple ways beating UAB. Utah's win over Oregon drops the Ducks from the rankings by sheer magnitude, as does Michigan State's loss to Ohio State and Wake Forest's to Clemson. None of those teams would've been penalized for reasonable losses to good competition, but the blowout nature of those losses has them in the high teens.
NC State creeps in after blowing out Syracuse. Two of the Pack's three losses are at by a field goal or less, and all three are on the road. Lousiana enters the rankings, establishing itself as the dominant team in the Sun Belt.
Hovering: Wake Forest +18.2, Baylor +15.2, Mississippi State +5.6, Louisville +25.7, Oregon +14.2, Iowa +2.6, Ole Miss -0.46.