USC Falls Hard, TCU Makes Playoff Despite Loss

TCU Horned Frogs QB Max Duggan
TCU Horned Frogs QB Max Duggan
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Conference Championship - This Saturday featured one of the least anticipated conference championship weeks in recent memory, but the Pac-12 and Big 12 delivered entertaining, meaningful games that left USC on the outside of the College Football Playoff and TCU thankful to be in. The other three Power 5 championship games didn't offer nearly as much in stakes or intrigue. Georgia, Michigan, and Clemson all claimed conference titles with force. Within the Group of 5, Tulane ran over UCF to the tune of almost 10 yards a play to punch a New Year's Six ticket for the Green Wave. UTSA, Toledo, Troy, and Fresno State rounded out the championship week winners for 2022. Let's take a tour through our last college football weekend of the year before we turn to the bowls and the playoff.

Notes:

  • All rankings referenced are from Brian Fremeau's FEI numbers heading into the weekend.
  • EPA/play includes special teams and penalties, so combining EPA/rush and EPA/pass numbers won't give the same total as what the top line number shows.

Fighting for the Playoff

Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 8 Utah Utes 47, No. 14 USC Trojans 24

Advanced Box Score: Utah vs. USC

Just like in the regular season matchup between the Utes and Trojans, USC started fast and looked to have a sustainable edge over Utah. Once again, Cam Rising and company struck back, but this time, USC couldn't continue going blow for blow. Utah kept pummeling and closed the game on a 44-7 run after trailing 17-3. Utah's offense was able to move the ball through the air and on the ground with nearly equal effectiveness, finishing the game with 12.9 passing EPA and 14.3 rushing EPA. Four Utah rushes went for 1.9 or more EPA, and four passes went for 2.5 or more EPA, including devastating scoring strikes to Money Parks for 57 yards (on third-and-19) and Thomas Yassmin for 60 yards.

For the Trojans, a hobbled Caleb Williams couldn't keep up. Utah coordinator Morgan Scalley's defense had a clear plan for Williams: blitz, blitz, and blitz some more, bringing five or more rushers on 70% of USC's dropbacks. Utah got home for seven important sacks on Williams, but the pressure was a sink-or-swim situation for Utah. When Williams managed to throw under pressure, he was incredible, completing 73% of his 15 throws for nearly 15 yards per attempt. Williams was his usual electric self, but the negative plays ended up winning the day. USC lost 16.3 EPA between the sacks and a brutal interception in the red zone while trailing by just 10 with seven minutes left in the game.

Caleb Williams got put in worse and worse spots as the game wore on because his team's defense lost any and all effectiveness, allowing Utah to score on five of its final six drives. As we have been forecasting all season, eventually the turnover luck would have to stop for USC, and when it did, there was very little in the way of defensive strength. We finally saw what that looked like as Utah moved the ball at will without its starting tailback and with offensive weapon Dalton Kincaid significantly limited by injury. It was secondary and tertiary playmakers running through the Trojans' defense, and now USC will rightfully be playing in the New Year's Six but not the playoff. Meanwhile, Utah earned back-to-back Rose Bowl bids after we thought that possibility had all but dried up following the loss to Oregon. Now the Utes get a chance at redemption against Big Ten representative Penn State after last season's heartbreaking New Year's Day loss to Ohio State.

Big 12 Championship Game: No. 7 Kansas State 31 Wildcats, No. 10 TCU Horned Frogs 28 (OT)

Advanced Box Score: TCU vs. Kansas State

This was the most exciting game of the weekend, as Kansas State got a well-deserved win despite the heroic efforts of Max Duggan. Kansas State led 21-10 and 28-17 in the second half and was playing like the clearly better team. A muffed punt in the middle of the third quarter (worth -6.4 EPA for the Wildcats) gave TCU an extra opportunity, and two gritty fourth-quarter drives for the Horned Frogs got things back even with less than two minutes to play.

For the Wildcats, Will Howard did not have his best day throwing the ball, and he really couldn't produce in the face of pressure. TCU only got pressure on 22% of Howard's dropbacks, but he did not complete a single pass on those plays. He also couldn't do much down the field, completing only two of nine balls that travelled more than 20 yards. The running game paved the way to efficient Wildcats offense. Kansas State had an opportunity rate (carries that go for 4 or more yards) of 59%, and Deuce Vaughn had a shifty 44-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that moved the lead back to 11.

For TCU, Max Duggan didn't have a great day throwing the ball either, but he provided the will and guile to execute the tying score. In the passing game, Duggan was determined to push the ball down the field, finishing with an enormous 16.1-yard average depth of target, but he completed only three of the 14 balls he threw 20 or more yards down the field. That was a big reason why TCU struggled to be efficient for most of the day.

When TCU needed one more score to have a chance at a tying two-point conversion, Duggan changed tactics. On a scoring drive that covered 80 yards, Duggan managed to carry the ball five times for 95 yards. That success made it all the more inexplicable when TCU completely took the ball out of his hands on both third and fourth down on its one overtime possession, which ended with no points. Kansas State had been completely unable to contain TCU's quarterback on the edges over the game's final few possessions, but offensive coordinator Garrett Riley took that option off the table on the two decisive plays. Kansas State stiffened its front to force the turnover on downs before easily picking up one first down and kicking a chip-shot field goal to win the game and the conference for the first time since 2012.

TCU had to sweat the committee's Sunday morning deliberations, but its one-loss résumé ultimately won the day and earned the Horned Frogs a date to play Michigan as an almost double-digit underdog. Chris Klieman's Kansas State gets to face Alabama in the Sugar Bowl with what will likely be a significant motivation advantage, if not an edge in actual team talent.

Toe Drags

AAC Championship Game: No. 22 Tulane Green Wave 45, No. 35 UCF Knights 28

Advanced Box Score: UCF vs. Tulane 2

After fielding speculation about his future job prospects for much of the last week, Willie Fritz led his Tulane Green Wave team to a resounding AAC Championship Game win and a spot in Tulane's first major bowl game since 1940. The Knights of UCF were gashed by one explosive play after another. Michael Pratt ended the day averaging more than 12 yards per dropback while Tulane was just below 10 yards per play as a team and had a 95th-percentile explosive play rate. Tulane had only the 47th best offense nationally coming into the championship, per SP+, but UCF was helpless to stop the Green Wave, who had touchdown plays that covered 60, 73, 60, and 43 yards. The win sends Tulane to the Cotton Bowl and an intriguing clash with USC. The stage might be set in Dallas for more offensive fireworks.

SEC Championship Game: No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs 50, No. 12 LSU Tigers 30

Advanced Box Score: LSU vs. Georgia

Georgia was never threatened after the first quarter of its SEC Championship Game victory, but three LSU turnovers and a bizarre blocked field goal return for a touchdown were huge contributors to the final margin. Georgia never stopped being able to move the ball as Stetson Bennett put up an eye-popping 69% passing success rate. The Bulldogs scored whenever they needed to keep the margin at arm's length, but LSU also kept pushing the ball and producing scoring chances.

No doubt Georgia was the better team, but LSU moved the ball consistently enough to raise some questions about what Ohio State's offense will be able to do against this defense in four weeks. Filling in for an injured Jayden Daniels, Garrett Nussmeier came in and averaged over 10 yards and 0.5 EPA per dropback. The Tigers could do virtually nothing on the ground against the scary Georgia front, but some back-end issues popped up, much as they did against Alabama in this same game last year. Now the Bulldogs turn all of their attention to the Buckeyes in what could be one of the best semifinal matchups we have had in the nine-year history of the College Football Playoff.

Big Ten Championship Game: No. 2 Michigan Wolverines 43, No. 40 Purdue Boilermakers 22

Advanced Box Score: Michigan vs. Purdue

The most lopsided point spread of Championship Saturday turned into a game that was highly competitive for about two-and-a-half quarters. Aidan O'Connell threw it efficiently and quickly for Purdue, posting a 49% success rate and a 7.5-yard average depth of target. On the other side, J.J. McCarthy picked up where he left off against Ohio State and kept pushing the ball down the field. He more than doubled O'Connell's aDOT, finishing the day at 15.3 yards on average. He still managed a 53% success rate on those throws and subsequently earned a 94th-percentile EPA/dropback performance. Looking ahead, he will look to continue hitting those chunk plays against a TCU defense that has been liable to them. The Wolverines will be significant favorites against those Horned Frogs and will look to take a step beyond the semifinal flameout that ended their 2021 run.

ACC Championship Game: No. 19 Clemson Tigers 39, No. 63 North Carolina Tar Heels 10

Advanced Box Score: Clemson vs. North Carolina

The first few series of this game looked like Clemson was going to continue its offensive slog and allow North Carolina enough room to move the ball effectively. Then Dabo Swinney finally made the permanent quarterback switch, and everything changed. On five early dropbacks, DJ Uiagalelei had -4.5 passing EPA. Cade Klubnik entered on Clemson's third series and racked up 18.6 passing EPA on 24 dropbacks. He was decisive, accurate, and elusive. The offensive ceiling for the Tigers changed dramatically, and the defense responded forcefully after North Carolina's opening touchdown drive. The Tar Heels only had one offensive play the entire game that was worth more than 2.5 EPA. Power ratings had North Carolina as by far the worst of the Power 5 championship game participants, and the Tar Heels made those ratings look quite smart.

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