USC Fights On, Tennessee Hits Rocky Bottom

USC Trojans QB Caleb Williams
USC Trojans QB Caleb Williams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 12 - The Saturday before Thanksgiving has come to be known as SoCon Saturday in the college football world because so many top teams typically play weak out-of-conference games in advance of rivalry finales. This year, SoCon Saturday became one of the best of this 2022 season.

In this space, we use FEI rankings for the teams we discuss because we are concerned with underlying team quality and evaluating what is predictive of future success. At this time of year, though, we also have to pay attention to the College Football Playoff rankings released each week because they begin to bring into focus who we will see playing in late December and early January. Of this week's top seven teams as ranked by the Playoff Selection Committee, six ended up in competitive games. The top four and seventh-ranked USC all escaped with victories, while fifth-ranked Tennessee suffered its second loss as its defense was eviscerated by an average South Carolina team. That knocks the Volunteers from the ranks of playoff contenders and helps the chances of teams with one loss in weaker conferences, such as USC and Clemson. Let's dive into some of the battles that took place featuring those teams at the top and then hit a few more intriguing results from the Saturday that was.

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

No. 13 USC Trojans 48, No. 29 UCLA Bruins 45

Advanced Box Score: UCLA vs. USC

USC and UCLA displayed offensive fireworks, and the Trojans were able to deliver one more strike in this rejuvenated rivalry. Once again, it was the electric duo of Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison, combined with the country's third-most prolific turnover-forcing defense, that proved to be the difference for Lincoln Riley's team. Williams averaged nearly 11 yards every time he dropped back to pass, and Addison was the primary weapon carving up the UCLA secondary. His 13 targets netted a total of 10.8 EPA and an absurd average of 13.7 yards every time Williams threw his way. Addison's targets alone amounted to 33% of win probability added, per Game On Paper. UCLA managed to get a good amount of pressure on Williams, but it didn't matter at all. He still averaged 8.0 yards per attempt and graded out at 84.3 on those pressured dropbacks.

USC couldn't do much to slow down UCLA either, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson kept the chains moving with his arm and legs. Despite throwing three interceptions, DTR still averaged 0.30 EPA/dropback, totaling 11.5 EPA through the air. His running was even more dynamic. On 13 carries, Thompson-Robinson had a 92% success rate and averaged 0.71 EPA/rush. The Trojan defense was sliced through left and right, but once again found itself the beneficiary of significant opponent turnover issues. UCLA had the slightly better down-to-down offensive numbers, as reflected in its 58% win expectancy, but forcing four turnovers (good for 5.3 points of turnover of luck, once again per Game On Paper) was enough to help the Trojans hold on for a narrow victory.

USC is not an elite team. FEI ranked the Trojans 13th before this week, and SP+ has them 14th even including this win. ESPN's Strength of Record metric only has them as the ninth-most impressive team, and they would be significant underdogs to anyone in the top three. But they have continued to win, and if they can beat Notre Dame and Oregon over the next two weeks, Riley's crew will get a playoff berth almost certainly. It just probably won't go very well for them when they do.

No. 60 South Carolina Gamecocks 63, No. 4 Tennessee Volunteers 38

Advanced Box Score: Tennessee vs. South Carolina

No one saw that coming. Tennessee travelled to South Carolina as a 22-point favorite, with the Gamecocks fresh off of a mauling at the hands of a mediocre Florida team (which lost to Vanderbilt this weekend, if you're looking for some fun with the transitive property). The Volunteers had run over Missouri last weekend and were expected to do much the same in their final two games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt to put the finishing touches on their playoff resume. Not so fast.

South Carolina started fast and never slowed down. Tennessee tried to counter, but its defense could not get off the field before a devastating injury to Hendon Hooker kept Tennessee from having any chance of keeping pace over the final quarter. Hooker's injury is terrible for him and for all he has meant to this Tennessee program, but it wasn't at all why Tennessee lost this game.

Before Saturday, South Carolina had the 58th-best offense in the country, per SP+. Average. Tennessee made the Gamecocks look like the 2007 Patriots or 2019 LSU; take your pick for the most devastating offense in recent memory. Upper 90th-percentile performances litter the box score, and it's worth putting the spotlight on how much of that success was driven by Spencer Rattler. After being benched during last season's Oklahoma-Texas game and then deciding to transfer, Rattler has fallen far from the national spotlight and from the tantalized eyes of scouts who once projected him as the top quarterback in the 2022 class. Finally, Rattler had another moment. He posted 37.0 EPA and a 66% success rate on 39 dropbacks. Tennessee blitzed him 43% of the time but only got pressure 20.5% of the time; when kept clean, Rattler was nearly perfect, completing 84% of his throws for 12.3 yards per attempt, good for a 94.4 grade.

Antwane Wells Jr. was his main partner in crime. Wells had 14 targets and posted 15.3 EPA on a 64% success rate. Alabama and Georgia capitalized on known issues for the Tennessee defense hitting throws down the field, but an average offense should not have been able to do so to this extent. This was a bad, bad performance for Tennessee and one that will rightly relegate the Volunteers far outside of playoff conversations in the coming weeks. Shane Beamer picks up the seventh win of his second season in Columbia and adds another impressive November victory to his collection.

No. 10 TCU Horned Frogs 29, No. 34 Baylor Bears 28

Advanced Box Score: TCU vs. Baylor

The early slate's most exciting game kept TCU alive in the playoff hunt as the Horned Frogs magic continued. TCU won with a walk-off field goal attempt that came as the unit ran onto the field with a running clock and gracefully executed the final kick. This was a tightly fought, evenly matched game throughout. Overall, Baylor was the more efficient team and TCU the more explosive side. On the game's final drive, Max Duggan executed beautifully, including a 19-yard throw to Taye Barber, a 9-yard throw to Savion Williams, and a 12-yard scamper that each added 12% or more of win probability for the Horned Frogs. Duggan had 10.0 passing EPA and 4.3 rushing EPA to lead TCU; surprisingly, Barber was far and away his most effective target, as it was a relatively quiet game for Quentin Johnston.

Baylor moved the ball steadily throughout the game; quarterback Blake Shapen outpaced Duggan with 12.7 passing EPA, and the Bears had three ballcarriers with five or more carries and 58% or higher success rates. The Baylor offense that had been shut down last week by Kansas State was very much good enough to win, but its defense couldn't finish things with one final stop. With another escape, TCU stayed unbeaten, but its 34th-best defense (per SP+) leaves the Horned Frogs vulnerable in its likely Big 12 title game rematch with Kansas State and even against one of the season's unluckiest teams, Iowa State, in the regular-season finale. TCU has not done much in the way of blowing other teams out this season. Finishing unbeaten is far from a sure thing, but for now, the TCU adventure ride continues.

No. 3 Michigan Wolverines 19, No. 25 Illinois Fighting Illini 17

Advanced Box Score: Michigan vs. Illinois

The persistent question facing Michigan all season has been whether or not J.J. McCarthy could throw when the Wolverines needed him to win a game. It wasn't always pretty, but he did throw it enough to squeak this one out against a very good Illinois defense (fourth in SP+). After Blake Corum left the game with an injury (Corum only carried the ball once in the second half), the already struggling Michigan offense ground to a halt. Corum had been averaging 6 yards per carry, while his backups combined for 15 carries for 42 yards. McCarthy had to win the game, and he had two fourth-down completions with less than five minutes remaining that were decisive for Michigan being able to get into field goal range twice after trailing by four.

The first of these field goal attempts was an interesting example of "the analytics" saying "take the points." With Michigan facing fourth-and-11 from the Illinois 16 while trailing by four with 3:14 left and all three of its timeouts, the A.I. Sports Fourth Down Bot said that the Wolverines gained 3% of win probability by kicking. It worked, as the kick was good, the Michigan defense got a quick stop, Illinois had a bad punt, and McCarthy needed to navigate only about 30 yards to set up the winning field goal. Now, it's Ohio State week. Michigan may well be able to grab a playoff berth even with a loss to the Buckeyes, but any chance of competing more legitimately than they did against Georgia last year will ride on McCarthy finding one more gear while throwing the football. It's proving time.

Toe Drags

No. 14 Oregon Ducks 20, No. 9 Utah Utes 17

Advanced Box Score: Oregon vs. Utah

Quarterback uncertainty followed Oregon all week after Bo Nix had to miss a series late in the loss to Washington with an ankle injury, and his status was unclear all the way up to kickoff time. Nix came out and played impressively before the Oregon offense ground to a halt for the final two quarters. After the Ducks had run about 30 offensive plays, they had 4.2 EPA and a 17-3 lead. The rest of the game saw the Oregon offense lose 12.4 EPA and allow Utah to come all the way back. Nix was far from 100%, but he still managed to lead more effective offense than his counterpart Cam Rising.

Rising lost 16.2 EPA in the passing game. He was kept clean on 76% of his dropbacks but managed only 5.0 yards per attempt and had two interceptions on those clean plays. He fell even further to 2.7 yards per attempt under pressure and added another interception there, but his play from a clean pocket was the biggest factor in Utah being unable to find efficient offense against an Oregon defense that had been shredded a week earlier by Washington.

The Utes defense started slow but found itself and gave the offense every chance to win the game. The passing woes were the biggest reason why they couldn't take it. It's a disappointing third loss for Utah in a season that started with enormous promise. There will be no return trip to the Rose Bowl, much less a conversation about the playoff in Salt Lake City. With a hurt quarterback, Oregon rebounded nicely from last week's loss and now needs to win its Civil War game to guarantee a date with USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

No. 98 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 21, No. 47 North Carolina Tar Heels 17

Advanced Box Score: Georgia Tech vs. North Carolina

For the second time this season, Georgia Tech won as a three-touchdown road underdog against a ranked conference opponent. This time, North Carolina welcomed Tech, having locked up a berth in the ACC Championship Game against Clemson and with quarterback Drake Maye trying to add some highlights to his Heisman Trophy candidacy. Everything started out pointing that way as North Carolina scored on an 80-yard touchdown run on its first offensive play and built a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter. With Georgia Tech alternating its third- and fourth-string quarterbacks and losing 15.8 EPA on its first 30 offensive snaps, this game looked completely over.

From there, everything flipped. The Georgia Tech defense went into lockdown mode as North Carolina lost 14.9 EPA over its final 30 snaps. Zach Gibson, who had been dreadful in appearances against Virginia, Florida State, and Miami, was the best quarterback on the field. He had 10.6 passing EPA on just 18 dropbacks while Maye lost 14.4 EPA on his 36 dropbacks, including six sacks. Keion White led the way with three of those sacks and was every bit the menace that Georgia Tech fans have wanted. Maye's Heisman candidacy imploded, the glitchy North Carolina defense couldn't stop an undermanned Georgia Tech offense in the second half, and Mack Brown suffered another embarrassing loss in his fifth season of his second tenure in Chapel Hill.

Next Week's Games of Intrigue

No. 17 Mississippi State at No. 16 Ole Miss (Thursday)
No. 38 Tulane at No. 43 Cincinnati (Friday)
No. 34 Baylor at No. 6 Texas (Friday)
No. 20 Florida at No. 12 Florida State (Friday)
No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio state
No. 14 Oregon at No. 28 Oregon State
No. 15 Minnesota at No. 27 Wisconsin
No. 24 Iowa State at No. 10 TCU
No. 23 Notre Dame at No. 13 USC

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