Harbaugh’s Wolverines on Verge of Playoff Berth
NCAA Week 13 – This past weekend, Rivalry Week lived up to its expectations. We had upsets, we had blowouts, we had phantom flags and missed calls. Let’s dive into the numbers and narratives of the key games in the college football landscape.
The No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes had a nine-game winning streak heading into Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Saturday. The Buckeyes had scored 50 points or more and allowed 20 or fewer in seven of those nine games. In fact, the Buckeyes had allowed 30 or more points just four times in their last 33 games before Saturday. The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines hadn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011. Something had to give, and what gave was Ohio State’s run defense. Michigan rushed for 297 yards and beat the Buckeyes 42-27 to advance to 11-1 on the season.
The Wolverines averaged 0.386 EPA/play (0.306 EPA/rush) and a 68.9% success rate on offense. Michigan’s Hassan Haskins averaged 6.0 yards per attempt and scored five touchdowns. He had six runs of 10-plus yards, but four of his five touchdowns came on runs shorter than 5 yards as Michigan bullied its way into the red zone six times. The Wolverines marched down the field on a 10-play, 75-yard drive to open the game and then trailed for just five minutes and 21 seconds of game clock.
Ohio State’s offense faced a pass rush they hadn’t seen all season as Michigan pressured quarterback C.J. Stroud on 47.2% of his dropbacks and sacked him four times. As a result, Ohio State’s offense had just one play over 30 yards; the Buckeyes were successful on 50.9% of their passing plays but averaged just 8.0 yards per attempt and just 43.1% of passing yards came after the carry. Michigan made Stroud uncomfortable and completely took away the deep threat from Ohio State’s explosive offense.
When the Buckeyes scored, it came on belabored drives. Aside from a short-field (56 yards) touchdown, Ohio State had scoring drives of 17, 13, 12, and 12 plays. The Buckeyes converted third downs at about the same clip as their season average (58.2%), but they faced more third downs in this game (18) than they had in any game all season (15), and their average third-down distance faced was 7.8 yards compared to Michigan’s 2.9. Ohio State had averaged 0.160 EPA/play on first and second downs all season; Michigan’s defense held the Buckeyes to 0.041.
Among all the Rivalry Week upsets, this perhaps alters the landscape of the college football season more dramatically than the rest. Whereas a fifth Ohio State appearance in the College Football Playoff seemed almost inevitable, instead Michigan has put themselves in the driver’s seat for a bid; with a Big Ten Championship Game win, they’ll assuredly be invited. More importantly, though, for Michigan’s program: 11 regular-season wins is the most in the Jim Harbaugh era. Michigan has reached 11 regular-season wins just twice in the 21st century, and Harbaugh had not beaten Ohio State in his tenure.
Facing Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game are the No. 29 Iowa Hawkeyes, who escaped Lincoln, Nebraska, and the No. 25 Nebraska Cornhuskers with a 28-21 win. The Hawkeyes started backup quarterback Alex Padilla and fell to a 14-6 halftime deficit. That deficit is a bit magnified. Iowa had a failed fourth-and-goal conversion on their first drive and first downs inside the Nebraska 30 on two other drives, coming away with field goals.
In the second half, Iowa switched to quarterback Spencer Petras, the man who had led the Hawkeyes for most of the season, to try and invigorate the offense. Again, Iowa moved the ball, having a first-and-10 at the Nebraska 14, but they fumbled, and Nebraska responded with a 94-yard touchdown drive where quarterback Logan Smothers accounted for 89 total yards on the ground and through the air.
To this point in the game, Iowa had actually outpaced Nebraska in terms of quality possessions; Nebraska had scored touchdowns on all three quality possessions, whereas Iowa had kicked two field goals, turned the ball over on downs, and fumbled on its four quality possessions. From that point, where Nebraska led 21-14, the Cornhuskers absolutely melted down. They allowed a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, fell into Iowa’s field-position trap and gave up a safety, and then threw an interception after a first-and-10 at the Iowa 28 with a chance to tie the game.
Iowa averaged just 0.062 EPA/play on offense with a 41.3% success rate. Nebraska’s offense was a tad more efficient, averaging a 50.8% success rate, but only 0.179 EPA/play, suggesting the Cornhuskers struggled to move the ball well. This game really came down to Iowa’s inability to finish drives early, and as the drive count got higher, variance got lower and the better defense won out. Iowa wins 10 games for the seventh time under Kirk Ferentz, and the Hawkeyes have something special to play for in the Big Ten Championship Game. With a win over Michigan, Iowa could make their second Rose Bowl in Ferentz’s tenure.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, P.J. Fleck and No. 25 Minnesota beat No. 7 Wisconsin for the second time in four years, this time by a 23-13 margin, derailing the Badgers’ hopes of a conference championship after a rough start to the season. Both teams averaged negative EPA on the day (-0.049 for Minnesota to Wisconsin’s -0.221), and the game comes down to two Graham Mertz interceptions (-8.08 EPA on the first and -3.06 EPA on the second). One of those was returned for a touchdown; the other which set up a 28-yard field for a Golden Gophers touchdown. Wisconsin started the season 1-3 but won seven games down the stretch before the loss. Their 8-4 record certainly feels like a lost season, which is a nice floor to have. Minnesota ends a strange season on a high note; they lost perhaps their best player in Week 1, lost to Bowling Green at home, extended their coach, and finished the season 6-2 against Big Ten opponents with those two losses being one-score affairs.
There’s an old joke that goes “Anything can happen in Bedlam: Oklahoma can win by a lot, or Oklahoma can win by a little.” The No. 20 Oklahoma Sooners had won 13 of the last 15 meetings against their in-state rivals, and the stakes in this year’s game were as high as they have ever been. With a win, Oklahoma would return to the Big 12 Championship Game for the sixth straight year; with a loss, they’d be on the outside looking in for the first time in Lincoln Riley’s tenure.
No. 6 Oklahoma State held on to win 37-33 and thereby kept themselves firmly in the conversation for the playoff. Despite the fact that Oklahoma had the ball and four downs to win at the Oklahoma State 24 at the end of the game, this game looked more like a blowout for the Pokes than the final score indicated. Oklahoma did not score a second-half touchdown on eight drives; in fact, Oklahoma did not score an offensive point in the final 30 minutes and 37 seconds of the game. Oklahoma State held Oklahoma to a -0.104 EPA/play, only a 31.3% success rate. The Sooners did not score on nine of their 13 drives. The 14th drive, Oklahoma’s last touchdown of the game, came on a 14-yard field after a Spencer Sanders interception. Bedlam truly was an elite performance by Jim Knowles and the Cowboys defense.
On offense, Sanders had two interceptions and one more would-be interception and generally had an underwhelming day through the air (2.06 total EPA, 0.066 EPA/pass). On the ground, though, Sanders was excellent. He ran for 90 total yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, with three first downs. He averaged 0.183 EPA/rush and totaled 2.75 EPA. Oklahoma State’s offense did more than enough to win the game, scoring 28 points on 11 drives (2.54 points per drive), but some shenanigans held the Cowboys back. First, the Cowboys roughed the kicker after Oklahoma failed a third-and-16, giving the Sooners a first down at the Oklahoma State 27, setting up an easy touchdown. Next, the Cowboys threw an interception, handing Oklahoma a 14-yard touchdown drive. In the second half, a fumble in the end zone led to a safety, and a fumbled punt return handed the Sooners another seven points. For those of you counting at home, that is 23 total points attributed directly to Oklahoma State mistakes.
The Cowboys are happy to survive with a win, and one would think those mistakes will not continue as they face No. 12 Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game this weekend. The Bears, playing without starting quarterback Gerry Bohanon, survived a push from pesky No. 73 Texas Tech, winning 27-24 to advance to the Big 12 Championship Game this weekend.
In the ACC, No. 15 Wake Forest found some defense, holding Boston College to a 24.4% success rate in a 41-10 win to secure a spot in the conference championship game. No. 74 Boston College tried to emulate Clemson’s rushing success against the Demon Deacons, rushing the ball 62% of the time, but averaging just 0.074 EPA/rush. Wake Forest averaged 0.032 EPA/play, a lower offensive output than they have shown all season, but the defense held Boston College scoreless over the last two and a half quarters of the game, giving Wake Forest all the space it needed to win. Wake Forest hits double-digit wins for the first time since 2006 only the second time in program history.
Opposite Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game is No. 27 Pittsburgh, who dispatched No. 70 Syracuse 31-14 in a game that felt more traditionally “Pitt” than the offensive outburst that has been the Panthers’ 2021 season. The Panthers held Syracuse to 142 total yards in the first half and only led thanks to a Syracuse fumble at the Orange 30. Otherwise, the teams combined to punt nine times in the first half. In the second half, Pitt turned on the burners, and it could have been worse: the Panthers scored two touchdowns out of the gate and had a first-and-10 inside Syracuse’s 40-yard line before a Kenny Pickett interception. Pickett, on the day, looked good, not great: he accounted for 4.74 total EPA and a 48.7% success rate through the air. Wake Forest and Pittsburgh will play in the first ACC Championship Game without the Clemson Tigers since 2014.
In the Pac-12, No. 10 Utah averaged 0.128 EPA/play and held No. 85 Colorado to -0.291 EPA/play as they won 28-13. Quarterback Cam Rising struggled, completing 60.9% of his passes but averaging just 7.8 yards per attempt. The Utes ran over Colorado, literally: 265 total yards and a 0.186 EPA/rush on 45 attempts. Utah will face the Oregon Ducks in a rematch for the Pac-12 Championship Game as the No. 24 Ducks scored a win against rival No. 42 Oregon State, 38-29.
In the American conference, both No. 43 Houston and No. 8 Cincinnati advanced along their collision course in the conference championship game. Cincinnati, seemingly hitting a second gear after a few rough weeks, beat upstart No. 59 East Carolina 35-13. Houston took advantage of the opportunity in a tune-up game, moving to 11-1 after beating No. 127 UConn 45-17 on the road. Houston has won 11 straight after a head-scratching loss to Texas Tech to start the season and looks to play spoiler to Cincinnati’s playoff hopes next weekend.
OFI Top 15: End Regular Season
As the season ends, here are the top 15 teams, weighted by raw efficiency and by resume.
1. Georgia +32.6 (-)
2. Michigan +23.6 (+2)
3. Alabama +24.6 (-1)
4. Oklahoma State +30.1 (+2)
5. Cincinnati +24.9 (-)
6. Ohio State +37.4 (-4)
7. Notre Dame +30.6 (-)
8. Houston +29.7 (-)
9. Pittsburgh +32.4 (-)
10. Utah +13.6 (+1)
11. NC State +17.7 (+1)
12. Arkansas +12.1 (+3)
13. Ole Miss +6.1 (NR)
14. Louisiana +16.3 (-)
15. Wake Forest +17.44 (NR)
Outside the top six, you get a slew of teams who are one-sided, in that they have one unit far underperforming another. The only exception is Utah, which has looked like a different team as of late. Ohio State falls four spots not because they lost to a ranked team on the road, but rather because they got beaten soundly by a ranked team on the road. Oklahoma State jumps Cincinnati with a “better than it looked” win in Bedlam. Arkansas moves three spots after cementing their season with a win over Missouri, and Ole Miss and Wake Forest survived to find a spot in the final 15.