Previewing the New Years Bowl Slate

Holiday Bowl: No.22 Northwestern vs. No.17 Utah

This game is a defense lover’s dream.

The problem is that when great defenses are matched up against bad offenses, it’s not usually great defensive plays that are being made.  It’s bad offensive plays.

Northwestern and Utah both rank in the top 25 in Football Outsiders’ Defensive FEI.  The defenses are really the only reason these two teams are here right now.  Utah has battled an insane amount of injuries, depleting their offense of most of the skill it had, resulting in the other side having to lift them up.  Northwestern has a potent rushing attack and stout defense as well.  They give up a lot of yards, but lock down in the red zone.

This game comes down to which offense can muster enough.  The Utes struggled mightly against the Huskies in the Pac-12 championship game.  The injuries to running back Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley loomed large in that one; Utah got nothing offensively and couldn’t manage the three point deficit they ended up losing by.

But that was against the Washington defense, which ranks 11th in Defensive FEI.  They’re a lot more to deal than Northwestern is.

Still, the Utah offense looked so incompetent that it’s hard to trust them to move the ball even against defenses that are worse than Washington’s.  Northwestern took Notre Dame out of a funk earlier this season, shut down Michigan State and held Ohio State to a couple stops early in the 2nd half of the Big Ten Championship, which was enough for the Wildcats to get back in the game.   They are no joke.

Northwestern faces a tough test as well.  Utah presents them with the 5th ranked rush defense by yards allowed per game.  At the same time, there hasn’t been one game where the Wildcats’ one-two punch in Isaiah Bower and Jeremy Larkin has struggled.

They may again against Utah.  The Utes are just as stout as Northwestern is up front.  Against the Huskies, Myles Gaskin never broke out for a big run once.  Washington had to chip away and gain yards that way.  Bowser and Larkin average 4.6 and 4.8 yards per rush, respectively.  The Wildcats should feed those two just as they usually do.

I think that will be enough.  The Utes are stout, but so is Northwestern.  The struggles offensively for Utah aren’t just present in the passing game.  Zach Moss’s injury was a brutal blow; backup Armand Shyne hasn’t produced even close to what Moss did for the offense.

This game feels like another Pac-12 Championship for the Utes.  The Northwestern defense gave some of the top offenses in the country trouble this year.  The matchup against this Utah offense, which is one of the worst out of all ranked teams, is a fantastic one for them.

The Wildcats should be able to bust a couple runs with Bower and Larkin, and that’ll be the difference.  Their offense might be just a hair better, but in this game, just that sliver matters.

Prediction: Northwestern-22  Utah-10

Fiesta Bowl: No.11 LSU vs. No.8 UCF

It has been really impressive to see that UCF, after losing Mackensie Milton to that horrific knee injury, hasn’t lost the explosiveness that made their offense so special. Dariel Mack Jr., who prior to Milton’s injury had started just one game, has lit it up just as Milton would.  Against Memphis in the AAC title game, Mack Jr. went 19/27 with 348 yards and two touchdowns.  He added four (!!!) touchdowns on the ground and 59 more yards.

The question is whether LSU’s defense, ranked 12th in Defensive FEI, can slow him and the rest of this group down.

The Tigers defense got beat three times this year.  Once against Florida (Yikes.  Yes I’m aware they beat Michigan handily Saturday), once against Alabama (fair), and once in that insanely stupid/entertaining Texas A&M 7OT game that we’re not going to count for this exercise.

Alabama beat them because they’re Alabama.  Their players were just better.  The Crimson Tide did with skill position guys.  Josh Jacobs ran over people.  Damien Harris couldn’t be stopped.  The Alabama receivers were too much to handle.

Florida barely survived.  Lamical Perine, who torched Michigan Sunday, did the same to LSU.  The ground and pound worked against the Tigers.  Perine ran for 85 yards and two touchdowns that day, and Florida’s defense came up big with a pick six of Joe Burrow.

Betting on UCF to get the same performance out of their skill guys that Alabama did isn’t very smart.  The Tigers are the 2nd best defense (by Defensive FEI) the Knights face this season.  Cincinnati, ranked 5th, was torched by them in Week 10.  Granted, Milton was healthy, and had four touchdowns in the effort.

Things haven’t changed yet with Mack at QB, but that could be thanks to Memphis’ 95th ranked defense by FEI.  LSU sits at 12th heading into the game.  Mack hasn’t faced a defense like this.  It’s hard to trust a freshman facing this front who has never played in a big game before.

He’ll have some help though.  UCF is good defensively.  They rank 29th in FEI and force a ton of turnovers.  Florida taught us that forcing turnovers against the Tigers could be huge.  Burrow, for as much as he’s added to LSU’s offense in terms of explosiveness, can have bad days.  The Knights will have to force him into bad decisions when he decides to throw.  Those chances may not come along though, as LSU loves to pound Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  The Knights give up 227.4 yards per game on the ground, which is 118th in the nation.  There are 130 teams eligible for that ranking.

If UCF is going to give LSU a run, it starts with stepping up and stopping the run.  If they do that, forcing Burrow into bad decisions through the air is the next step

Unfortunately for UCF, defense is how they’re going to have to win this game.  The Tigers may not be able to fully limit the explosive UCF scheme, but they can limit it enough so that they can keep up, and possibly pull ahead.

Prediction: LSU-38  UCF-29

Citrus Bowl: No.14 Kentucky vs. No.12 Penn State

It’s amazing that Penn State salvaged their season enough to be ranked No.12.  It feels incredibly high.  There’s a strong case Kentucky should be ranked ahead of them.

That doesn’t mean this is Kentucky’s game though.  The Nittany Lions measure out better on both sides of the ball in FEI, though the offensive gap isn’t as wide as you may think due to Penn State’s strange slow starts and overall incompetency on that side of the ball this year (Penn State’s season is very comparable to the Steelers’.  Funny how they’re in the same state).

The Wildcats are comparable to a Northwestern, although are much more terrifying.  They’re more explosive offensively, and have who I believe to be a better QB than in Clayton Thorson in Terry Wilson.

Against Georgia in Week 9, the Wildcats had some success early with Wilson.  Snell wearing down the Bulldogs first helped, but Wilson made a couple throws and ended up throwing for 226 yards, his 3rd most of the season.

But Penn State is better than Georgia against the pass.  The Nittany Lions allow just 5.6 yards per pass attempt, good enough for 6th in the nation as opposed to the Bulldogs ranking of 14th.  They cover everyone.

Explosiveness doesn’t just apply to the passing game, though.  Benny Snell Jr. ran for 1,305 yards this season, and was the sole powerhouse of this Kentucky offense.  He can break out at any time.  Snell, like Wilson, challenged Georgia’s defense before adjustments came along at halftime.

They’re going to need similar production from Snell and Wilson tomorrow.  The difference is that this time, instead of that production keeping them in the game, it could lead to them winning it.

The Wildcats defense is nasty.  Led by Josh Allen, who will be a top ten pick in the 2019 NFL Draft (Big board sneak peek: he’s really, really high on mine), this group is stout against the pass and makes it a pain to gain first downs; they rank 9th in Football Outsiders’ DFD stat and allowed the 14th fewest passing yards in the country this season.

This matches up well with the Nittany Lions, who after losing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin have struggled immensely on that side of the ball side this season.  The slow starts and lack of big plays have plagued them.  Trace McSorely only completed 54.3% of his passes this season, down 66.5% last season.  It’s felt like Moorhead’s loss has been the biggest.  Penn State just doesn’t have the same rhythm to begin games.  None of their first 15 plays have been impactful or moved the chains.

Kentucky has the talent to cause chaos for the Nittany Lions offensively.  It hasn’t even taken good defenses to cause it; the hinderance has been totally self-inflicted.  A slow start versus this Kentucky group results in a total mess offensively.

It’ll have to be up to Snell and the rest of the offense to capitalize on Penn State’s theoretical slow start.  If they can score early, they stand a chance.  Penn State, despite their struggles, still has McSorely, who is unstoppable once in a rhythm.  The Nittany Lions are not a team you want to get into a shootout with.  Kentucky won’t be able to keep up if that’s the way this game goes.

Snell will have to break through Penn State’s defense.  They’re stronger in the back end, so Snell should be up to it.  Kentucky’s going to have to score on every possession Penn State doesn’t, because once Penn State figures out the Wildcats’ defense, it could get a little ugly.

Kentucky will hang around.  Snell is too good, and I just can’t trust the Nittany Lions one hundred percent.  The Wildcats defense could extend their struggles far beyond the 1st quarter.  But the Nittany Lions are just more potent, and their defense will get stops on key possessions.

Prediction: Penn State-31 Kentucky-21

Rose Bowl: No.9 Washington vs. No.6 Ohio State

Over the past two seasons, the Rose Bowl has been an incredible display of offense.  Oklahoma and Georgia engaged in a total shootout in last year’s CFP Semifinal, and the year prior USC and Penn State did the same.

I think we’re going to see that again this time around.

That puts a lot of trust in Jake Browning and Washington’s offense, which ranked 36th in Offensive FEI and 85th in points per game.  It’s especially bold to put this trust in them after the performance they turned in against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  Browning was horrific, and while Myles Gaskin had a decent game, it didn’t make things easier for the rest of the offense.

This was against Utah’s defense though, which as mentioned above is ranked 22nd in FEI and carries that team.  The Buckeyes have quietly struggled the past two seasons on defense (Saying that about the 2017-2018 team is risky; they finished 6th in FEI and everyone was in love them.  They blew a ton of downfield coverages last season and no one talks about it).  Ohio State ranks 46th in Defensive FEI this season, thanks to Nick Bosa’s injury and a terrible secondary.

This is the case for the shootout.  Despite his capability of having just a horrific game, Browning can command an offense pretty well.  Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Ty Jones are all fantastic receivers who can get downfield.  Jones’ team leading six touchdowns and 16.8 yards per catch are thanks to his 6’4 frame, which presents a troubling matchup for the Buckeyes secondary.  All Browning has to do is get the ball to these guys.

If Browning has a bad game, the Huskies could rely on one of the best running backs in the country in Myles Gaskin.  Ohio State’s run defense isn’t nearly as bad as their secondary, but is about average compared to the rest of the country.  Gaskin getting going takes some pressure off of Browning, but the former Heisman candidate must step up for Washington to keep up in this game.

The Washington defense is fierce.  Ranked 11th in Defensive FEI, they get stops and don’t allow touchdowns.  They’re good at forcing QBs into short throws, as they allow 5.7 yards per attempt, 9th in the nation.

Ohio State’s offense is just as impactful.  They don’t do anything poorly.  Dwayne Haskins was a Heisman candidate and will now be the first QB taken in the draft.  J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are the most ridiculous running back duo in the country (Sorry Alabama).  Haskins is surrounded by weapons like KJ Hill and Parris Campbell, receivers who make it happen in any area of the field.  The Buckeyes can play any style of offense they want to and not be stopped.

Ohio State has won every shootout they’ve taken place in this season.  They’re just too explosive, and Haskins is too scary.

Washington doesn’t break.  They’re 5th in points per game allowed.  Never have they ever even taken place in a shootout.  They haven’t faced an offense like this.

You have to outscore Ohio State, and making that proposition with Washington, specifically Browning, is too risky.

If the defense can get couple critical stops, Washington can win this game.  Ohio State has let weak teams hang around and put up points.  The Huskies, despite their drawbacks, are much more equipped than a Maryland or Nebraska.

This game should continue the latest Rose Bowl tradition of high-scoring affairs.  No more than six points has decided the past two matchups.  I’d expect that to remain the same this New Year.

Prediction: Ohio State-48  Washington-42

Sugar Bowl: No.15 Texas vs. No.5 Georgia 

These teams have a lot in common.  Both were upended by a Playoff team in their conference championship, and those two teams went on to play each other.  The losers did too.  Both know how to score points as well.  Like the Rose Bowl, this new year’s Sugar Bowl might be a shootout.

Texas’ offense is more powerful than the stats suggest.  They’re 29th in Offensive FEI and finished 45th in points per game.  The Longhorns stats are underrating them due to their poor performances in games they should have easily won instead of barely skirting by.  They put up 23 against Baylor, 19 against Kansas State and 24 against Kansas.  These performances, along with some occasional bad tendencies from Sam Elhinger, are cause for concern, especially since the Wildcats defense is the highest ranked in FEI out of the three at 64th.

But Texas came up clutch when it needed to.  The Longhorns put up 38, 42, 39 against Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oklahoma State respectively this season.  They went 1-2 in those games, and obviously fell to the Sooners again in the Big 12 Championship Game (where they only put up 27), but Texas has at least shown that they can play, and even win, in shootouts.

The question is whether Georgia will allow it to get to that point.  The Bulldogs are going to score on Texas’ defense; everyone with a high-powered offense did this season.  Texas was able to answer back almost every time, but that was against some of the worst defense in the country.  The Longhorns haven’t seen anyone even close to Georgia defensively.  TCU and Iowa State come close, but their respective Defensive FEI rankings of 19 and 23 don’t touch Georgia at nine.

Only LSU and Bama figured out how to test, and beat Georgia’s defense.  When it was tested, they lost.  LSU used grit to bring them down, scoring field goals and pounding away to tire the Bulldogs out.  It didn’t help that Georgia’s offense couldn’t get anything; the defense was on the field too much.

That’s not exactly Texas’ MO.  Georgia’s going to score, which means the defense should get plenty of rest.

The Alabama game doesn’t really have a lot to it besides “They’re Bama and they’re just better than everyone else.”  The fact that Jalen Hurts lit them up after replacing Tua Tagviola is concerning, that felt like more of momentum change for Bama rather than a concern for the Bulldogs defense.  They were lock-down in the first half, which made the task for an injured Tua even harder to complete.

Texas’ offense is going to have a balance of scores and stops in this game.  At times we’ll find them to be overwhelming for Georgia; Elhinger makes a good throw or Lil’Jordan Humphrey brings down a couple 50-50 balls.  Georgia will get stops though; the defense is nothing like Texas has seen, and the Longhorns don’t play the style that the Bulldogs struggle with on the defensive end.  This defense could force Elhinger into some bad decisions, perhaps at the worst possible times, and give Georgia that one extra possession to seal the game.

Prediction: Georgia-42  Texas-33

Previewing This Weekend’s Bowl Games

We have finally made it to the stretch of bowl season that I actually care about.  Below are previews for today’s and tomorrow’s bowl games, including the two College Football Playoff matchups.  I will have a column on New Years Eve morning previewing the Monday-Tuesday slate.

Camping World Bowl: No.16 West Virginia vs. No.20 Syracuse

There was only one exciting aspect to this game coming in, and it was going to be Will Grier and the West Virginia trying to score on every single play against a Syracuse defense that does not allow anyone to keep the ball for a long period of time.

Now that’s gone.

I totally respect the decision by Grier and many others to sit out bowl games with regard to their draft stock.  But in Grier’s case I found it a little odd.  I don’t have him as a first round quarterback (In fact, the only QB I did have in the first round decided he’s coming back for another year), and see him as a 2nd or 3rd round selection.  With an extremely underwhelming QB class, I find it unlikely his stock would rise a lot.  Sitting out a bowl game to make sure you’re taken in the 2nd round as opposed to the 3rd is a massive difference from the first to the second.

Anyways, Grier’s absence does give Syracuse a huge new advantage in this game.  West Virginia is planning on using both of their backups, Jack Allison and Trey Lowe, against the Orange.  It feels a little unnecessary to use both when West Virginia’s system is simply to throw the ball downfield and hope someone catches it.  QB draws and rushes don’t exist in West Virginia’s playbook, so it’s odd to see that Lowe, a running QB, will be featured.

This could create chaos on the offensive side for the Mountaineers, which the Orange could feed off of.  Syracuse’s doesn’t allow teams to hold onto the ball (They’re 7th in Football Outsider’s DBC stat), and with West Virginia’s new inability to throw the ball downfield and get chunk yards, we could see a lot of incompletions and stagnant drives from the Mountaineers.

The Orange won’t struggle as much to match West Virginia’s offensive output.  The Orange are average offensively, ranking 52nd in Football Outsider’s Offensive FEI stat.  Eric Dungey is nothing special; he averages 7.5 yards per attempt and occasionally makes brutal decisions.  The Orange utilize his running ability though; he was 2nd on the team in rushing yards and ran in 15 touchdowns this season.  Him, along with running backs Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland, create a powerful rushing attack that West Virginia, one of the infamous Big 12 defenses, must stop.

The Mountaineers force turnovers well and that’s about it.  When Syracuse throws, forcing Dungey into bad decisions might be their only hope.  West Virginia only has seven linebackers dressing for the game thanks to injuries.  Still, even those who are injured struggled.  Though Syracuse has a less explosive offense than what they’re used to seeing, West Virginia just doesn’t possess the skill to stop it.

This game will come down to which offense can muster enough.  I’d expect rare incompetency and struggles from the Mountaineers offensively.  Usually the defense is bailed out by the other side.  Grier’s absence and an unforgiving Syracuse defense makes that not the case.

Prediction: Syracuse-24 West Virginia-13

Alamo Bowl: No.24 Iowa State vs. No.13 Washington State

Another reason Grier’s absence for West Virginia is a bummer has to do with this game right here.  The Mountaineers would have been a much better option when it comes to fulfilling the legacy of this game.

This might be the first Alamo Bowl in awhile where it’s not going to be an all-out shootout.  Every year at least one of the teams puts up a boatload of points (2016 was a weird outlier where Colorado only put up eight and Oklahoma State only 38).  West Virginia-Washington State would have been unreal if Grier played.  If Oklahoma State had won more than six games, we would’ve had a similar game as well.

But instead we get the high-powered Cougars against an Iowa State team that somehow wins huge games and has a ferocious defense.

The Cyclones have shown that they are frisky.  They beat Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and hung close with Texas and Oklahoma.  None of these games were blowouts.  In every game except the Oklahoma State one, Iowa State won or hung close with defense.  Oklahoma only hung 37 on them, and Texas only put up 24.  It was the 49th ranked offense by FEI that hurt them in those games.

The Cougars are set up similarly to the opponents Iowa State has played tough.  They score a ton of points and don’t play a lot of defense.  They rank 85th in Defensive FEI and 7th in Offensive FEI.  Essentially, they’re just another Big 12 team.

The Cyclones defense is the 2nd best Washington State has faced this season.  It’s possible the Cougars offense was overrated a bit thanks to the Pac-12’s low quality of teams.  When Washington faced them in November, a team with not only the Pac-12’s best defense but one of the country’s best, it was no contest.  The Huskies swarmed to the ball, allowing Washington State QB Gardner Minshew to complete 26 passes for only 152 yards and two interceptions.  It was easily the Cougars worst performance of the year.

Iowa State’s going to have to do the same thing, because if they don’t, playing catchup with Washington State won’t work.  David Montgomery was one of the country’s best running backs this season, and Brock Purdy has had his moments, but even if both turn out good performances, it still may not be enough.  The Cyclones just don’t have the firepower that other Big 12 teams and Washington State has.

That’s why I see this game playing out very similarly to the way Iowa State’s matchup against Oklahoma played out early in the season.  The Cyclones did a good job holding the Sooners back a bit, but failed to answer when Oklahoma did score.  Once they got down two possessions, it was over.  They were never catching up.

Even if the Cyclones put up a fine defensive display, Washington State will find a way to overpower.  They should be capable of this; they aren’t facing the Washington defense.

Prediction: Washington State-34 Iowa State-23

Peach Bowl: No.10 Florida vs. No.7 Michigan

Everything about this game is annoying.

I feel like the Peach Bowl always gets the crappiest matchup.  They always get stuck with the Group of Five team, an underwhelming or overrated team, or an in-general just terrible matchup.  The Peach Bowl is the one New Years Six (New Years??  Why are we still calling it New Years Six if half the games aren’t on New Years?  We need a new name) bowl that you have to force yourself to watch.  All the others put up no resistance.

And the Playoff committee decided to carry on that Peach Bowl tradition this year by giving us Florida and Michigan, two of the most overrated and boring teams in the country.  But hey, it should be fun because these teams don’t play each other that often, right?

Oh, wait.

This year’s Peach Bowl will be the third year in a row these teams have played each other.  There are teams in the same conference that don’t even play each other that often!  It will also be the 2nd time in three years that these two have played each other in a bowl game, and the 4th time since 2003.

It’s hilarious, mostly because as of late, Florida and Michigan haven’t really been must-watch teams.  Sure the Wolverines defense was amazing this year, but these two teams can be defined over the past four seasons or so by their poor offensive outputs not being enough to secure the defense’s win.

For Florida, it’s absolutely the case this year.  For Michigan, a little less so.

The Gators actually finished 31st in Offensive FEI this season, thanks to a massive rushing attack led by Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett.  Felipe Franks throws when he has to; he totaled only 2,284 yards on the season with a yards per attempt of 7.5.  When Franks played well he was fine, but when he was bad, boy was he bad. Teams with stout defenses like Georgia and Kentucky feasted on him, and Missouri got Franks benched after forcing him into a 9/22 start.

Florida’s offense got by, but good defenses shut them down in a heartbeat.

Florida is essentially facing a mix of Georgia and Kentucky in the Wolverines.

The Gators don’t have the offensive skill to break through Michigan’s stout man-to-man defense.  What the Wolverines do is simple, but effective given the talent they have.  They will make you beat their cornerbacks and safeties one-on-one.  Ohio State was the only team to do that this season.  There is no way Franks will get the ball into the windows needed to gain passing yards against this Michigan back-end.

Pounding the ball down Michigan’s throat is probably the best option but isn’t very appeasing either.  The Wolverines are 17th in rush defense, which is the best they’ve faced all season.

Florida keeps this close by their defense getting the best of Michigan.  The Gators should be able to get stops.  The question is whether the offense can have their back even once.

Prediction: Michigan-28  Florida-10

Playoff #1, Cotton Bowl: No.3 Notre Dame vs. No.2 Clemson

Though both are fantastic matchups, the two College Football Playoff games could not be more different.

This one will come down to defense.

Even with Dexter Lawrence’s suspension (It’s a real bummer.  It really seems like whatever he tested positive for was a complete and total accident), the Clemson defense is still the best in the country.  The Fighting Irish are essentially going against a NFL-caliber squad.

They face a mismatch on the other side of the field as well.  Though Notre Dame’s defense ranked 8th in Defensive FEI, they give up 3.7 yards per rush, which ranked 35th in the country.  It’s the secondary that’s the meat of this defense, which works out well when trying to stop true freshman Trevor Lawrence (It’s all the sudden very weird writing about guys who are my age).

Like Florida-Michigan, this game comes down to stops.  Notre Dame is going to have to get more of them.  Clemson’s offense has relied less on the passing game this season, as four running backs ran for more than 400 yards this season.  All four of those running backs averaged more than five yards a rush too.  The Irish are going to have to load up the box to stop it.  That could free up the top of the secondary, allowing Lawrence to throw downfield to the explosive Clemson wide receivers.  The Tigers had 18 passing plays of 40+ yards this season, 5th in the nation.  With Lawrence’s cannon arm and the size of the Clemson receivers, that’s no surprise.  Notre Dame is good at taking away the short passing game, but if they’re loading up to stop the run, those plays downfield could be open.

The Irish might screwed either way.  Stopping the run is going to be tough enough in the first place.

Ever since turning things over to Ian Book though, the Notre Dame offense has been one of the most explosive in the country.  They are excellent at moving the ball, ranking 10th in Football Outsiders’ OFD stat.  Book has given them a command they lacked with Brandon Wimbush.  His ability to make throws combined with Dexter Williams’ rushing game has made the Irish offense hard to stop.

But when Notre Dame struggles is when Book doesn’t have the run game to benefit off of.  In “close” games (defined by a margin of 10 points), an Irish running back or QB ran for over 100 yards only once.  It doesn’t take great run defenses either to stop them.  In Week 7, Pittsburgh held Williams to only 31 rushing yards in Notre Dame’s 19-14 win.  The Panthers rank 100th in yards per rush allowed nationwide.  Northwestern, who’s stingy defense held them in almost every game this season but doesn’t pride itself on stopping the run, held Williams to 56 yards on the ground.  Though much better than Pittsburgh, the Wildcats only rank 40th in yards per rush allowed.

Then there was the regular season finale against USC, where Notre Dame’s offense succumbed to an average USC defense in the first half.  Book was off, and the Trojans got stop after stop.  That turned around in the 2nd half, but created an even greater cause for concern for the Irish in tomorrow’s game.

The Tigers will stop Williams, which means a slow start for the offense overall can’t happen for the Irish.  If Clemson has a weakness, it’s the secondary.  Like the Tigers, the Irish have big receivers, and Book can make the throws.  But Clemson doesn’t allow for slow, methodical drives; they rank 3rd in DBC and swarm to the ball.

It’s a really tough task for the Irish.  Stopping Clemson’s offense is a nightmare for them, and trying to break through this defense will take an excellent game from Book.  If everyone brings their A-game, the Irish have a chance.

Prediction: Clemson-38  Notre Dame-17

Playoff #2, Orange Bowl: No.4 Oklahoma vs. No.1 Alabama

The first playoff games features offenses that will have to break through stout fronts in order to get points.  That’s the case for only one team here.

It’s hard to understate how bad Oklahoma’s defense is.  They’re 98th in Defensive FEI, and give up 8.2 yards per pass, 108th in the country.  The run defense is their strength; the Sooners somehow came in 48th in yards per rush allowed.  That’s a good thing, considering Alabama’s ground and pound style of offense.  Still, Tua Tagovailoa is now fully healthy, and is going to pick apart the Sooners secondary.

I do not know how Oklahoma is going to get stops in this game.  That means the offense, as per usual, is going to have to bail them out.

Iowa State and Army were easily the two best defenses the Sooners faced this season, and that’s not saying too much compared to the Crimson Tide.  I touched on  Iowa State above; they’re frisky but never gave Oklahoma a real test.  Army’s defense got Oklahoma off the field quickly and had a ton of rest, thanks to the Black Knights’ 44:41 time of possession.  Kyler Murray and the passing game was held in check, but Oklahoma still escaped.  It was, once again, Oklahoma’s defense that got them in real trouble.

The Sooners should be able to score against Bama.  The Crimson Tide haven’t dealt with someone as athletic and explosive as Kyler Murray.  However, Bama’s defense has only looked bad once this year, and it was against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, where the Bulldogs attacked the middle of the field and tired out a Bama defense that was on the field a lot thanks to Tagovailoa’s injury.  Murray and the Oklahoma offense is a whole other beast though, and I trust Lincoln Riley to figure out ways to exploit it.  The question is whether they can do it on every single possession, because that’s what it is going to take.

The Crimson Tide defense could get torched for the most part tomorrow night.  But just one stop could be enough.  Remember, I’m projecting Alabama to score every single against Oklahoma.  One stop means a two possession lead and the win.  For once, Oklahoma is going to be playing catch up.

I think that is as simple as this game is.  Alabama’s run defense could find the Sooners being conservative on 1st and 2nd down and stuff them both times.  Murray isn’t going to have a perfect completion percentage.  There’s your three-and-out and your lead.  Alabama might get two stops the entire game, but that’ll be enough.

Prediction: Alabama-48  Oklahoma-38

The Road To The Super Bowl Does -And Will- Go Through New Orleans

Despite the score being a measly (At least, compared to some of the other scores we’ve seen this season) 31-28, Sunday’s late afternoon shootout between the Steelers and the Saints characterized the theme of this season perfectly: Score or you’ll get left behind or get rallied back on.

The 2nd half was where everything really picked up.  Despite a 17-14 halftime score, everything had developed quite subtly.  The defenses were getting stops.  Antonio Brown didn’t get going until late in the 2nd quarter.  The first half took what felt like an insane amount of time to complete.  The Steelers were down two possessions soon after halftime.

But it wasn’t like they started slow.  The Pittsburgh slow starts had been their 2nd biggest issue all season (2nd to the defense being terrible), and they actually got off to a good one this time.  They got 14 points thanks to Chris Boswell making two kicks and the Saints blowing a goal-line coverage on Jaylen Samuels.

Their biggest issue hurt them before halftime though.  Alvin Kamara didn’t gash Pittsburgh on the ground (even though he ran for two touchdowns; those came down to Kamara hitting holes hard and well on the goal-line), but his speed was uncontested when Drew Brees threw to him.  The Saints lined up Kamara to the left of Brees in shotgun and let him go to work.  Kamara gashed Pittsburgh twice with wheel routes from the backfield.

He’s just too fast.  He shoots out of the backfield, and because of this Sean Davis can’t get to him.

A similar wheel route by Kamara set up the Saints for the field goal which gave them the 17-14 lead at the half.

That lead was close to detrimental for the Steelers.  New Orleans got the ball out of halftime and came out blazing.  An 11 play, 5:45 minute drive that featured the Kamara wheel route above and a Kamara punch-in at the end put New Orleans up two possessions.  The Steelers didn’t even have a chance to respond.  And it’s not like you can blame the defense.  What was that group supposed to do?  What were we expecting them to do against this offense?

Pittsburgh’s offense had to bail them out, and somehow, they did.  The Steelers offense has been incredibly frustrating this season.  Slow starts and terrible decisions from Ben Rothlisberger have plagued them, especially so during their three game losing streak earlier this year.  But they came out of halftime on fire, and matched the Saints explosiveness.

The Steelers first drive of the 3rd quarter was an all-out assault.  It was like the Steelers went “Hey, we have Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on our roster.  We should throw to them!” and they did.  The first drive showed the peak of each of those guys’ powers.  It  featured four pass plays of 10+ yards to Brown and Smith-Schuster, and was capped by a TD pass to guess who.

This play design was excellent.  Pittsburgh went with a trips left formation with Xavier Grimble out wide, Smith-Schuster in the middle and Brown in the slot.  JuJu ran a smash route to the inside while Grimble ran one outside to create space.  JuJu’s smash route acted as a non-contact pick/distractor for Brown’s defender, which left Brown wide open in the back of the end zone.

But still, even after that, it still felt like the Steelers were going to be stuck playing catch-up with one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.  After the show the Saints had put on before and after halftime, Pittsburgh looked cooked defensively.

But they held strong.  The Steelers got two sacks on Brees,  forced a three and out and had the same firepower they possessed on the drive before.  It was the same type of drive.  Huge plays to Brown and Smith-Schuster made the whole thing, and once again it was Brown in the end zone that concluded it.

This play was a little more simple than the first one.  Brown blew Marshon Lattimore off the line and got open that way instead.

The next three possessions were full of mistakes.  The Saints once again did nothing, then Jaylen Samuels fumbled and gave New Orleans the stop they couldn’t get themselves.  That then led to a blocked field goal, which the Steelers inexplicably didn’t capitalize on thanks to trying to fake a punt UP FOUR POINTS WITH FOUR MINUTES LEFT.

It’s amazing that the Steelers coaches keep coming up with things I could criticize them for.  I was actually decently okay with the call to go for it.  It’s not like they were pinned deep in their own territory; Pittsburgh was on their own 42.  The Saints couldn’t kick a field goal had a three-and-out occurred, and punting could easily result in a touchback, which would have led to a small net yardage gain.  But there was no need to fake the punt.  Those are always fluke plays when they work, and as I went through above, the Saints had serious issues containing the Steelers earlier in the half.  Why didn’t Pittsburgh try and beat them with their skill guys instead of using up-back Roosevelt Nix??

Instead of converting the 4th down, running out the clock and possibly adding more points, the Steelers turned it back over to Brees and the Saints offense, which was due after being stopped on two consecutive drives.  Even the best defenses aren’t shutting down New Orleans three possessions in a row, let alone Pittsburgh’s.  The Steelers took those odds, and yeah, it turned out to be a mistake.

It was a classic Drew Brees drive.  It was methodical.  They got yards and did their best to kill clock despite Pittsburgh calling two timeouts.  Brees looked calm.  Guys were making plays.  After the deep crossing route that Ted Ginn ran and caught a ball on, it felt like the Saints had it in hand.  They weren’t losing that game.

And they didn’t.  Brees led them down the field and Michael Thomas made two ridiculous catches to seal it.  Sure, the fumble by Smith-Schuster saved them at the end, but rather than the Saints getting lucky, how about rewarding the defense and Sheldon Rankins for saving the game for them?  New Orleans defense was torched drive after drive by the Steelers in the 2nd half, and if not for Rankins’ strip, they probably would have been again.

Those are the plays that Super Bowl teams make though.  Those wins are special ones, and it just doesn’t feel like anyone is stopping them now.  Equipped with the No.1 seed and home field advantage, the Saints are in prime position for a run.  They have the best offense in the NFC (Without home-field, you could make a case they’re 2nd.  Then again, the Rams have also sputtered lately) and the 2nd best defense (The Bears are absolutely terrifying.  New Orleans has improved their coverage since early in the season while the Rams leave dudes open all the time.  The Saints have also been much better against the run, having the 3rd ranked rush defense by DVOA in the league).  They showed they can outscore the Rams in Week 9, when New Orleans got one extra possession (Thanks to the defense once again) and won 45-35 in a shootout.  They took care of a team they should have beaten in Minnesota the week before, in a game where the Vikings showed their two massive weaknesses (Cousins being terrible and overall offensive incompetency AKA Steelers Syndrome).  They squashed Philadelphia 40-7 in an epic Drew Brees performance, where the emergence of Keith Kirkwood and Trequan Smith occurred.  And then survived a Pittsburgh team that, when fully firing, is among the NFL’s best.

We just went through three teams that will be in the playoffs and one that could be. New Orleans took care of all of them already this season.  All they’d have to do is do it again.

Sure, there’s some drawbacks.  But who doesn’t have them this season?  New Orleans laid an egg against Dallas in Week 13, and barely held on in Carolina two weeks ago.  Both of those games were on the road and one was outside.  Those two factors are irrelevant come January.

New Orleans is just more complete than anyone else.  The defense is better than the Rams, the offense is better than the Bears and Seattle’s.  We don’t really know what we’ll get from Dallas on a weekly basis, and Minnesota and Philadelphia each need help to get in.

The Bears and Seahawks present the biggest challenge.  Both teams have shown the ability to shut down the league’s top offenses (Seattle vs. KC last night, Chicago vs LA in Week 14).  But to do that against the Saints means playing in their conditions; Chicago beat LA at home (Thanks, Chicago Winter!) and Seattle beat KC with the backing of the 12th man.

In a season where we went from “Look at the all the good teams!” to questioning and picking everyone apart, the Saints are the team that has held strong through both evaluations.  Now, they have the path to make this evaluation hold strong as well.

Quick hits:

  • I was waiting and waiting for Washington to be eliminated from the playoffs and it finally happened Saturday night.
  • The bummer is that Josh Johnson immensely out-played Blaine Gabbert and made the first mistake between the two, which ended up costing him the game.
  • The Titans are an incredibly stupid and infuriating team.  They’re good every other week.  Can Houston and Indy please win next week so we don’t have to deal with them in the playoffs?
  • Derrick Henry though… what a way to close out this season.
  • And shoutout to the other running back in that game: Adrian Peterson.  An unreal year for him.
  • He kinda showed it early last season with the Cardinals.  There were flashes of stuff left in the tank.
  • It’s really a bummer that one of Indianapolis and Baltimore is going to get left out of the playoffs.  Those are two really fun teams.
  • What the Ravens did to the Chargers Saturday was extremely impressive.  Baltimore gashed them with Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards on the ground.  Jackson also made the best throw I’ve seen him make all season that night as well.
  • The Ravens defense was huge too.  The secondary didn’t let anyone get open and that lead to pressure on Phillip Rivers.
  • Which, in the 2nd half, killed two drives that, with a touchdown, would have put the Chargers ahead.
  • Shoutout to Larry Fitzgerald for beautifully executing the Philly Special, resulting in Arizona’s only touchdown of the day yesterday.
  • Yesterday could have easily been Fitz’s last home game.  Awesome way to go out if so.
  • I’m debating where I stand on Steve Wilks.  The offense needs a complete overhaul scheme and personnel wise and he’s not the guy to do it.  At the same time, the offense isn’t his responsibility.
  • Baker Mayfield has been the only rookie quarterback that hasn’t struggled immensely this year.  I’m all-in on Rosen still.  Get him some help!
  • Speaking of Baker and the Browns…  Next year is their year.
  • We were a little early on them.  Can you imagine if Hue Jackson got fired earlier?  Or if he didn’t coach at all?  Would the Browns be winning the division?
  • Baker is awesome.  He’s eliminated every concern I had for him coming out of Oklahoma.  He literally hasn’t changed a thing, on the field or off it, and it’s working.
  • Dallas is locked into the 4th seed and that feels just about right.
  • We’ve had two good weeks of Vikings offense and it is coming at the perfect time.
  • I mentioned it above, but what a win for the Colts yesterday.  I feel like they’re more equipped to make a run than Baltimore is, but they also hang around in every single game, and sometimes Luck is left having to do too much at the end.
  • Not yesterday though.  The Giants final two drives were bad (Punt, pick) and it cost them the game.  When we talk about teams like New Orleans-teams that capitalize when they need to-Indy is one of them.  They did that Sunday.
  • I didn’t watch any of Jaguars-Dolphins and I hope you didn’t either.
  • We’re at the point where the Patriots are going to have to battle the fact that Tom Brady isn’t Tom Brady anymore and yesterday they won the battle.
  • There have been other times they haven’t won it, and that’s why they’ve lost to bad teams.
  • Josh Allen has been good every other game.  Like Rosen, he’s a rookie and that’s okay.
  • Like New England, the Packers are at the point where Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to be good every other game either and they have to find ways to overcome that.
  • Yesterday though, he was good and it didn’t matter.
  • The game was close because Sam Darnold, like Baker Mayfield, is getting it done without sufficient weapons, which is really, really impressive.
  • It took him a lot longer than Baker; I found this due to the fact that Baker is just better and that, even though both situations aren’t great, Baker did have more guys around him than Darnold does.
  • Seriously though.  Once both these guys get weapons, watch out.
  • Isn’t it kinda odd that the Eagles have been better since Nick Foles took over? (Ducks under a bridge as fast as possible)
  • That’s not a hot take and is just an observation.
  • But like, isn’t it worth talking about? (Ducks again)
  • Yikes.  This is a dicey situation.  I think the playoffs are the best test case for this.  What happens if the Eagles sneak in, Wentz comes back and they lose in the first round?  What happens if Wentz isn’t ready to go and Foles lights it on fire again?  What happens if whoever starts is terrible next week and they don’t get in?
  • The answer to the 3rd question is the easiest.  It’d be Wentz in that case no matter what.
  •  I think we have to wait to see.  Talking like Wentz should be in consideration for being benched is insane, but we can’t act like Foles isn’t out there slinging it.  Did you see that bomb to Nelson Agholor??
  • DeShaun Watson did all he could yesterday.  The scrambles and extension of plays were amazing.  He did it with almost zero help besides DeAndre Hopkins, who, when having a good day, can be the only help necessary.  Yesterday was a good day.
  • The Foles final drive was heroic.  He made the throws and won the game after getting hurt.  Zach Ertz was unstoppable; that helped.
  • The Eagles offense looked like the Eagles offense we expected it to be.  It’s just really odd that this hasn’t happened with Wentz this season.
  • We had an instance in the Falcons-Panthers game where a quarterback I’d never heard of before played.  Shoutout to Kyle Allen!
  • Can the 49ers flip Nick Mullens for like a 5th round pick??
  • The 49ers defense, at least the front seven, had been underachieving for way too long and it’s finally starting to look like one that has three top ten picks in it.
  • They figured out that, if you can stop the Bears rushing game, then you have an excellent chance to beat them.
  • The Chiefs put up 31 last night and it felt like Seattle shut them down.
  • As impressive as Seattle’s performance was, let’s settle down a bit.  31 is a lot of points.
  • At the same time, that shut down got Seattle the win.  Russell Wilson and the running game torched KC’s defense, which has always been bad but wasn’t this big of a problem before.  It’s starting to emerge as more of one.
  • Wilson was just outstanding last night.  He expanded multiple plays by escaping outside the pocket and laid in beautiful deep balls.  The Chiefs didn’t get any value out of the rare times they did provide good coverage.
  • That game probably deserves its own column.  So many interesting things happened and Seattle has really emerged as a playoff threat.

Merry Christmas!  Enjoy the basketball tomorrow and please don’t watch Raiders-Broncos tonight.  College football stuff coming later this week.

Championship Saturday Preview

As promised, here are the rest of the previews for the big championship games today.

Big 12 Championship: No.14 Texas vs. No.5 Oklahoma

The last time these two played, it was exactly what we expected.  A high scoring, classic Big-12 shootout.  Except the team we didn’t expect to win won.

And you know what, that’s okay.  It’s the Big 12, and crazy stuff happens all the time.  That’s the way things go when you don’t play defense.

When Texas beat Oklahoma earlier this year, the reasoning was simple.  The Sooners turned the ball over three times and punted too much.  Texas had the better offense that day.

The Sooners simply have to clean it up this time.  They’re more talented and more explosive than Texas, and though Oklahoma has turned the ball over more times than the Longhorns this season, I trust the Sooners to not choke and not make mistakes.  It’s extremely likely the Longhorns are a little overrated; the committee loves to bump teams like them up.  A bad Sam Elhinger decision can flip the whole game, as the last meeting taught us with Murray’s mistakes.

October’s matchup saw a high number of bad possessions for both teams (At least, for these two’s standards).  If we define a bad possession by not scoring points and/or turning the ball over, the Sooners racked up a total of six, while Texas only had four, with zero turnovers.

Both of these offenses are incredibly potent; the Sooners especially so.  They’re No.1 in practically every offensive metric, including Football Outsiders’ Offensive FEI and ESPN’s Offensive Efficiency stat.  Texas comes in at 27th in FEI and 21st in efficiency.  Good, but not good enough to hang with Oklahoma.

Those metrics actually underrate the Longhorns a little bit.  Their point totals aren’t nearly as high as Oklahoma’s, but they can be when they want them to.  Texas has issues showing up, noted by weak performances against Kansas and Kansas State.  If they don’t show up against the Sooners, they’re going to get blown out of the Red River.

Trusting Texas to deliver is tough.  Oklahoma’s only let us down once, and that just happened to be against this team.  I don’t think the first game told us anything about Texas; it just happened to be a bad day for the Sooners against a future opponent.  To do it again, Texas is going to need that same luck.

Prediction: Oklahoma-42 Texas-35

SEC Championship: No.4 Georgia vs. No.1 Alabama

We’re at the point in this Alabama season where it may not even be worth breaking down things anymore.  There’s two things left to say about this team, and it’s that they are completely unstoppable and, even if they aren’t, I’m not going to predict it.

So yeah, I’m taking Alabama in this game.  It’s turned into a “I’m taking them till they prove me wrong”-like thing.

It’s absolutely incredible that I’m not really giving the 4th best team in the country a chance against the best.  These are both Playoff teams!  How is the gap this large?

It speaks to just how good this Crimson Tide team is.  The past two weeks haven’t been all that inspiring; it took Alabama a whole half against The Citadel and Auburn to get going and start the demolition.

Those two games seem to be a case of looking ahead, which seems odd considering that Nick Saban is not a coach that usually allows that to happen.  But it makes sense.  It’s hard not to try in football, but the past two weeks have shown us that Bama doesn’t really have to try to blow certain teams out.  Alabama put up most of their points in the 2nd half of their past two games, and the score looked like one that would take all four quarters to put up.

The difference today is that Alabama won’t be unprepared and won’t stagger early.  They can’t hang around against Georgia; the Bulldogs offense is really good and explosive.  But compared to Bama’s, it’s still not really close.

This isn’t very insightful, but the Crimson Tide are just better.  And until they prove us that they aren’t, we have to keep rolling with them.

Georgia might be able to keep it close, but this feels like a two possession game throughout.  The Bulldogs are too good to get blown out, but a bad drive, which is bound to happen, might be too costly for Georgia.

Prediction: Alabama-31  Georgia-17

Big Ten Championship: No.21 Northwestern vs. No.6 Ohio State

In the 2nd powerhouse vs. “How did you end up here?” championship game of the day, Northwestern and Ohio State meet to hash out the country’s 2nd worst conference.

There’s two ways to evaluate the Big Ten.  The first way is to simply say “Well, Northwestern made the conference championship, so that’s all you need to know.”  The 2nd way is to make the case that in a conference where there are so many above-average but not necessarily good teams, it took a lot of grit of Northwestern to come out of it and make it here.

But the Wildcats didn’t really grind it out here.  They got an easy Big Ten schedule and faced the bottom of the conference, among the likes of Illinois, Minnesota, Rutgers and Nebraska in four of their 12 games.

At the same time, Northwestern started their year 1-3, and finished 7-1.  They pulled off “upsets” against Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin in that stretch, with Michigan State and Wisconsin coming off as games that should be won regardless of ranking.

The Wildcats faced quality opponents, but fell to all of them.  The Notre Dame game was interestingly close, and can give us some pointers as to whether Northwestern can stay in today’s game.

The Fighting Irish didn’t blow out the Wildcats like they do most teams.  Northwestern’s 22nd ranked defense by FEI showed up, and they held Notre Dame to just 31 points.  The Wildcats don’t allow drives to result in points, according to Football Outsiders’ DDS.  Yards can be racked up against this defense.  Points not so much.

And that was evident against Notre Dame.  Ian Book threw for 343 yards, and six Fighting Irish receivers had receptions of 20+ yards.  But the point spread never got out of control, and it allowed the Wildcats to stay in it despite a horrid offensive night.

Northwestern has the formula to beat the Buckeyes.  They have a good enough defense to give them issues.  It’s ballsy saying this after Ohio State drubbed one of the best defenses in the country, but a reminder that this is Ohio State we’re talking about.  Who knows when they’re going to show up.

This is absolutely the type of game the Buckeyes can lose.  They’re up against a frisky team that can stall an offense and match that productivity with their own.

The problem is that Northwestern’s offense is just dreadful.  They rank 83rd in FEI and have zero passing game.  They ground and pound, using Isaiah Bower 2/3s of the time and Jeremy Larkin the other 1/3.  It got them just enough this season.

Northwestern’s best hope for this game is for it to go exactly like last night’s Pac-12 Championship Game, except for the team that preforms just slightly worse to come out on top this time.  Utah was brutal offensively, but Washington wasn’t much better, allowing the Utes to stay in it.

But predicting the Big Ten game ending up exactly as the Pac-12’s relies on Ohio State’s offense crapping the bed.  You could say they’re due after last week, but you could also say that the Michigan win has given them a huge boost of confidence.

Once again, we’re trying to predict what we’re getting out of the Buckeyes.  We’re trying to predict whether they show up or not.

If this was against any other team, a team that was even slightly better offensively than Northwestern is, then I’d go against Ohio State.  But after watching Utah last night, a team that’s built extremely similarly to Northwestern on the offensive side of the ball, get totally shut down by the Huskies, it’s just too hard.

Prediction: Ohio State-28  Northwestern-10